I wake drowning in brine, salt and vinegar pouring into my lungs. This is not why I panic, not at first. All I can focus on is the muted and distant chime of the bells, each ring of which sounds like someone replacing me.
I fling myself against the edges, trying to find a crack in this white plastic coffin. It's involuntary, the "fundamental tenacity to life," my wife would call it. Ex-wife, I guess. A therapist told me that most bridge jumpers tear the muscles in their shoulders. The body tries to stop the mind from killing itself, no matter the cost. It is only the lack of strength, the fatigue that lets the jumpers fall at last.
The barrel tips, popping the lid. I am freed in a torrent of pickles. I struggle to breathe, to get air into my lungs past shards of baby gherkins, and succeed mostly in heaving.
Once home, I stay in the shower for an hour, until the water must be cold for the whole building. No matter how I scrub, no matter that I go so far as to squirt shampoo up my nostrils, I can't escape that smell. In my rougher days, I knew a guy who showed off by snorting shots. The idea strikes me now. I towel off and make for the toilet tank, where I keep a bottle hidden from my sponsor. I don't want to relapse, but knowing it was there in case the need arose is a comfort. Specifically, Southern Comfort.
I don't make it that far.
He is seven feet tall, easy, not counting the horns, curved back like a goat. The brain's a funny thing. I start thinking whether that thing on his face was a snout or a muzzle, what the difference is, but then horror overrides the need for definition. I took Kris to the history museum once and we saw this skeleton of a prehistoric shark, one big enough to swallow you without chewing, but that didn't stop it from having row after row of dagger teeth, each bigger than my hand. That is nothing compared against the bastard standing in my bathroom, scraping the linoleum with his hooves. His long tongue slithers out, the red of burned flesh and forked, flicking like it scents the air. Set on either side of its maw are two eyes made out of coal.
I fall back over the toilet, all instinct trying to get away, crab-walking rather than taking the half second to right myself. The whole creature - unquestionably male in front of its black cow tail - comes into focus. His hooves are the size and color of the tires of pallet movers, his knees bent revoltingly back. On his back is a basket woven of reeds that must have grown next to pools of blood, given the color. Hanging from every limb are rusted chains, each festooned with the constant tinkling of silver bells that makes me miss the grating clang of my own Salvation Army bell.
"Lord, spare me from Hell!"
"You are not in Hell. You are in your apartment," the demon growls, not enunciating the words - with a tongue like a skinned python, I doubt he could - but meaning condenses within my skull. "The Krampus dislikes your apartment."
"You... you aren't the Devil?" I stammer.
The monster slides his sharp claws under my neck and lifts me to my feet without choking or slicing me, though the tension when I resist makes clear he could do either without effort. "The Krampus is a devil, yes. Not the Devil. The Krampus is bound to Saint Nicholas."
Seeing that he is not attacking me, knowing I would have been dead ten times if he wanted it, my fear lessens but doesn't leave me. Within my bowels, I feel dread solidify. The demon reeks of spoiled eggnog, burnt sugar, and dead evergreens. "I've never heard of you," I finally say.
The Krampus turns his head as though a predator that just heard prey far off, and then pointed a ragged claw. "You would not have, the Krampus is not known in the Americas. In Austria, they show proper reverence. Not here." The Krampus spits, the saliva scorching my bathroom floor.
"So you are like Santa's helper? Like the elves?"
The Krampus snaps his jaws at the mention of elves, but answers, motioning to my ruined costume next to the tub. "Like them, the Krampus is your slave, yes."
I sputter. "My slave? Oh hell no, I'm not Santa! It's just for a job," I say, picking up the outfit to show how ratty it was even before the pickle dyeing.
"The costume means nothing. You are the current manifestation of the energy that is Saint Nicholas. You are not the former archbishop of Turkey, no. That man, my original master, is centuries dead." The Krampus turns his head slowly from side to side. "If there is to be no Santa, the Krampus will be allowed free reign here."
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