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James was woken at about four thirty in the morning by the sound of the bin falling over outside. He told himself it was just the wind and forced himself to roll over and go back to sleep. He did, but his dreams were full of crazy-eyed elves setting everything on fire and he woke up drenched in sweat and more exhausted than he’d felt in a long time. He did not want to go downstairs.
Breakfast was uneventful, and when James mentioned that he’d heard the bin falling over in the night Dad went out and stood it up. He came in and said it must have been the wind or next door’s cat, but he looked alarmed. James didn’t dare ask if the elf was missing from the rubbish. He didn’t really want to know the answer.
As always on the day of Mum’s last shift before Christmas, Dad announced that they needed to go shopping to buy her presents. Normally, this was met with groans from James and squeals of glee from Lola but this year James was more than happy to be leaving the house and helped wrap Lola up in her hat, scarf and mittens without complaint.
Town was heaving and the chattering crowds, sparkling lights, and lingering smell of chocolate and cinnamon was just what James needed to relax. It was hard to be scared of a tiny elf when you were giggling your way through an ‘eat your doughnut without licking your lips’ competition and drinking hot chocolate whilst watching a brass band play Christmas Carols. He even joined in when Lola started singing The Twelve Days Of Christmas at the top of her voice in the middle of the shopping centre, much to Dad’s embarrassment. Though even he joined in by the end, along with several other bemused shoppers. They got a round of applause from the Rotary Club group who were mingling around with donation buckets.
Pink cheeked, red nosed and laughing, they bundled through the front door with their shopping bags ten minutes before Mum was due home and Dad quickly gathered their purchases to hide upstairs. James helped Lola pull off her wellies and hung their coats up before heading to the kitchen to put the kettle on ready for Mum’s return.
He stopped dead in the doorway and stared, open mouthed as all the good feelings slid out of the bottom of his stomach and were replaced with the now familiar dread of the last few weeks.
The kitchen was completely covered in rubbish. Mouldy food was splattered up the walls, wrappers and boxes strewn over the floor and bits of who knows what dripped and dribbled off the surfaces. It stank.
And there, balanced on the back door handle, was Damien. Grinning.
James ran to the toilet to be sick.