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Crumbs at Midnight

A Christmas Eve horror story

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What happened, happened on Christmas Eve, just as the clock struck midnight. It took place one year ago--a year ago this very night. I know, because I was there. I saw it all. And believe me, it was terrible, and it was scary, and it was strange. It was also messy. Incredibly messy.

And it's going to happen again.

Tonight.

There were six of us then. The angel, the reindeer, and the cute little star were sugar cookies. They were all sweet, but the angel was the sweetest, with a little wire halo and twice as much icing as the rest of us. There was a chocolate chip snowman--a little crusty around the edges, but still a pretty smart cookie--and there was a shortbread Teddy Bear, flaky on the outside, but tough in all the right places.

And then there was me. The Gingerbread Man.

We'd started out that morning as recipes in
a book. After eight to 10 minutes in a preheated oven and another half-hour on the cooling rack, we all ended up piled together on a big plate in the living room, where it was gloomy and dark. The fire in the fireplace had dwindled to a faint glimmer, and the only other light came from the little sparkly bulbs on the Christmas tree. A towering six-footer, the tree was covered in ornaments, shimmering glass balls, and tiny toys.

It was almost midnight. The house was locked up, the dog had been put away for the evening, and the people had all gone off to bed. It was very, very quiet.

Having determined that it was safe, we all sat up and looked around.

We were alone, just six warm cookies resting on the great plate, which--we quickly noticed--we'd been sharing with a large orange carrot. A carrot? Must have been some kind of mistake. Next to the plate there was a big glass full of milk, and on the table beside the glass was a folded piece of paper, with words scribbled in thick, red crayon.

"Dear Santa," it read. "The carrot is for Rudolph, but these are for you. Merry Christmas."

If only we'd realized what those mysterious words had meant, if only we'd run away and hid ourselves the moment we saw them, things might have turned out differently. But we didn't know. We didn't know anything. The snowman was dancing a jig on the tabletop. The reindeer was giving rides to the little star and the Teddy Bear. The angel, reluctant to leave the big plate, was content to stay there, calling out to the others, warning them to be careful. Me, I was eager to learn more about where we were--and why--so I stepped away to check things out.

The table we were on was long and low. Across the room was an old sofa. A grandfather clock stood against the far wall, and the fireplace was decorated with evergreen branches and had three bright red stockings hanging from the mantelpiece. A fourth stocking was lying on the floor, not far away. It must have fallen. There were other things in the room--furniture, packages, chewy dog toys--but I never had a chance to study them, because suddenly, from high above us, a raspy little voice called out.

"The fireplace," said the voice, old and broken. "Watch the fireplace! At the stroke of midnight, it'll happen. It'll come down the chimney. It'll come through the fireplace . . . and there'll be nothing left but crumbs. Crumbs all over the carpet."

Alarmed, we gathered on the big plate, huddling close as we stared up at the Christmas tree, where the voice had come from. Dangling from a branch, about five feet up, there was an old ornament, an ancient, half crumbling Christmas bangle gazing forlornly down at the six of us. He was handmade, crafted into the shape of a Christmas cookie--a Gingerbread Man, to be exact.

I liked him at once.

"What do you mean, old ornament?" I called up. "What will be coming through the fireplace?" Nervously, the other cookies glanced over at the smoldering coals on the hot bricks.

"Oh, it's hard to say what it is," croaked the old ornament slowly. "But it happens every year at the stroke of midnight. It's always big; it's always red; it's always hungry--and it'll be coming straight for you!"

"What kind of thing could it be?" stammered the reindeer.

"What kind of creature is so big and so red and so hungry?" asked the shortbread Teddy Bear, covering its eyes.

"What kind of monster would eat cookies?" wondered the star.

"And what are we going to do?" demanded the snowman. "It's almost midnight!" The cookies all shouted out in fright and looked at the clock. It was, indeed, just one minute until midnight. The old ornament, from up in the tree, merely shook his head, repeating the terrible words: "Crumbs . . . nothing but crumbs . . ."

"We'll fight it, then!" snapped the chocolate chip snowman.

"We'll teach it a lesson!" growled the shortbread Teddy Bear.

"We'll chase it right back up that chimney," proclaimed the sugar cookie reindeer.

"No," interjected the angel, a bit peevishly, "we should just stay on the big plate, right where they put us. What do we know? We're only cookies. If we stay on the plate, we're certain to be safe!"

"Oh, oh, oh!" cried the star. "What shall we do?"

But before anyone could answer, the clock gave a mighty blast of sound, and the first of 12 long, loud chimes sounded through the room. The second chime had barely faded in our ears when a brilliant, reddish glow began growing, brighter and brighter, inside the fireplace. We heard a rustling, scuffling sound and the ringing of tiny little bells. Yes, something was coming, and coming fast, right down the chimney.

The clock struck three.

"Run!" I shouted. In a flash, I raced across the table. Stopping at the very edge, I peered over, staring in dismay at the carpet, more than two-and-a-half feet below. As the little star ran about in circles, the reindeer and the snowman crowded in close behind at the edge--but there was nowhere for any of us to go.

