A Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors Story
For Nana Benson, my mom, and my brothers.
Topaz and Opal Cushing shrieked as a piercing howl shook the small snowbound cabin.
“It’s a werewolf!” Opal gasped, shuddering.
“Worse!” Topaz said, terror filling her blue-green eyes. “It’s Krampus!”
The eight-year-old twins sat atop the rustic sofa that had been made up as a bed, clinging to each other, shivering with fear.
Again, the soul-chilling wail sounded, rattling the frost-coated windows nearest to the sofa. Outside, pitch darkness reigned, broken only by the occasional crackling spatter of snow against the window panes.
Ingrid Trudson, the tall blonde tending the fire on the other side of the room, chuckled and looked at the girls with amusement. “Krampus…! Ha! That’s just a myth the Germans made up during the Great War to scare the childs in occupied countries. There’s no such blighter. It’s only the wind, little ones.”
Her tone was maternal, reassuring, but Opal and Topaz didn’t buy it.
After all, Ingrid wasn’t an expert in the occult, like their father. She hadn’t traveled through most of Europe over the past month, alongside the famous Dr. Leigh Cushing. Perhaps the big Swedish girl had learned a thing or two about distant lands (along with her imperfect English) while working at the docks in Stromstad, but she hadn’t heard the tales of Krampus from the mouths of kids who’d seen him, like the twins had.
“What do you know?!” Opal declared, saying aloud what both sisters were thinking (as she often did). To emphasize her point, she stuck out her tongue at their teenage babysitter.
Ingrid rose from the fireside, picking up the skinny ink-black cat that had been prowling around her feet, and strode to the makeshift bed. She towered over the two girls, nearly half again their height, and scowled playfully down at them.
“I know more than du two squirts,” Ingrid replied, petting the cat. “I know there isn’t no Krampus in Sweden. That’s just a myth for silly southerners.”
“But the howling…” Topaz protested.
Again, the tall girl laughed. “I guess ya never heard the winter wind in Sweden before! Day like this, she screams up the coast, shakes the pines to their roots, and echoes through the hills. Du will get used to her. Here. Pet the cat. It’ll calm your nerves. Ya want some coffee?”
“No thank you,” both girls said, simultaneously, but they took the cat and snuggled up to its warm, furry body.
“Probably best,” Ingrid muttered. “Du are supposed to get to sleep soon, anyway.”
“But Kramp… I mean, the wind…” Opal fretted.
Ingrid took a small bowl and scooped some sweet-smelling porridge into it from a big kettle over the fire. “Just be glad you’re inside, not outside!”
But that didn’t comfort the twins any. Their father was out there, in this howling storm, looking for an Ice Man rumored to have been spotted in a nearby glacier. A saner person might have left searching for the frozen remains until the storm passed, but Dr. Cushing had brought the girls all the way from England to collect such rare oddities, and he hadn’t been about to let the trail grow cold while waiting out a Christmas Eve storm.
So, he and Ingrid’s father, Ivar, had trudged out into the mounting snow—alongside a Norwegian lumberjack, who claimed to have seen the thing.
Ingrid hadn’t seemed too keen on staying behind to babysit while the men went out to “have fun” (as she’d called it), but she’d been pleasant enough company for the twins—aside from not believing in Krampus.
As the wind (or whatever it was) unceasingly screamed outside, Topaz and Opal continued to pet the cat, whose soft fur and contented purring was quickly making them feel better.
Both girls were now starting to hope that Ingrid was right about the wind, because—since they’d gotten over their initial fright—they’d now realized they didn’t want their father stomping around in the dark with the Christmas Demon lurking nearby.
Ingrid took the bowl of porridge she’d dished out, put a pat of butter on top, and set it down on the floor by the fire.
“You’re leaving that out for Smulan?” Opal asked, running her fingers through the animal’s short black coat.
“Cats eat porridge?” Topaz added.
“Not porridge,” Ingrid said, “Grot. Swedish rice pudding. A special Jul treat.”
