The twenty-fourth door of the Advent House is always the same. The big feast.
The ceremony starts at midday, with twenty-four live turkeys being placed into each of the doors of the Advent House. They remain in there while the village sings, eats, drinks and exchanges gifts.
At around four o’clock, the villagers walk twenty-four paces away from the Advent House and face the opposite direction. Then William releases the turkeys. When William rings the bell, the villagers are allowed to turn around to try and grab a turkey. Whoever manages to catch and kill one can keep it for their Christmas Day dinner.
Terry and I are going to arrive before the killing of the turkeys. By then the villagers will be merry and relaxed. William won’t expect it. It’s the perfect time to strike.
Our plan is simple. We approach the Advent House from the back, walk around to where William is sitting – at the side of the house, facing the villagers, as he always does – and we’ll hold him at gunpoint. We’ll make sure no one is close by, then Terry will shoot him in the face.
We considered forcing William to tell the villagers the truth, that the shtriga isn’t real, but Terry and I agreed it would be easier to kill him. We’ll most likely get killed ourselves, or at the very least arrested, but if we don’t do this the festivities of Morkwood will continue.
No more William Greville.
No more Advent House.
No more Christmas.
I can hear the sirens in the distance. I can also hear the frantic shouts of the villagers, all pleading for help but to no one in particular, all lost in blind panic. I’m going to have to block it all out so I can write, but once I’ve finished I’ll hand myself over to them. I just need to get this out of my head first.
At about one o’clock, Terry and I went around the back of the Advent House as planned, but we couldn’t hear any of the usual chatter we would expect with the big feast. No glasses clinking together. No festive music. Just a cold, heavy silence.
Terry and I exchanged worried looks. Something was definitely wrong, but there was no turning back now.
When we were close enough to see, everything looked like a typical Christmas Eve. William was sitting in his fold-out chair to the side of the Advent House, eating a sandwich from a lunchbox. The tables and chairs used for outdoor events were set out across the grass. All of the villagers were sitting at them, eating and drinking, yet there was none of the usual hubbub I was used to. In fact, no one was saying anything.
There was no time to revise our plan. Terry marched straight up to William and aimed his gun at the side of his head. I followed a few paces behind.
“Stand up, William,” Terry demanded. It was a tone I hadn’t heard in his voice before.
William stood slowly with his hands above his head. Then he turned to me.
“We’ve been waiting for you, Margaret,” he said. “It wouldn’t be Christmas Eve without you.”
Terry prodded the side of his head with the gun. “Shut up.”
As I opened my mouth to speak, there was a sudden loud bang.
I jumped back and clutched my ears, assuming Terry had shot William, but Terry’s gun had fallen to the ground. William was still standing with his hands above his head, looking straight at me, only there was now blood splattered across the side of his face.
Terry slumped to his knees, one hand instinctively holding his neck to stop the bleeding. He then fell face first to the ground.
I looked over my shoulder just as Arthur began inching slowly towards Terry, his handgun pointed at him. After giving him a kick, Arthur picked up Terry’s gun and tossed it to the side of the house. He then turned his gun on me.
“Should I let them out now?” Arthur asked William, his eyes fixed on me.
William checked his watch. “No, it’s still far too early, and no one has finished their lunch. Just put her in the last door and we’ll let them all out in a couple of hours.”
I looked back at the Advent House. All of the doors were closed except for the twenty-fourth door, three rows from the bottom.
I looked back at William. His expression was nonchalant, despite the fact he had just had a gun pointed at his head
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“When there is shtriga in Morkwood, the birds are not enough,” William said matter-of-factly.
“What have you done, William?”
He sighed, as if he couldn’t be bothered to explain such a simple concept. “The shtriga are like a stain – there are still some remnants of her here. Can you not feel her still? Taste her in the air? To be truly clean, to properly be rid of that shtriga, Morkwood needs to give her a gift that will satisfy her in the Otherworld. She needs the souls of man.”
The villagers were expressionless. I considered calling for their help, but when I saw what laid at their feet – guns, knives, axes – I knew what they were prepared to do.