The clock struck four.

The angel shouted, "Everyone back on the plate! We were put on this plate for a reason!" She flopped down on the plate and lay still, as the clock struck six. The Teddy Bear, frantically glancing over its shoulder at the fireplace, ran toward the rest of us, right up to where we stood cowering at the edge of the table. But the bear wasn't looking and crashed into us with a mighty thump, sending the reindeer, the snowman, and me right over the side.

We fell to the carpet with a crunch. Fortunately, the carpet was soft enough to break our fall, and the snowman and I weren't seriously injured. The reindeer, however, was wounded--one antler had been snapped off with a crisp pop. As the clock struck eight, I spied a bit of space beneath the sofa, enough to hide in, and as fast as I could, I led a charge across the floor, past the tree, toward the safety of the sofa. But the Teddy Bear and the star, poor things, were still stranded on the table, and the sounds from the fireplace were growing louder and louder.

"Jump!" I shouted to the trapped cookies. "Jump!" I'd reached the sofa, and as my two companions slipped under and out sight, the clock struck 10, then 11. Terrified, the little star closed its eyes and leaped from the table, but as it landed, it began to roll in a wide looping curve that turned away from the table and ran straight toward the fireplace. Finally, it bumped into the fallen stocking on the floor and came wobbling to a stop.

The cookie opened its eyes and yelped. Seeing that it was too far from the sofa, too far away to make it all the way across the room, the star spied the fallen stocking lying beside him. In a flash, the cookie ducked inside.

The clock struck 12.

"Oh, no," muttered the old ornament.

Up on the table, the angel lay perfectly still, while the Teddy Bear, unable to think of a better plan, flung himself down beside the glass of milk, pulling the paper note up over himself like a blanket. I watched all of this in horror, but there was nothing I could do. I ducked under the sofa, lying low in the dust with the reindeer and the snowman, trying to stay out of sight while avoiding the wires and springs that protruded here and there from the underside of the couch.

We peeked out. From where we hid, we could see the table, the bottom of the tree, and the fireplace. The twelfth chime was still singing in the air when suddenly, in a roar of sound and a puff of light, a monster--part mammoth, part mountain--slid down the chimney and out into the room. The enormous man carried a huge, velvet bag, packed full of things that clicked and jingled. As he stood to his full height, I saw that he was everything the old ornament had said he would be. He was big. He was red.

And he was hungry.

After dropping the sack on the ground, not far away from where we were hiding, the enormous man turned to survey the room. Almost immediately, he saw the table, he saw the plate, he saw the cookie. With one mighty step, the thing moved forward, leaned over the plate, and snatched up the angel, lifting it to his face to examine it closely.

And then he bit off its head.

An explosion of crumbs scattered over the table, and the little wire halo popped into the air and went spinning down, bouncing off the table and onto the floor, where it skittered toward the sofa. Not noticing, the enormous man took another bite, and another, and by the time the little wire halo had slid to a halt--not two inches from where the snowman, the reindeer and I were hiding--the angel was all gone.

"So much for staying on the plate," whispered the snowman.

"That sugar cookie never had a chance," the reindeer said.

"Shhhh," I warned them quietly. "If we all stay hidden, it might just go away."

But the enormous man wasn't going anywhere. He was still hungry. He was scanning the table, searching for more cookies. Picking up the plate, he peered beneath it. Then he stepped back, and leaned over to examine something at his feet. In the same instant that he saw it, I saw it too--a little pile of crumbs on the carpet, in the same spot where we had fallen from the table.

The crumbs belonged to the reindeer. He must have shed them when he lost his antler. With a shock of realization, I saw that a thin trail of crumbs led away from that spot and snaked across the carpet to where we were now crouching. On his hands and knees now, the enormous man was crawling, following the trail of crumbs.

In a few seconds, he would find us.

Unexpectedly, a loud, shrill clanking sound erupted from the direction of the table. The dog started barking somewhere deep inside the house, and the enormous man stopped crawling. With no time to lose, I beckoned to the reindeer and snowman, pointing to the giant sack that was now resting between the sofa and the tree. It was our only chance, and the reindeer, followed by the snowman, dashed out into the open and climbed beneath the sack. Distracted by the odd noises, the enormous man hadn't seen a thing.

But I could see everything.

On the table, the shortbread Teddy Bear was banging loudly on the glass of milk, using the orange carrot as a drumstick. Bravely, the bear was trying to draw the enormous man away from us, risking his life so that we could get away. He was a brave cookie, I'll tell you that.

Seeing that the enormous man had stopped searching for us, the Teddy Bear clutched the carrot and jumped behind the tall glass. Unable to hide himself there for long, knowing that he had but a few seconds before the hungry intruder would find him, the bear made a last, desperate attempt to save himself. Quick as anything, he stepped out onto the table and, using the carrot as a stick, vaulted up into the air and dropped down into the glass of milk--just as the enormous man stood up and turned back to face the table.