The girls knew that “yule” was another name for Christmas, even if Ingrid did say it with a strange accent.
“But the Smulan—the cat—eats pudding?” Opal pressed.
The tall teenager shook her head and rolled her blue eyes. “Nej, nej, nej…”
The twins suppressed a laugh. Ingrid’s “Nay, nay, nay,” made her sound like a horse.
“…I mean, no, no, no, silly girls,” the babysitter replied, fixing her English on the fly. “The grot is for the Tomte.”
“The what?” Topaz said.
“What’s that?” Opal queried.
“Du know… de Jultomten… the nisse… imp…” The Swedish girl groped for the right word. “…The… elf. Du know what I mean… with white beard and red hat.”
Both sisters’ eyes went wide with delight.
“Oh! You mean Father Christmas!” Opal enthused.
“Santa Claus,” Topaz translated, knowing that countries outside England often used different names for Old Saint Nick, but Santa Claus seemed universal.
Ingrid crinkled her nose in frustration and waved her hands dismissively. “Nej, not that bleeder. Smaller, like…” She held her hands apart, indicating something only a few feet tall. Then her eyes lit up, remembering the proper word. “Brownie!”
“Oh,” said the girls, crestfallen.
Though finding out that there might be a real brownie in the vicinity (or else why leave out food for it?) would probably have thrilled their father, right now, it was Christmas Eve, and the girls were hoping, even though they were far from home, that Father Christmas might still find them and deliver presents. They cast anxious glances toward the empty stockings they’d hung by the fire.
Seeing the worry on their faces, the babysitter smiled. “Don’t du two worry. The Jultomten brings presents just like your Father Christmas bugger.”
The twins brightened, though they had to resist giggling about Ingrid’s ongoing use of somewhat inappropriate language. Clearly the babysitter had learned her colorful brand of English from working on the docks with sailors.
“Does the tomte grant Christmas wishes, too?” Topaz asked.
Ingrid grinned beatifically. “Whatever your heart desires, little one.”
Just then the wind—or was it Krampus?—howled outside once more. The small cabin shook, and snowfall rattled the window panes.
“Then I wish that our father would come home safely from the storm, and yours as well, Ingrid,” Opal said sincerely.
“And that lumberjack, too,” Topaz added.
“That’s a good wish,” Ingrid said. “Even if that lumberjack is a Norwegian. And maybe the tomte will help. De tomte does many good deeds around the house—so long as he gets his Jul grot. If he don’t though…!”
“Then what?” both girls asked breathlessly.
Ingrid shrugged. “The milk goes sour, horses go lame, the cat eats the lutfisk, a man can’t… do what a man should be able. All sorts of bad things. So, best leave the grot for the tomte, and always put the butter on top. They love butter, the little bleeders do.”
She laughed, and the twins did as well.
Ingrid tousled the girls’ hair, Topaz’s as bright as sunshine, Opal’s as dark as night. “Now, you two little buggers better get to sleeping. The tomte won’t come and leave presents if you’re awake.” She pulled up the blankets on their makeshift bed. “Good night, du two. Sleep well.”
“We will,” both girls, holding the now-sleeping cat between them, replied.
Ingrid turned down the lights, and in just a few minutes, despite the bluster of the wind, the Cushing twins fell fast asleep.
Neither Opal nor Topaz was sure what woke them. Perhaps it was another wail from the wind; perhaps it was the sudden absence of the household pet from their improvised bed; perhaps it was a chill in the cabin’s living room as the fire in the hearth guttered low.
Whatever the cause, both twins suddenly found themselves awake in the dark hours after midnight. They were alone in the room—Ingrid must have gone upstairs to bed—with only the dim red embers of the fire to see by. All remained silent save for the staccato patter of snow against the windows.
And then another sound… a soft Thup, Thup, Thup from near the fireplace.
The girls kept the covers up tight over their faces.
“The tomte!” Topaz whispered excitedly.
