It Came Upon A Midnight Clear By Thomas M. Malafarina

It Came Upon A Midnight Clear

By Thomas M. Malafarina

“It matters little,” she said, softly. “To you, very little. Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”—Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

The solitary automobile moved slowly along the empty main street of town. The man behind the wheel was paying little if any attention to the darkened storefronts or the virtually abandoned thoroughfare. It was after 11:15 pm, and although he was heading home, his mind was still back at the office where it always seemed to be. His thoughts were obsessed with important issues, which should have been resolved long before he chose to leave for the night. Then again, there were always critical issues needing resolution, and he knew even if he worked twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, he still would never be able to take care of all of them. It seemed for every single problem he managed to rectify; three more came forward to take their place. But he supposed such was his lot in life.

The night was very clear, and every star could be seen for miles in the cloudless Pennsylvania sky. The temperature was surprisingly mild for December twenty-fourth, Christmas Eve. The pleasant temperatures would likely prove somewhat disappointing for those residents hoping for a white Christmas. Fifty-six-year-old Evan Flint had no need for Christmas, no desire to celebrate the holiday, or for that matter, no one with whom to share it had he chosen to do so. At first glance, one might think Evan had everything a man could want out of life, being the richest man in the county, if not the state. And if someone were to ask him, Evan would likely agree and say that he was quite satisfied with his life, stating categorically that he had absolutely no need for a wife, children, close friends, or other such things he often referred to; as “trappings of life.” Evan had more money than he could spend in three lifetimes, and his fortune continued to grow daily. But he was completely unaware that he would be lying not only to the questioner but more importantly to himself in such a reply.

Evan was the sole owner of a manufacturing company located on the outskirts of the small Schuylkill County, Pennsylvania town of Ashton. The factory employed well over two thousand residents from all over the county. It was one of the few remaining manufacturing facilities where one could attempt to earn a decent living. For most of the workers, the factory felt more like a prison. A prison was exactly what the place had become for many of them saddled with financial difficulties. Those residents who had overextended their credit or had lost what few savings they had during the downturn in the economy, had little choice but to tolerate the meager pay and substandard working conditions offered at Flint Manufacturing.

The benefits Evan offered were equally substandard. Even though he knew about his workers pitifully struggling to make ends meet, he had no qualms whatsoever about taking advantage of each of them. He realized if the economy were good and there were plenty of other places to find profitable employment, he would likely lose many of his better-qualified employees. Yes, he was certain most of them would leave to seek employment elsewhere. But fortunately for Evan, with the economy in the toilet, he could treat his workers however he pleased. As someone might assume, not many of Flint Manufacturing’s workers could be described as satisfied employees.

Evan was well aware of the workers’ complaints and the various derogatory nicknames they had devised for him and called him behind his back, such as Skin Flint and Evan-eezer. Evan didn’t think of himself as such a tightwad but considered his economic philosophy was conservatively frugal. When he first heard of the nicknames, Evan had been furious and had fired a handful of workers who he had determined to be responsible for starting the whole mess. He was able to identify those people thanks to a few of his loyal cronies and suck-ups who could be counted on to bring him all the latest dirt.

But one thing that always seemed to be true of such negative nicknames was that once they were spoken aloud, they seemed to stick—and stick forever. Such was the case with the names they applied to Evan. And soon, it became apparent to Evan that he would either have to learn to ignore the snide remarks and derogatory name-calling, or else he would have to fire his entire workforce.

The one particular term, which seemed to bother him the most, was Evan-eezer. That name irked him because it summed up his workforce’s complete lack of gratitude toward him. He could not understand what was wrong with them. He had managed to keep all of them employed during some of the most difficult economic times in the state’s history.

Although he didn’t like the idea of being lumped in with such a miserly Dickensian stereotype, if Evan had taken the time to consider the possibility, he might soon discover his own life actually had many similar parallels to that of the fictitious infamous Mr. Scrooge.

Like Scrooge, Evan was a loner as a child with few friends. As a young man in college, he had met, fallen in love with, and married a beautiful young woman named Claire. Eventually, Evan’s true love left him just as Scrooge’s had in the story.

