Soul-Sucking Stocking Stuffer

It’s eleven fifty-something when I see the tree. I’ve had what could be deemed a reasonable night out – a work do, finishing not too early, not too late – and I’m off the tram. It’s right near the depot and staff are on, so I feel safe enough.

You get some real whackos on a Friday night if you try hard enough. The depot staff mill about like the undead, but it’s late so it’s forgivable. What’s important is that I see them. That they’re there.

The tree wasn’t there this morning, across the road from the depot. Not that I noticed. I don’t really look if I can help it, not at that building. Not since the university went and the weirdoes moved in. But at night it’s lit up like a Christmas tree…

(Did I really just say that?)

…It’s lit up like a Christmas tree, so it’s hard not to take it on board.

Didn’t know they even believed in Christmas. Or its pagan antecedents. Or even Xmas, the crassly commercialised version of a holiday that once held some sort of meaning for someone.

“Bah humbug”? Could be I’m that kind of person. But anyway…

The tree is enticing, in fact. Welcoming, I’m shocked to find myself thinking. The thing’s a monstrosity, but it assumes a reasonable composure amid the electricity-grid-in-a-building that is this place. It’s the middle of the night and I’m staring at an artificial sun. Light pours from every window, every door, every orifice of the pockmarked construction. If one of the UFOs they purport to worship were to settle itself on terra firma, I’ve often said, it could do worse than to look for and fix upon this landing strip of a building.

So the tree lures me. How cunning I’m not, pulled toward the conical green magnet they’ve erected, mesmerised by the luminescent bling they’ve adorned it with. It’s enough to carry me to the gate, but that’s all they need.

St Peter stands there, waiting. I’m dead meat, but this isn’t my idea of heaven.

‘Good evening and welcome,’ he tells me in a thick midwestern accent that I should be more surprised than this to hear. I’m not in Kansas, Toto, never have been. What are you doing in Melbourne? Fresh from HQ? ‘I’m Peter,’ he adds, cranking my level of disbelief up by about forty-two notches, ‘what’s your name?’

Why aren’t I freaking? Why aren’t I running for dear life, screaming my way up the road to the nearest pub where I can rest easy in the company of beer stains, ash-scented clothes and leering, middle-aged, pot-bellied drunks?

Because there’s something about Peter. Something about his genial smile. Something about the tree and its rhythmically flashing lights.

‘Welcome,’ he says. I feel it. The gate opens and he lets me in.

I look at my watch, seeking to make my excuses. Hoping to remind him of the lateness of the hour and explain that I really shouldn’t be staying long. (What do I think this is, a night cap?) All I take in is that it’s Saturday now; all thought of curtailing my stay is left cold at the gate.

An arm finds its way around my shoulder, the other pointing the way. I ought to jump him, ought to knee him in the groin and run. And run. But instead I go where he leads.

There’s something to be said for the environmental degradation that comes of leaving your lights on all night. A walk inside in the middle of the night becomes a completely safe experience, devoid of tripping hazards in unfamiliar territory.

Okay, not completely safe. There are other dangers. Like indoctrination. Oppression. Assimilation. Not to mention the prosaic matter of a recruitment drive at midnight.

I do feel tense, walking into a strange building with a strange man at a strange hour. Peter tells me he has a remedy for my stress. Something his people specialise in. I’ve heard it all before and I know the routine. They say it’s for free. At first. Say it’ll cure you of your worries. At first. But it costs you your life’s blood and it locks you in. A violent embrace, a kiss of death, there’s no way out, just advancement deeper and deeper into its cold, black heart.

Actually, that’s not totally true. There is one way out – you hear sad stories about it from time to time. One sure way to get their taint off you forever. Suicide. You have to destroy everything that’s left of you, everything they haven’t already taken so cruelly by coercion or force.

You have to do the ungodly thing. And that’s why I wonder what the hell that tree’s doing here.

Peter straps me in, tests me out. It’s all surprisingly technological for something that’s supposed to deal with the inner workings of your soul. By – if the exposés are to be believed – taking it away.

It’s no wonder they despise psychoanalysis. They leave you with no psyche to be analysed.

He says the readings are fine; I’m a suitable candidate. I can advance to the next stage.

It’s the first of many you never hear anything about. An iron room, there’s nothing in it but an iron table and an iron chair.

Cold steel, actually. Gleaming grey and icy as a meat locker. Not relieving the way a rusted iron chair leg through Peter’s chest would be about now.

Payment is required. It’s not that they draw a profit from their organisation, I have it explained to me, but maintenance of the facilities is not without cost.

‘Have you got an ATM in the cafeteria?’ I ask facetiously, all the while knowing they do have a cafeteria on the grounds. All the while hoping it hasn’t got an ATM. This bastard doesn’t have my name and there’s no way he’s getting my cash – or worse, my credit card details.

Why am I resistant to his charms all of a sudden? What devilish trick has granted me this level of lucidity? My metacognitive abilities, though otherwise impaired by the hypnotic influence of a smooth, lyrical voice and a flashing Christmas tree the size of a house, remain sufficiently sharp for me to consider that my will should be his own, and that I should with undying certainty be prepared by now to hand over the deed to the house my bank still owns 85% of.

Unless that’s not really his priority.

I don’t really have time to advance beyond this consideration before he reveals the way he really plans to sink his teeth in me.

There’s a reason ‘cult’ is only a letter away from a certain other word. It’s because Peter is one. He’s claimed me body and soul; invited me into his coven and I’ve accepted.

It is the witching hour and this demon of a man has made his mark on me. Two of them, right on my neck.

Any fight I had left in me is overcome. I’m drained.

Merry Christmas.

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