by Colleen Britton
Hans Sauer turned, wiping the sneer and snot from his face with the back of his sleeve, and fixed Peter Schultz in the beam of the flashlight. The boy had stopped again, clutching at his too-small Hitlerjugend coat, his breath blowing out in ragged, white gasps.
“Hans, please,” he moaned, sagging against a tree. “Let’s take a break.”
Hans smiled, lips tight against his gums, and waded back through his tracks. “Don’t stop now,” he said. “We’re almost there!”
Trees jutted out of the snow, long black darts with hoary fletchings. It was late, past curfew, and the stars peered at them with bright, beady eyes. Hans sniffed hard, snorting back his runny nose.
Peter was a mess. He looked like he’d been at it for hours, hiking through the woods in the middle of the night. But they’d only been gone for twenty, maybe thirty minutes, the lights from the village just hidden by the trees.
Peter’s gaze fell. “I was thinking, maybe this isn’t such a good idea…”
Hans smoothed the curl hooking at his lip. “You’re not afraid, are you?” he grinned. “I thought you wanted to come.”
Peter hesitated, “Well, I–”
“Come on.” Hans grabbed Peter by the shoulder and wrenched the boy ahead of him.
Peter glanced back, his face lunar in the incandescent light. He huddled into his coat collar. “This is stupid,” he muttered. “There’s no such thing as the Krampus. It’s just kid stuff.”
“Shh,” Hans hissed. “You want him to hear?” He laughed, his voice echoing through the trees. He prodded Peter’s back with the flashlight. “And anyway, I’ve seen him.”
“Unsinn,” Peter scoffed. “If you’ve seen him, what does he look like?”
The pale beam swung through the trees, careening into the shadows. “He has long hair all over his body,” said Hans. “Thick and wiry. His teeth are like the tusks of a boar. And he has the horns of a goat. But the worst,” Hans whispered, “is the sack.”
“The sack…?” Peter echoed.
Hans nodded at the boy’s hunched shoulders. “You know how the Weihnachtsmann carries a sack filled with goodies for good girls and boys? Well, the Krampus carries a sack, too, for all the mischief-makers and all the liars and the cowards. And it’s the one he’ll stuff you into if you don’t behave.”
Peter stopped and swallowed, his gorge thunking in this throat, “Then what?”
Hans leaned close, his breath curling against Peter’s neck like smoke,“He eats you!”
The flashlight went out. Peter screamed. Hans switched the light back on, doubled over with laughter. “If only I could’ve seen your face!” he hooted.
Peter’s cheeks burned. He elbowed past Hans, lumbering back through the snow.
“Hey, where are you going?”
“Home,” Peter snapped. “I know when I’m being made fun of. I don’t even know why I came.”
Hans hopped through the drifts and grabbed his arm. “Don’t be mad. I’m sorry about the flashlight. Here. You can have it.” He pushed it into Peter’s hands. “Just a little bit farther, please?”
The boy pursed his lips, narrowing his piggy eyes. His fingers tightened around the flashlight, and he pulled it close to his heavy body.
“How much farther?”
Hans exhaled the breath he had been holding. He threw his arm around Peter’s shoulder. “Not much. Not much.” He pointed, “Just there in that clearing.”
Peter aimed the flashlight at the opening in the trees. Hans eyed him, shifting his weight as the boy considered the distance. Finally, Peter grunted and lumbered toward it, his splotchy cheeks trembling with every step. Hans spat and followed in the boy’s dragging steps. Sweat matted Peter’s close-cropped hair to his skull, and steam rose up from his pate. By the time he reached the center of the clearing, even the underarms of his coat were damp.
“This is it,” he panted. “That’s what you said.”
Hans nodded. “Yes. Now, you wait here – you can keep the flashlight – and I’ll see if I can stir him up.”
As Hans began to turn, Peter spoke up, his voice small and hesitant, “Hans?”
“What do I do when,” he paused, “if I see the Krampus?”
Hans leveled his gaze. “Hope he doesn’t see you.”
Peter tucked his fleshy chin into his collar and licked his lips. He gripped the flashlight between his chubby hands, its metal parts rattling together, the beam shuddering in the trees. Hans turned and walked into the dark of the woods. He jammed his hands into his pockets, and grinned from ear to ear.