Evan had started his manufacturing company as a partnership with a young man named Jack Worley. In A Christmas Carol, Scrooge had started his company with his partner Jacob Marley. Scrooge’s partner died, leaving him to run the business alone. A similar thing happened to Jack Worley.

Evan had always been certain that someday his partnership with Jack would end one way or another. He had assumed this from the very start because the two were opposites. Whereas Evan had come from nothing and worked long hours and most weekends to build the business, his partner Jack had come from old money and was known as a reckless playboy throughout the area. Though it was true that Jack had put up the initial startup money for the company, he had no real interest in running the business itself and was glad to leave the day-to-day affairs to Evan. But Jack’s shiftless behavior nonetheless irritated him. Evan’s marriage ended after just a few short years when Claire tired of his long hours at work. Evan explained that he was only working so hard to build a future for the two of them, but that did nothing to appease her. She felt she had no need for money or the finer things of life. She wanted the man she married to be there for her when she needed him, and Evan was never there. On the day she left, Claire told him his true love was not her, but his money and the power that money brought to him. Scrooge’s lost love had told him, “Another idol has displaced me; and if it can cheer and comfort you in time to come, as I would have tried to do, I have no just cause to grieve.”

After Claire left him, Evan immersed himself even further into his work, having nothing else to fill his empty hours. Within a few short years, he singlehandedly built the manufacturing company into a booming business that employed over one thousand people. While other companies were closing and sending their products overseas to be manufactured, Evan’s company was growing and expanding and hiring more workers weekly.

While Evan was busy working, Jack did virtually nothing to contribute to the business. Instead, he continued his wild and carefree ways, all the time taking his share of the profits. Evan knew that somehow Jack’s reckless behavior had to come to an end, and it was likely going to be left to Evan to find a way to stop Jack. Then one day, Jack was killed in a tragic boating accident. The man had been sailing off the New Jersey coast, having a private party on his favorite boat with several young coeds, when a freak explosion killed him as well as all of his passengers.

An investigation into the accident was started, and for quite some time, police closely scrutinized Evan Flint, considering him a person of more than just casual interest in the incident. Although the authorities had never gotten so far as to arrest Evan, accuse him of murder, or even refer to the inquiry as a murder investigation, they commented that the events surrounding the accident were suspicious. They were likewise reluctant to label the incident as an accidental death.

Their suspicions likely arose when they questioned Evan, and he did not even bother to feign the slightest bit of sadness at the loss of his partner. He even stated that it was some cosmic divine intervention and that Jack had gotten exactly what he deserved as far as he was concerned. To a police investigator, that statement alone would set off all sorts of internal alarms.

But it was later when the police discovered that the two partners had taken out substantial life insurance policies when the business was formed—each naming the other as the sole beneficiary of those funds—they believed they had a motive and truly became suspicious.

The insurance policies were each worth five million dollars each, and with Jack’s death, the entire sum went to Evan. Police felt that this fact alone would have been motive enough for Evan wanting his partner dead. But they also learned from questioning some of Evan’s employees that there was no love lost between the two partners.

Regardless of what their suspicions might have been, following a thorough police investigation, it was determined that although Jack’s death could very well have been a planned murder, it was more likely just an unavoidable accident. There were far fewer facts pointing to murder than to an accident, so the police had little choice but to drop that particular avenue of investigation reluctantly. In the eyes of several investigators, Evan was never completely exonerated, but since the affair was officially ruled accidental, they could do nothing more. And so, Evan was free to collect the insurance money.

But the townspeople and the many workers at his factory were far from satisfied with the authorities’ findings. They had watched Evan and Jack interact for years, and they believed Evan was a control freak. They thought they knew just how far Evan would go to get his way. And as much as they disliked Evan with his sullen, much too serious disposition, they all seemed to have loved Jack Worley with his outwardly friendly personality. Many of them were certain that Evan was perfectly capable of systematically planning and carrying out the murder of his partner. They also believed he would care nothing for the other guests caught in the accident as collateral damage. If they were given a choice, most of them would have preferred if it had been Evan who had died instead of Jack.

