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It should have been the perfect Christmas Eve. A thick layer of snow had floated down gently from the sky all day. Wishing my colleagues at the office a Merry Christmas, I put on my long winter coat and scarf, and walked out into the snow. It crunched beneath my feet, and as it did so I was reminded of being a kid; of how special it was when the snow came. Then I thought about my own two kids back at home, waiting for me with my wife. That made me smile... That was... Until someone grabbed hold of my arm from a darkened doorway.
I recoiled at the sight of a homeless man in front of me, his face worn and grey, no doubt from countless nights sleeping in the cold; and his long matted beard gave both the impression and stench that he hadn’t bathed in an age.
“Spare some change?” he said, coughing.
Opening my wallet, I hoped to find a small note, but all I had were three twenties. I’m all for charity, especially at Christmas, but as the man looked down at the larger notes, I had to dash his hopes. “Sorry, I don’t have anything smaller.”
“But it’s cold on Christmas Eve…” he said.
I didn’t know what else to do, so I simply said sorry, and walked away.
It was 6PM and the sun had long since set. The streetlights lit the way, and as I walked towards the outskirts of town, I took in the silence. No cars. No people. Everyone was home I suspected, wrapping presents or preparing a feast for Christmas day. Considering how cold the air was, I was looking forward to doing the same when I got home.
As an icy wind blew down the street towards me, I stopped for a moment to adjust my scarf, pulling it closer to me. Looking up at a streetlamp, flakes of snow silently moving in front, I saw a bird sitting on top of it. It looked like a crow, or a bird with black feathers at least, but it was difficult to tell; the streetlight was overpowering, and so the details of the bird melted into the brightness, set against the jet black sky.
It appeared strange to me, more so because of its apparent size than anything else, but for the first time since I’d left the office, the feeling of festive cheer had completely abandoned me. Looking up at the bird, I now felt an emptiness, a loneliness even, on that forlorn street. I felt sorry for it, all alone on Christmas Eve, and just as those thoughts passed me by, it made a noise, something akin to a squawk. The sound unnerved me, and it evoked in me a sense of unease. Instinctively, I looked back towards where I had come almost expecting to see someone creeping towards me, but on that snow covered street we were alone.
A chill seeped through the loneliness, and as it did so I felt my bones grow colder. And so I continued onwards, trying to fill my mind with thoughts of my family, of a comfy armchair waiting for me in front of the television. Maybe a drink or two to keep the cold at bay.
A noise above startled me. At first I thought it was the wind, but it was in fact only wind-like. There was something off about the sound. Looking upwards, I saw that I was standing directly underneath another streetlight. Flakes of snow danced above me, resting on my eyelids and face. As I wiped them away, I could see it. The bird; it was sitting directly above me on the lamppost. Yet I still couldn’t make out its detail, and now I was beginning to be unsettled by the size of the thing. I couldn’t be certain, as the streetlight and snow blended together to warp what I could see. Staring at the bird, for a moment it would appear to be the shape and size one would expect, but when it shifted its weight slightly, I could swear there was more to it, its black outline more substantial, confused with the night sky.
Thoughts deep within me unstuck my feet and pushed me on. Get home they said. Leave this place. I decided to listen. Picking up the pace, I walked further down the street, but as I passed each streetlight I heard that same noise above. Like the wind, or was it feathers? Another thought reared its ugly head: It sounds more like cloth rustling in the darkness.
That impression frightened and overcame me. I began to walk faster. Yet again, the noise above sounded; as if the thing, the bird, whatever it was, was moving from post-to-post.
It’s following me.
Now I ran as fast as I could, my footfalls sliding in the snow. The night air stung my lungs, and yet as I passed each streetlight the noise of cloth, of wind, of feathers above, followed.
And I did; around street corners, between parked cars, across usually busy roads now silent in the snow. Finally, after several minutes, the noise had ceased. As I reached my home street, I could run no longer. Standing still, I caught my breath just for a moment. Looking across the street, our Christmas decorations twinkled in the garden. All I could think of was warmth and of the comforts of home.
Something cold then touched the back of my neck. And I felt what I can only describe as talon-esque fingers, hard yet knuckled, reaching down underneath my collar and touching my spine. I let out a scream and reached behind me, flailing at whatever was there, out of reach, out of sight. But without laying eyes on it, I knew the truth: The thing that had been following me had grabbed hold of my coat at the back with talons or fingers, or something else entirely. For how long it had been grasping onto my coat, I could not say.
Pulling at it, I could not dislodge it, and so I did only what I could: I Threw my coat to the ground, leaving it in the snow. Running across the street, I reached the gate to my garden, but in my eagerness to get inside to safety I slipped on a piece of ice and fell sharply onto my back on the ground.
That was when I saw it. Standing there across the street from me was not a bird, or a thing, but a man. The homeless man I had met outside the office. He pulled on my long winter coat, and did the buttons up. He then looked at me and said: “It’s cold on Christmas Eve.” Grinning from behind his matted beard, he then walked away from me down the street, back to whatever obscure place he’d come.