“It must be,” Opal whispered back. “It’s eating the pudding! We should look.” She began to pull the covers down to peer out, but then stopped. “Should we look?”
“We shouldn’t,” Topaz said. “Remember what Ingrid said: It won’t leave presents if we’re awake… Right?”
“But to see a real imp…” Opal said.
“Brownie,” Topaz corrected.
“Whatever. Father would give his eye teeth to see one.”
Both girls nodded to each other. “We should.”
Cautiously, they pulled down the covers to peek out.
What they saw filled their young hearts with horror.
“Smulan…” Topaz whispered.
“Smulan, no!” Opal hissed.
Almost before the words left their lips, both twins were out from under the covers and darting across the cold floor of the cabin toward the nearly exhausted fire.
Smulan the cat looked up, startled at their approach. He licked a white beard of Jul grot off his furry black face and whiskers.
“Oh, no!” Topaz whispered.
It seemed that cats did, indeed, eat rice pudding. Very little of the porridge remained, certainly not enough for a hungry (and most assuredly very busy, on a night like this) Jultomten.
“Bad pussycat!” Opal scolded, scooping up Smulan and clutching him tight to her chest. “What are we going to do?”
Topaz looked at the nearly empty bowl. “We have to replace it,” she said. “I’ll get the pudding. You hold the cat. We have to hurry—before the tomte comes!”
Opal nodded in agreement, and both girls imagined the terrible things that might happen if the tomte didn’t get his pudding. With their father and Ingrid’s papa (and the lumberjack) out in the snow, lack of presents was the least of their worries.
Topaz ladled grot from the kettle, which was still steaming over the dying fire into the bowl, and then set the offering back down on the floor near the fireplace. “Okay,” she said with a sigh. “We’re okay now. No harm done. Let’s get back to bed.”
“No harm done, no thanks to you, you rotten old imp!” Opal chided the cat as she and her sister hopped back under the covers.
“Just in time!” Topaz declared. “It’s so late, the tomte has to come soon!”
Opal’s face went pale. “Oh, no!”
“We forgot the butter!”
“Hold the cat,” Opal said, thrusting Smulan into her sister’s arms. “I’ll get some from the ice box.” She threw off the covers and dashed out into the chilly room once more.
“Hurry! I think I hear something!” Topaz whispered.
Opal froze, the ice box door open, butter and knife in her hand.
A soft sound echoed through the cabin.
Maybe it was only the patter of snow on the windows… Or maybe it was tiny footfalls, approaching from another room in the isolated cabin.
Did tomte come down the chimney, like America’s Santa? Or did they come through the door, like Father Christmas, or…?
At that moment, both Opal and Topaz wished they’d had the presence of mind to ask. How were they to avoid seeing the tomte if they didn’t know where not to look?
“Hurry!” Topaz urged.
Opal dashed across the room, dropped the pat of butter atop the rice pudding, and then sprinted back to the bed.
As she hopped in, Topaz threw the covers over their heads.
Then, cat clutched tightly between them, they waited, hardly daring to breathe.
Pat… pat… pat…
The sound of snow against the windows…? Or the patter of tiny footfalls?
Pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat…
“Should we look?” Opal whispered.
“No!” Topaz urged. “Remember last time! Just hold the cat!”
Pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat… pat…
Both sisters were trembling now.
“I… I want to look!” Topaz said, changing her mind. Her eyes darted toward her sister, who was barely visible under the blankets.
“No! You were right. We can’t risk it! Squeeze your eyes shut! I will, too.”
Both girls squeezed their eyes tight, listening to the soft patter of the tomte’s footsteps—or maybe it was the snow.
They kept their eyes shut, kept holding onto the warm, soft cat, praying that they’d be strong enough not to look.
If only they could resist a little longer, the tomte might finish his Christmas business and be on his way.
Keep your eyes shut! both girls thought, furiously.
Just a little longer…
Neither girl was sure exactly when they’d fallen back to sleep, but when they woke again, Smulan was still clutched safely between them.