They all had many reasons to hate Evan and tried to unionize their workforce on many occasions. But each time, Evan had managed to fight back those attempts to bring in labor unions successfully. His employees didn’t know how Evan could keep the union out, but some of them suspected he might have greased the right palms or perhaps used some other form of coercion.

Evan was always on the lookout for union organizers. As he drove and thought about the events of the day, Evan’s major concern was that his latest planned change in the company’s benefits package might push his workforce too far. He worried that if they tried to unionize again, he might not keep them out. Evan had some underlying discomfort that his next move might open the door to a potential labor union organization. One benefit his workers still enjoyed, which most companies had abandoned many years earlier, was a pension plan. But now, Evan had decided he would have to take drastic measures to keep his company competitive with offshore manufacturers and keep his fortune growing as well. The result was that he had decided to do away with the company pension plan. He would essentially freeze the pension, so no one would lose any time and monetary benefits they had accrued to date, but he would not support any additional contributions to the plan. From March or April of the next year on, he would institute a 401K savings plan where employees could put in their own money to save and thereby manage their retirement funds. The idea made perfect sense to Evan, plus it would save his company a ton of money.

Both Evan’s company controller and vice president of manufacturing tried to change his mind about the move, complaining that it would further hurt employee morale and cause a mass exodus of workers from the company. Evan knew that although the workers would complain, as usual, there was no way they would consider walking out during such a hostile economic climate. Perhaps in a few years, if the economy started to recover, they might think about it, but the initial pain from the change would be long forgotten by then. Besides, he was familiar with every company within fifty miles and was confident not a single one of them still had a pension plan either.

The reason Evan was currently feeling stressed was likely because of an argument he had with his two top executives earlier in the day on that very subject. Evan banged his hand against the steering wheel, shouting, “Screw ‘em all! I’m the owner of this company and its CEO, and my word is gospel. I am the only one looking out for my employees’ futures. I founded this company; that makes me the creator, which means I am God as far as they all are concerned. And if I say this is how things are going to be, then so be it.”

Evan suddenly felt a strange and slightly painful sensation inside his head as if he might be on the verge of getting a severe headache. “No wonder,” Evan thought aloud, certain he understood the reason for the headache. “After the frustrating day I just had, I’m not at all surprised.”

Since the next day was Christmas, all of his workers were off for one day but would return to work on December twenty-sixth. Many of them had saved vacation for the time between Christmas and New Year’s Day, but most would be back at work. And Evan, of course, would also be at work as well. He planned to announce his pension plan change through the company’s official communication channels first thing at the start of the next business day. He chuckled to himself, thinking about what a terrible Christmas present they would all be receiving this year, especially the workers who were off for a holiday and might not learn about it until they returned, which was also fine with Evan.

Once again, he felt the slight pain in his skull and made a mental note to take some painkillers when he arrived home. Since he planned on doing nothing special for the rest of the evening, he decided he would treat himself to a nightcap as well.

Soon Evan had passed through town and was on a rural road heading out into the country toward his estate. He turned into his driveway and paused in front of the eight-foot ornately decorated iron gates blocking his access. Pressing a button on his remote control unit, Evan made the gates swing invitingly open, and he continued along his lengthy driveway, the gates closing automatically behind him. As Evan approached the front of his luxurious three-story brick mansion, he pressed another button and watched the first of four huge garage doors open.

Closing the garage door behind him, Evan entered the kitchen area of his home and quickly typed in his security code to suppress the shrill scream of the alarm system. The house was suddenly thrust into blessed silence.

Evan walked into the living room and pressed a button on a control console illuminating a reading light behind a large leather chair across the room. He glanced at the tall, ornately-carved grandfather clock he had purchased from a clockmaker in Switzerland; the time was now 11:25 pm.

Then with the press of another button, the large gas fireplace burst into flames, washing the room with its glow and comforting warmth. Evan walked over to a bar next to the fireplace and poured himself a large glass of whiskey over ice. He sat down on the chair, allowing himself to sink deeply into the leather upholstery. After a few long swigs of his nightcap, Evan’s mind began to wander back to a much happier time, back to a time when he and Claire had been married and were still so madly in love. Back then, Evan always looked forward to coming home from work and finding her there.