Who knows how long that cookie might have lasted in there. A minute. Two minutes? Long enough to stay out of sight until the monster went away, that's possible. But it didn't matter. Because now the enormous man was thirsty. Yes, thirsty. He reached for the glass of milk, lifted it to his lips, and guzzled with gusto.

Down went the bear, icing and all.

Everything after that is a blur.

How did the reindeer finally perish? I can barely remember. He was uncovered when the enormous man emptied the sack of packages and found him hiding there. All I remember is the mighty crunch that shook the night and the spattering of crumbs that dusted the floor. The little star--gobbled down in a single gulp, poor fellow--might have survived had the big, hungry man not discovered him in the stocking while filling it with nuts and trinkets. And the snowman--well, the snowman's end was the biggest surprise of all.

I had only just jumped back beneath the sofa, scheming out ways to reach the others beneath the enormous man's sack. But a stray sofa spring caught me in the head, and by the time I could free myself--leaving a terrible hole--the reindeer and the star were already gone, gone, gone, eaten by the enormous man. Determined that at least two of us would survive, I ducked behind the packages that had been left under the tree, and I looked around for the snowman.

Having escaped from under the sack while the enormous man was drinking the shortbread Teddy Bear, the snowman, after dashing past the tree and along the wall, had discovered a way out. There was a hallway, long and dark, leading away from the living room, far from the awful crumb bath that was taking place all around. The snowman stopped at the entrance of the hall and turned to face me, beckoning for me to follow.

He never saw it coming.

From out of the depths of the darkened hall, the dog appeared. A mastiff, I think, or perhaps a Chihuahua. What do I know about dogs? I'm just a Gingerbread Man. Without even stopping, the dog rushed upon the snowman from behind and, snapping him in half, gobbled both pieces without even swallowing. It was awful. From up in the tree, I could hear the old ornament mournfully muttering, "Every year the same. The dog always gets the one with chocolate chips."

I was the last cookie standing. Nearly paralyzed with dread and disbelief, I ducked back behind the packages. "Well, at least the dog will drive off the monster," I thought. But as I peered out, my heart sank to see the dog lying on its side, tail wagging with pleasure, as the enormous man stooped over to give it an affectionate pat. A few moments later, the dog trotted happily back up the hallway and disappeared into the darkness. Careful not to make a sound, I sat listening to the noises of the room. There was nothing but the ticking of the clock and the sizzle of the coals in the fireplace. From somewhere far away, I heard a faint jingling.

Still, I waited until I was certain that I was finally alone. Finally safe.

And then the clock struck. Once. It was one in the morning. The midnight hour was over. With a sigh of relief, I collapsed onto the carpet. But without warning, the packages suddenly parted all around me, flung aside by big, gloved hands, and there in front of me, smiling with glee, was the enormous man. Before I could move, he'd grabbed me. Those giant hands wrapped themselves around my middle, and I was brought closer and closer to his face, bearded and rosy-cheeked, with a mouth that was opening wider and wider. The mouth closed around me, and I knew it was all over.

But suddenly I was out again, a bit moist, but otherwise unharmed. The enormous man was holding me out at arm's length, eyeing me suspiciously as an expression of disappointment appeared across his face.

"Gingerbread?" the enormous man muttered in a low rumbling voice. "I hate gingerbread." With that, he set me back down ever so gently among the packages and jumped away. I heard a final jingle of little bells and a whoosh like a warm wind up the chimney, and nothing more. When I finally found the courage to look again, the enormous man was gone, and he'd taken the carrot with him.

I was safe at last.

Or was I?

If I learned anything from that night--that long, terrible Christmas night--it is this: In a world such as this one, no cookie is ever safe. And there are worse dangers than hungry dogs and enormous men. There are children. There are mothers and fathers. There are aunts and uncles. They all eat cookies. And they'll never stop.

The old ornament explained it all to me. He told me of the night, so many years before, when he too had survived the enormous man.

Yes, the old ornament was once a gingerbread cookie. He was once fresh from the oven, like me. He too was left on the plate to be eaten at midnight. And, having survived, he realized that, with sunrise, others would come, perhaps not so big and red and hungry, but hungry nevertheless.

So do you know what he did? He climbed into the towering tree and with a spare piece of wire made himself a little hook. To the people, he was just another Christmas ornament to be packed away with the lights and the bangles. Each year since then, he's been brought out and hung once more in the tree. And each time he's watched as the same events happen again.

Now there are two Gingerbread ornaments hanging in this tree. It was easy. I already had the hole in my head. With the wire from the angel's little halo, I made a sturdy hook, found a good branch high up, and that was that. It was one year ago that I gave up being a cookie and became a Christmas tree ornament.

One year ago this very night.

So the question is, what are you going to do, little cookies--you shortbread bears and sugar cookie angels and crusty snowmen? Will you lie there on the plate and wait to see if my story is true, wait to see if the carpet is covered once again in a thousand crumbs? Or will you believe me? Will you get up now and run, run, run for your lives?

Whatever you decide, you'd better decide now. Because, my little cookies, the clock is about to strike. It's midnight.

And here comes Santa Claus.

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From the December 19-25, 2002 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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