The cat was sleeping, too, purring softly, dreaming of mice or saucers of milk, or whatever cats dreamed.
“Are you awake?” Opal asked her sister.
“Should we peek?”
“Yes,” Topaz replied.
They peeked out from under the covers. The gaze of twin pairs of blue-green eyes darted all around the room.
“I don’t see anything,” Topaz whispered. The fire had gone out, but a pale pre-dawn glow leaked in through the ice-frosted windows. “Do you hear anything?”
Both girls listened intently, but only the soft hiss of snowfall greeted their ears.
“The porridge is gone,” Opal said.
“Oh! It is! It is!” Topaz agreed. “The tomte… He came!”
“Either that, or Ingrid has rats,” Opal noted slyly. “Let’s see if he filled our stockings!”
Releasing the still-sleeping cat, both girls climbed from their makeshift bed and padded softly toward the fireplace.
Tromp! Tromp! Tromp!
Was that boots outside the front door?
Halfway across the room, the twins froze.
“Father Christmas!” Topaz hissed.
“He can’t catch us out of bed!” Opal whispered back.
The girls turned, but before they could take even half a step, the front door to the cabin flew open, and an icy blast of wind and snow blustered inside.
In the doorway stood the shadowy figure of a bulky man with a fur-lined hood.
“Saint Nicholas!” the girls blurted, as the man stomped inside.
The man’s deep voice laughed, the sound filling the entire cabin.
“Some sensa humor dese girls of yours got, Doc,” Santa Claus said.
“Girls…?” said a familiar voice from behind Santa.
“Father!” the twins cried as Dr. Cushing tromped in out of the snow.
His fur-lined parka was covered in frost and ice, making him look like some kind of living snowman.
Despite his abominable appearance, both daughters immediately threw their arms around him.
“You’re back!” Topaz cried.
“You’re safe!” Opal declared.
Their father felt cold as ice, but the twins didn’t mind.
“This is the best Christmas present ever!” both declared. At that moment, neither of them cared about Christmas stockings at all. The Jultomten had eaten his pudding, and their father was home safe and sound; their wish had been fulfilled.
“My, my,” Dr. Cushing said, a bit flustered. “Quite a welcome. But what are you two imps doing up and out of bed at this hour of the morning?”
“They were worried about du buggers,” said a very sleepy-looking Ingrid as she loped down the stairs in a pale blue dressing gown. “Thought the Krampus might get all of du.”
“Ha! Krampus!” said Saint Nicholas, whom the twins now realized was really Ingrid’s father, Ivar, Dr. Cushing’s friend and guide. Ivar stomped the snow off his boots and then went to the hearth, where Ingrid was already stirring the fire back to life.
“Do you Swedes always leave a man outside to freeze when you invite him to your house?” said a voice from behind Dr. Cushing.
“Who’s that?” Ingrid asked, pulling her robe tight around her body.
“I’m terribly sorry,” Dr. Cushing said, ushering his daughters out of the doorway so that the man behind them could enter. “Come in. Make yourself at home.”
Like Ivar, the stranger was tall and ruggedly built, but he was much younger than the babysitter’s father—perhaps only a year or two older than Ingrid herself. He shook the snow off his parka and stomped inside. He had a handsome face, a broad smile, and just a trace of beard on his square jaw.
Seeing him, Ingrid smiled, too, though she kept her dressing gown clutched tight.
Dr. Cushing closed the door, sealing the snowy winter outside once again.
“This is Tor Johansen,” Ivar said, indicating the stranger. “The lumberjack who thought he saw an Ice Man.”
“I did see him,” Tor insisted.
“Did you find the Ice Man, father?” Topaz asked.
Dr. Cushing shook his head. “I’m afraid not.”
“Not for lack of trying,” Ivar said, slapping the cold out of his arms.
“The chunk of ice I saw the body on must have slipped into the river,” Tor the lumberjack suggested.
“If you saw any such thing at all!” Ivar scoffed.