During those years, they had no money and lived in a small apartment above a pharmacy on the town’s main street. He always promised Claire that someday they would have more money than she could imagine, but she never seemed to care. And on the day she left, he finally understood, much too late, that she didn’t want things but only wanted him. He recalled how he had begged and pleaded with her to stay, swearing he would find a way to change his work habits, but she said that she knew better. Evan was simply the way he was, and there was nothing she or anyone else could do to change him.

Evan later learned Claire had remarried a few years after the divorce, and the last he heard, she had been living in another state. Claire now had four grown children and a herd of grandchildren. He supposed she was happy in her new life, but he truly seldom thought much about her, except at quiet times like the one he was experiencing. Evan had his company, his employees, and his money. As such, he insisted he had all he could need out of life. But sometimes, he still felt so very bitter and angry over the loss of his wife.

He liked to be in charge and control every aspect of his life. Claire’s leaving had been a major blow to him emotionally. But it had also bothered him on another level. It irritated him that he could not control Claire and make her stay with him. That was also how he had felt about his late partner, Jack. But now, that situation was well under control.

No longer wanting to dwell on the painful memories of his past, Evan finished off his drink, poured himself another, took several long generous sips, then grabbed the TV remote control for the sixty-inch flat screen mounted above the mahogany fireplace mantel and turned it on. He mindlessly surfed from channel to channel, hoping for something to stir his interest.

After a while, he stopped at a channel playing the 1938 classic black and white film adaptation of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. The current scene depicted Jacob Marley’s ghost howling and rattling his chains madly as only one suffering the tortures of an eternity in Hell could do.

“Bah, Humbug!” Evan said, chuckling to himself, enjoying the way he was lampooning the Christmas classic and already feeling the effects of the whiskey. He pressed the off button on the TV remote in frustration, and the giant screen went black. He sat quietly in his large chair and finished his drink, sitting and staring at the flames dancing in the fireplace.

After a bit, Evan thought he saw something in the flames. It had only been there for a fleeting moment but what he saw seemed as clear in his mind as if it had been there for hours. He thought he saw the face of Jack Worley grinning madly out at him as the fire charred and melted the flesh from his skull. Then the hideous creature’s mouth began to slowly open and Evan knew the next thing he would hear would be his name being spoken in some ghastly undead voice. He quickly shook his head to clear his mind of the horrible image, and thankfully it disappeared. His head now ached worse than before. Something was wrong with him, and Evan realized he might have to visit his doctor in a few days.

After a moment, he got to his feet and discovered he was surprisingly off-kilter. He had not expected to become so drunk so quickly but thinking back; he realized he had not eaten since breakfast. No wonder he was half hammered. No wonder he imagined things. Suddenly he was startled by the sound of the grandfather clock striking midnight. “Time for bed,” he said to the empty room

As he regained his balance and attempted to stagger out toward the hallway, he heard a strange noise coming from the foyer, out near the front door. He then realized that he had disarmed the security system when he got home, but he had forgotten to rearm it. He began to wonder if some low-life scumbag of a character from town had taken it upon himself to attempt to break in and rob him. Evan was prepared to give the criminal a present he had never anticipated if that were the case. He walked over to the fireplace and clumsily withdrew a large wrought-iron poker with a menacing-looking tip. Holding the doorframe for support, he slowly peered around the corner to look out toward the front door.

What he saw caught him completely by surprise. No would-be burglar was skulking inside the door. The entire hallway was empty; at least, he initially thought it was empty. Then Evan noticed something strange starting to occur. It was as if the air in the hall, closest to the door, was changing its physical properties. It seemed at first to shimmer then to ripple in almost liquid undulations appearing like waves above a blacktop roadway on a hot summer day. Then a shape began forming within the distorted air.

It appeared to be some mass, low to the floor, perhaps only two feet high at its apex in the center, then tapering downward on sides, forming an elliptical series of pulsating and bubbling globs. At first, it reminded Evan of an enormous fried egg with a large flesh-colored dome in the center instead of a yolk. The entire thing seemed to be flesh-like, not only in color but also in its skin’s apparent texture. The mass was in constant motion, undulating and bubbling wildly. After a few moments, the waves of air stopped, and the thing in the hall seemed to solidify and become real.

