by Eric J. Krause
"Santa left a present, Uncle Jim."
Jim patted Nat, his four-year-old niece, on the head. "No, Natalie. Remember? Santa Claus only comes at Christmas."
"I saw him, Uncle Jim, I saw him. He was even dressed for summer."
Jim would have to ask his sister, wherever she was, if Nat often had imaginary friends. It'd keep him prepared for next time he came to visit. "What did he look like?"
"He had on shorts and a t-shirt that he painted red. And he took off his beard and his belly. Mommy says summer Santa has a total surfer's bod."
Jim struggled to keep a straight face. "I don't know, Nat. That doesn't sound like the Santa I know."
She glanced around and leaned up to give him a conspiratory whisper. "Santa is Daddy."
She nodded, grabbed his hand, and lead him to the living room. "See? There it is. He didn't need to wrap it because it's not Christmastime."
Jim peaked into the room. In the middle of the floor stood a wicker basket with something oozing out. Oh crap, was that blood?
"Nattie, honey, why don't you go up to your room? I'll be there in a couple of minutes."
"But I wanna see what Santa brought me." Her bottom lip quivered. Brent had confided in him once that he was helpless when she pulled off that look. If what was in the dripping basket was what Jim thought, would Brent ever again be around for it to work its magic? Not if Jim could help it.
"It's not for you, sweetie. Santa only brings grown-ups gifts in the summer."
She started to protest, but a quick offer of a trip to the toy store and ice cream shop hushed her up. She skipped up the steps, humming a song as she went.
Jim turned his attention back to the wicker basket. That had to be blood. What else could it be? He hesitated for a second, not wanting to see, but powerless to walk away. He'd never really gotten on with Brent, felt there was something off about the guy, but was he capable of this? More important, was this why Sara wasn't here?
He flung the lid open. Relief and horror mixed, becoming one. It wasn't Sara, but the decapitated head of some shaggy-haired blond guy. The stench of death wafted up at him, and though his stomach turned and clenched, he kept himself from losing his lunch on the already stained carpet. Puke after this is solved, he told himself.
A flash of color on the lid tore his attention from the head. He found a piece of paper inside with "You're next, you cheating whore," written in what was probably the blond guy's blood.
He slammed the lid back down. Shit. He needed to warn Sara, needed to get Natalie somewhere safe. When he got here and found Sara gone, he'd guessed she was out running errands. Now he hoped to god that was true. He dug in his pocket for his cell phone, but before he could flip it open, Brent spoke from behind.
"You picked the wrong day to visit, bro."
Jim spun around just in time to see a hatchet screaming for his head.