By S.E. Casey

There were no witnesses. Twelve days before Christmas, the tree appeared in the middle of the Shaker Hills Mall parking lot.

Driven clear through the asphalt, its expansive width obliterated several rows of prime parking. Gnarled bark and cankerous knots pocked its sooty trunk. Laden with rotting needles, black branches swept off the stocky axis. Ribbons of mercury festooned the dark conifer, an infernal beauty in the cancerous tinsel although no one was fool enough to touch. We knew to steer clear—a blighted aura radiating from its awful core. At night, we beheld the lights recessed in the stygian foliage blinking like eyes of some wicked deep-forest predator.

The stores remained open despite the unexplained presence. Sales were sluggish, the mall plagued by strange phenomena. A girl’s hand was scalded in the central fountain somehow brought to boil. Store mannequins moved after hours. They greeted the employees who opened up in menacing poses. Thirteen of the dummies were never found, the same number as the work gloves and coveralls mysteriously stolen from Krauss Sporting Goods.

Silent for decades, the abandoned factory behind the mall fired up its furnaces. Iron dust spewed from the dilapidated smokestacks which someone had painted in candy cane swirls. No one could get close enough to find out who with the growls of watchdogs slinking unseen amidst the winter shadows keeping everyone at bay.

The mall shut down three days before Christmas, the yuletide spirit wrung out of us. We stayed home, the shuttered factory’s hellish roar and unknown laborers the town’s only commerce.

Late Christmas Eve, we gathered around the monstrous tree. Basking in the icy moon shadows, we celebrated under its starry black limbs, foolish worshippers shushing the crying children before hanging our sacrifices in those solemn, malevolent boughs.