“What the hell!” Evan exclaimed in shock, raising the poker high above his head, prepared to lash out at the strange living nightmare just a few feet in front of him. Suddenly the rhythmically pulsing shape began to move toward him under some form of propulsion he could not begin to comprehend. As it got closer, Evan could see large spidery veins, some as thick as rope, moving throughout its hideous form. Then he noticed a disgustingly foul stench emanating from the strange being. It made his stomach turn with disgust, the thing smelling like a long-dead rotting carcass.

At first, he took a cautious step away from the vile creature; then, driven by courage brought on from either the whiskey or simple stupidity, he decided to lunge forward with the poker and attack the thing. He plunged the sharp end of the poker deep into the front side of the mass, close to the large central dome. He let go of the handle out of sheer disgust upon feeling the unearthly consistency of the thing. The poker seemed to sink deep into the throbbing glob of vein-riddled flesh, then spring harmlessly back out and fall to the floor with a clang that echoed in the empty hallway.

Evan was suddenly hit with an incredible pain in the center of his gut, which doubled him over for a moment before it began to subside slowly, and he could once again stand semi-erect. It was as if he were being made to feel the pain he had meant to inflict on the horrifying creeping entity.

He staggered backward a step or two and wondered aloud, “What manner of creature is this ungodly thing?” He started to turn to run for the back door when suddenly he heard a soft, liquidy voice calling from behind him, “Evan… Where… do you think… you are going?”

He stopped in his tracks and turned around slowly, convinced that the hideous twitching blob on his hallway floor had just impossibly spoken to him. “Wha—what?” He stammered.

“There’s no need to run, Evan… Yes… That’s right… I know who you are… as I should,” the thing seemed to say to him, although he couldn’t quite make out any mechanism by which the creature had articulated the words. Then he thought he noticed a long slit forming in the center of the creature’s dome, appearing to run vertically rather than horizontally. Although Evan realized since the creature was almost round in shape, he had no way of discerning its front, side, or back from each other.

The crack opened slightly, and the stench, which had originally accosted him, became even more repugnant. Then he saw the slit begin to vibrate as he heard the quivering voice once again, “So, Evan… What special plans do you have for this lovely Christmas Eve?” Evan was taken aback by the question, feeling it quite odd and perhaps not what he would have expected the thing to ask him. Then again, what was happening was so bizarre he truly had no idea what he should expect.

The vile thing asked, “Where are your friends, Evan? Where is the merriment… the festivity… where is all the joyous celebration?”

Evan was confused beyond comprehension, and although he felt foolish doing so, he shouted angrily at the pulsating gelatinous mass, “Who, or what the Hell are you? What manner of being are you? And why in the name of all that’s holy are you here?”

Once again, the long slit began to vibrate, resembling the wave of an oscilloscope as the foul odor once again permeated the room, and Evan heard the strange voice speak. “Why, Evan! Do you mean to say you don’t know who I am? Don’t you recognize me?”

“What in the name of God are you talking about?” Evan shouted. “You are one of the most horrible-looking things I have ever seen, even more, revolting than the creatures of my worst nightmares. Recognize you? I don’t even know what manner of being you are! For all I know, you may just be a figment of my imagination. Maybe, in reality, I am actually back there asleep in the chair and dreaming all of this.” He pointed back toward the living room.

The blob-like gelatinous mound slid stealthily closer to the unsuspecting Evan, who was too preoccupied and equally confused to notice the thing’s approach and, as such, didn’t step back. The creature continued speaking to him with a calm and almost hypnotic tone. “Tonight is Christmas Eve … and you should be spending it with your loved ones, Evan … not sitting in the dark in this self-imposed prison you call home, but then again, you have no loved ones do you, Evan?”

Now Evan was becoming angry, at least to the extent his revulsion would permit. His more typical arrogant attitude rapidly replaced his discomfort, one he had developed throughout his lifetime and an attitude with which he was most comfortable. “What do you know of me, you hideous blob? Nothing! You are just some sort of mirage, an illusion.”