And yet the Advent House itself, with all of its closed doors, was silent. Why were the people inside not screaming for help? Had they offered their lives willingly?
Maybe there was no helping Morkwood.
But there was no helping me either.
Arthur pistol-whipped me across the temple and I collapsed to my hands and knees, seeing a culmination of swirls of darkness and sparkles of light. I was aware of being dragged onto the Cherrypicker and being hauled into the advent door, but my brain couldn’t connect with my body.
And then there was true darkness as the door was closed.
Inside it smelled like sawdust, and something acidic.
I lay in the foetal position, facing the inside of the door, trying to get my thoughts straight.
Maybe William had lied. Maybe there was no one in that house but me.
I knocked on the wooden wall.
“Is anyone there?” I called out. “Knock on the wall if you’re there.”
But then…a whimper. It was quiet, and could’ve been a noise made by an animal.
“Is someone there?”
The whimper came again, but more muffled. As if someone had clamped their hand over their own mouth.
“You don’t need to die. Do you hear me? We can get out of here, just knock to let me know you can hear me.”
But the whimpering had stopped.
I started to kick at the door, but it wouldn’t budge. I tried slapping the floor to get attention, and rapping the walls and ceiling with my knuckles, but no one responded. There were twenty-three other people in that house, all obediently waiting for death.
There was something about their compliance that fuelled my anger. I slammed my heel backwards into the wall…and my foot tore through what must have been the painted canvas. A ray of sunlight pierced through the darkness.
I slowly rolled over. Through the ripped painting of a turkey, I could see there was about half a metre of space between the back of the Advent House and the side of William’s manor house. The light was coming from above, and below there was nothing but mud.
I quickly decided being on the ground was better than being in the advent door, so I stuck my feet out and shuffled my body out. I fell a long way, scraping the skin on my arms on the brick manor house as I went down, and twisting my ankle as I landed.
It hurt, but I thought of Terry. Of Aunt Iris. Of the Harris’ baby. I had to finish this.
I stood up and put a little weight on the twisted ankle. It made my eyes water, but I could just about hobble on it. Using the walls as support, I began to limp along the gap between the Advent House and the manor house.
I expected the wood at the side to be thick, but luckily the wood was so thin it cracked as soon as I booted it. Once I had cracked a bit I used my hands to widen it, bending back the shards of wood until they snapped. My hands were slick with blood, but eventually I made a gap wide enough to get through.
I staggered out and immediately tripped over Terry’s gun. It felt like fate. I grabbed it and held it close with trembling hands. I was so close to the end.
I limped around the Advent House to where William was sitting on his chair, and Terry was lying face down not a metre away from him. I pushed the gun to the back of William’s head.
Seeing his entire body jolt in surprise was the single most joyful thing I have ever witnessed.
“Don’t turn around,” I said.
“I want them all to see you.”
I pulled the trigger, and his head split like a watermelon.
In the corner of my eye I saw Arthur stand up from a nearby table and start to run towards me, his handgun pointed up.
“What have you done?” he screamed.
I think I would have let him killed me. But before he was able to, the villagers intervened.
I didn’t want to stay and watch. We needed outside help.
As I turned to leave, I collided with someone standing directly behind me.
I looked up.
His neck was open, dried blood covering his face and clothes. His skin was greyish blue. He was dead. But his eyes weren’t. They were bright, alive, shining even.
He leaned in close. His breath smelled stale.
“I’m not leaving without my gift.”
It was like a switch. All of a sudden the Advent House was engulfed in flames, and the force of the heat pushed me backwards.
“Merry Christmas, Margaret.”
And then the life left Terry’s eyes, and he was face down on the ground again.
Before I heard the screams, I knew there was no helping the people inside. The fire was too fierce, too fast.
So I ran.
I know what they’ll think. I know they saw me run. They’ll think it was me who started the fire.
So I’m writing my last moments down in hope that Morkwood will believe me. They will kill me before I get the chance to explain myself, but at least they’ll get the chance of finding out the truth.
Keep your children safe this Christmas. Because the shtriga is real.