It had been easy to lure Peter into the woods. Even if he whined and carried on, he was always eager to please – his mama, the Rottenführer with a ready fist, even Klaus and Hans. He was like a lamb to the slaughter, fattened on Stollen and a false promise of honor. Peter would face the Krampus.
Hans shook his head, his grin turning sour. It was getting late. They’d have to hurry back if they didn’t want to get caught. He glanced over his shoulder at the round pool of light in the clearing. The bulk of Peter’s back faced him. Satisfied, Hans cupped his hands around his mouth, and whispered fiercely into the night.
He narrowed his eyes and listened. He heard nothing.
“Klaus, you idiot!” he snarled. “Where are you?”
No response. Hans growled under his breath, and squinted in the darkness. There were tracks everywhere – deer, rabbit, fox. He hunted through them, looking for the indentations of hobnailed shoes.
Hans frowned. This was definitely the spot. He and Klaus had picked it out a few days before. The trees grew thick until the clearing, parting their branches to reveal a sylvan stage – the perfect setting to scare the shit out of Peter Schulz.
Hans scanned the ground as he picked his way through the frosted brush. A footprint crushed a set of rabbit tracks. A second one, a running step, was sunk into the middle of a ruined bramble
Hans followed them for several paces, then stopped. A small, dark shape jutted out of the snow. He stooped and picked it up.
It was a shoe, the leather cool to the touch. Klaus’ – there was no one else in the woods. Hans scowled. But why would he take off his shoe? Shaking his head, he picked up the trail again. The light from the clearing barely reached him now, but a second shape stood out dark against the snow. It was the other shoe, cold and missing its mate.
Hans picked it up, holding both shoes side by side. Klaus was fooling with him, the dirty pig. He threw down the shoes and stalked back toward the clearing. If Klaus thought he could kill two birds with one stone, he was mistaken. He’d beat the living daylights out of him before he got caught by the Rottenführer. It was one thing to make a fool of Peter, but it was another to cross Hans Sauer.
He plowed through the snow, and suddenly found himself face first in a drift. Cursing, he got to his feet and cast about for whatever had tripped him. He grabbed at it, and stared into the monstrous face of the Krampus.
It was only a mask, he knew. He’d helped Klaus make it. The coarse hair was just the branches of yew. The needlelike teeth were nothing more than whittled shafts of pine. Hans glared into the empty sockets of its eyes and chucked it into the snow.
His head snapped up as the light in the clearing went out. An unpleasant thought occurred to him. Were they in on it together, Peter and Klaus? Had he been double-crossed? A laugh bubbled up in his throat. If they thought they could get the best of him, they were mistaken.
Hans crouched and crept to the edge of the clearing on all fours. He gathered himself and sprung into the open, howling and waving his fingers like claws.
Peter was gone. The clearing was empty. Only the flashlight remained, its shattered glass broken and shining like ice.
Sweat pricked his underarms, and he swallowed against the sickening lump in his throat. He forced a laugh that jangled in his ears.
“You got me,” Hans called, holding up his hands. “You got me. I was scared for one whole second. Bravo.”
His words echoed in the forest, strange and hollow.
He gritted his teeth. “That’s enough. You can come out. If we don’t get back, the Rottenführer will have all our heads.”
Silence bore down on him, squeezing the air from his lungs. He whispered, “Klaus?”
Something moved among the trees, shaking the snow from the branches. Hans’ eyes widened. “Peter?”
The woods answered back, Peter? Peter? Peter…?
Hans covered his ears and closed his eyes. His pulse hammered in his eardrums. A soft whine escaped his throat, like the mewling of a kitten. Anger flared in his chest. He was not weak, he was strong. And he’d be damned if he let those Scheißkerle get the best of him. He opened his eyes.
A shadow stood on the other side of the clearing.
Hans blinked slowly.
The shadow was closer now, looming in the center of the clearing. Two long horns split its silhouette in two.
Hans closed his eyes again, and he could smell its fetid breath warm on his face. His bladder loosed, soaking his trousers.
When he opened his eyes for the last time, it was to the inside of a filthy burlap bag. Peter stared back at him, his fingers clutching the memory of the flashlight. He was dead. Hans couldn’t care.
What struck him were Klaus’ socked feet, his little toe sticking out through a hole. Klaus hadn’t taken off his shoes. He’d lost them, running.