Then sounding once again very much like Ebenezer Scrooge, Evan said, “You are nothing more than the result of too little food and too much drink. Hell, I probably won’t remember any of… this strange dream by tomorrow morning. You are but a ghastly apparition. Leave me at once!”

“On the contrary,” the thing corrected, “I won’t be going anywhere, at least not yet. You do understand, Evan, that Christmas Eve is a special time, a time for magic, and a time for miracles. And after tonight, things will never be the same for you. Look closer at me, Evan. Is there truly nothing, not even one little thing about me that seems familiar to you?”

Evan stared more closely at the loathsome slimy rippling mass of veins and flesh, and although he knew he had never seen anything like it ever before, there was a feeling, a presence about the creature that did seem somewhat familiar. Somehow there was something about the unbelievable abomination that he did seem to recognize, or he at least he seemed to sense some sort of indescribable understanding. It was not something about the creature’s appearance that was truly horrendous, but something less tangible he seemed to feel, something almost telepathic.

“Ah!” The mass said through its rippling slit of a mouth. “There is some recognition after all. Do you care to venture a guess about my origin, Evan? Do you have the nerve to try?” The creature slid even closer to the unsuspecting man.

Then suddenly, the realization hit Evan, and he understood everything. “You—are you insinuating… are you trying to tell me you are… me?”

“That’s right, Evan,” the blob said. “In a manner of speaking, I am you. You see, I am the physical manifestation of your tainted immortal soul. I am the essence of you, Evan. This is what you have become inside, a vile, disgusting mass of anger, hatred, and bitterness. No love, kindness, or beauty exists in me because such traits no longer exist in you. You have become like a living disease, a foul blight on the face of the earth. All you care about is yourself and your precious money. Your wife, Claire, was right, Evan. She left you because she knew you could only have one true love in your life, and your love is your insatiable desire for money.”

“It can’t be,” Evan screamed. “It’s impossible! You can’t possibly be me. You’re nothing like me. You are just some horrible figment born of too much whiskey. Leave my house now. I demand it.”

He made a drunken futile gesture pointing his hand toward the front door. It was then that he realized the massive globule was now just inches away from him.

“I’ll be going nowhere just yet, Evan,” the thing said. “Look at me, Evan. I am your murderous soul made manifest.”

Evan looked as if he had been struck with a club. “Murderous?” he asked. “What are you talking about? Jack? Are you talking about Jack Worley’s death? The boating accident? You stupid pile of stinking flesh! That was an accident, I tell you!”

The thing slid yet closer until the outer edge of its flattest surface was touching the toe of Evan’s shoe. Then it spoke again. “You can lie to the police, Evan, and you can lie to the townspeople. However, you can never lie to yourself, Evan, and I am your innermost murderous self.”

With that, Evan tried to back away, but before he could make a single step, a long, thin, ropelike tongue shot out from the mouth slit and wrapped itself tightly around Evan’s throat. It burned the skin on his neck, and Evan could feel his breath being cut off by the fleshy lasso. Then the ropy tongue began to retract into the creature as the slit of a mouth grew in size from just a few inches to more than a foot and a half in length.

Evan was pulled toward the slit gasping for air and whimpering with pain and realization. This abomination was formed from the evilest and most horrendous essence, from the very core of his tainted soul. And this unspeakable inside-out version of himself was sent here from Hell to claim him, to make Evan one with its horrifying grotesquery.

Then the sides of the gaping maw separated opening to reveal an enormous black orifice. The blackness seemed bottomless as if it were not so much a mouth but an opening or a passageway to some unimaginably horrible place.

Before he realized it, Evan’s head was inside the thing’s mouth, which closed tightly around his shoulders. His flesh boiled and bubbled beneath its slimy touch. Soon Evan’s pitiful cries became muffled and were finally silenced. The sides of the slit rippled even more frantically, slowly working the rest of Evan’s twitching body further inside. His body thrashed and flayed as it was sucked deeper inside the beast. Within a few short moments, Evan Flint was completely gone. The creature remained in the hallway for a few more moments; then, it slowly faded from sight until it was completely gone along with the man whose greed had made the creature’s temporary existence necessary on that clear and magical Christmas Eve.