“Min far,” Ingrid said, addressing her papa, “is that any way to treat a guest?” Her blue eyes looked admiringly at the lumberjack, and she said to him: “Come. Warm yourself by the fire. Would you like some coffee and grot?”
Tor nodded. “Might take the chill off, since I’ve been up all night trying to help these good gentlemen.”
“And we appreciate it,” Dr. Cushing said, “even if our little expedition did end in failure.”
“Oh, no, father,” said Opal. “Everything turned out just fine.”
“The cat ate the tomte’s grot,” Topaz explained. “But Opal and I got some more, just in time.”
“And we asked the tomte to bring you back safe and sound, and he did,” Opal added.
“Tomte, eh?” Dr. Cushing said good-naturedly. “That might explain the light we saw through the storm that led us home.”
“That was just a spark from the chimney,” Ivar put in.
Dr. Cushing ignored his friend’s skepticism, and continued to talk to his daughters. “But I thought that the Jultomten didn’t deliver presents until Christmas Day,” he said. Then, for some reason, he winked at Ivar and the other grown-ups (but the twins noticed anyway).
“No, father,” Topaz insisted. “The tomte was really here. We heard him!”
“But we didn’t dare look,” Opal continued. “He ate all the rice pudding and butter we left out.” She pointed toward the place on the hearth where the bowl lay empty.
“And he filled the stockings with presents!” Topaz said. “Look!”
All of them gazed at the pair of stockings the twins had hung from the mantlepiece the previous evening.
To judge from appearances, those stockings looked very full, indeed.
MERRY CHRISTMAS & HAPPY HOLIDAYS TO ALL!
ABOUT THE STORY
Why not do a Cushing story every year?
That’s what I thought just over a week before Christmas, 2017. Why not?
I’d done one last year (2016) for Bill Willingham’s Patreon site (a story reprinted on my own site—stephendsullivan.com—by the time you read this), and it seemed a nice tradition to continue.
After all, I’ve been doing a Frost Harrow story for Halloween every year, and though the monsters and madmen of Dr. Cushing’s Chambers of Horrors don’t seem very Christmas-like at first, the fact that Dr. Cushing is a story about family at its heart—a family that is happy and functional (unlike the Frosts)—makes the series eminently suitable for Yuletide tales.
Though, of course, any Cushing tales must include a bit of a weird spin as well.
Yes, doing a yearly Cushing Christmas—second in a series—seemed a good idea. And it was what I’d intended when doing the first one in 2016.
Easier said than done, though! Because of course, I didn’t remember wanting to continue this new tradition until nearly third week of December, when life was (of course) very busy.
Yet, I’m nothing if not determined (and more than a bit stubborn).
Thus, with more family arriving home to celebrate every day, I buckled down and got “Christmas Imps” out of my head and onto paper. Well, onto electrons, at first, and then the proofs onto paper. And then back onto electrons for publication on my site.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this story of the Cushing Twins’ Christmas in Sweden. It’s based on legends from my forefathers with a dash of memories of waiting up for Santa to appear when I was a child—and running back to bed in fear when I thought I spotted him at the door late one Christmas night when all the rest of the family lay asleep. Of such things are childhood fantasies made and beliefs in a world of wonder confirmed.
“Christmas Imps” also introduces the intrepid and slightly foul-mouthed Ingrid to her hulking future husband, Tor. Ten years after this story, the two will work with Dr. Cushing to finally track down the fabled Ice Man for his Chamber of Horrors.
You can read the outcome of that expedition in Dr. Cushing’s Chamber of Horrors, serialized on my website, supported by my Patreon—www.CushingHorrors.com—and very soon to be available in print and eBook form.
I hope you’ll seek out those forms of my novel and enjoy them.
Until then, enjoy this tale of Christmas from the early days of the 20th Century, a time between the Great Wars when magic seemed far closer at hand than it does for many of us today.
And don’t forget to leave out the grot (with butter) for the Jultomten!
—Stephen D. Sullivan
December 22, 2017