This happened about twenty years ago.
I used to live in a little town called Tehachapi. No one’s ever heard of it, so let me fill you in. It’s a brush-choked desert sandwiched between a bunch of oak-dotted mountains. It’s beautiful in the old west High Sierra way, but there’s nothing extraordinary about it.
Tehachapi is still pretty rural. Back then, though, it was utterly isolated. The outlying areas especially—Bear Valley Springs, Sand Canyon, Stallion Springs, Alpine Forest—were a nightmare during winter. The roads regularly iced over, buckling the asphalt, and stranding some of the people who lived in the higher elevations. Kids wandered away and got lost in the snow sometimes, although that rarely made the news. I only know about it because my dad, who was a cop, told me (he did that sort of thing). It wasn’t unusual to come across the carcass of a runaway horse or cow, mauled by the mountain lions that prowled with near-impunity. Electricity was pretty sporadic at times, especially in the winter. It was the boonies, basically. To us kids who had moved from cities like Bakersfield or Palmdale, it was kind of like living on the wild frontier.
Other than the fact that we had TV, that is.
Television was pretty much all we had. Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, PBS, and Cartoon Network were our favorites. But even as a kid, there’s only so much Scooby-Doo and Wishbone you can tolerate. But it was fine. The cool thing about Tehachapi—at least, at the time—was the surplus of local channels.
If you set the antennae just right and carefully scanned through the frequencies, you’d come across eight or nine indie channels. You had regular stuff like fire-and-brimstone preachers, creepy puppet shows, and people illegally airing tape-recorded reruns of The Simpsons and, even more bizarrely, La Femme Nikita. Every night at one AM, there was one guy who broadcast himself doing nothing but staring into the camera. Another show featured a grown-ass lady in a ridiculous Lolita outfit serving tea to stuffed animals. She’d beg them to drink for about fifteen minutes, then lose her temper and douse them all in boiling water before ripping their eyes out.
There were others, including a broadcast of seemingly endless litters of newborn kittens. Someone else randomly showed minute-long clips of their macaw, who screamed, “I like to bitch, bitch, bitch, yeah, yeah, yeah, I BITCH!”
Anyway, as I said, my dad was a cop at the time. My mom was a 911 dispatcher. This meant they always worked Christmas Eve and Christmas for the time-and-a-half bonuses, and the four of us kids were left alone all night.
As the oldest, I was in charge. My brothers Jake, Charlie, and Nicky all spooked easily. The howling wind, rural setting, and occasionally roaring cougar didn’t help anything. The only way to really distract them was with television. TV gets boring quick, though, especially for antsy kids. So we invented games.
Stuff like Mystery TV Channel, Crank-Call-the-Cable-Company, and Find-All-The-Indie-Channels.
Find-All-The-Indie-Channels was the most popular game by far. It was fun because there was a skilled component to it; you had to guess exactly when Bitch Parrot and Lolita Tea Party would air, for example. Finding the channels themselves wasn’t exactly easy, either. But that was why it was fun. It was passably distracting, and it got us through more dark, windy, snowy nights than I can count.
Anyway, one Christmas Eve—the very first we kids spent alone, I think—we were playing Find-All-The-Indie-Channels. We weren’t having much luck; deep, wet snow was swirling across the landscape, carried by the kind of screaming wind seemingly tailor-made by God Himself to kill reception.
I wasn’t really paying attention; I was staring up over the TV, at an oil painting my dad had just brought home. It was enormous, a massive landscape with a forest and a snow-capped mountain. I loved it.
Just as I was about to give up on the channel game, the staticky TV screen brightened into an illustrated swirl of red and green.
“Hey,” Jake said hopefully. “This is new!”
Sound boomed from the TV, so shockingly loud it took me a moment to identify it as music: a swelling orchestral rendition of Jingle Bells.
The red and green jerkily coalesced into a festive title card that quickly faded to black and white:
SKINNY PETE’S CHRISTMAS SPECIAL
The first thing I noticed was that it looked old. You know how shows like The Lone Ranger and Andy Griffith have a very dated, canned kind of quality to it? That’s what it reminded me of.
The title card suddenly exploded. Each letter broke formation and swung wildly back and forth. They were on wires, I realized. It wasn’t a title card at all, just an eerie illusion of one.
Someone shot up from the bottom of the frame: diminutive and bony and wearing an oversized Santa hat, with a twisted face that made us all gasp. It was like a combination of a cartoon witch and a tragically inbred prince.
“Merry Christmas, children!” the lanky man trilled. His voice was nice: a smooth, clean tenor that sounded almost handsome. “I am your host, Skinny Pete.” He placed fingers above and below one eye, then stretched it wide open.
“Remember, kids, Skinny Pete always sees you.”
Jake laughed nervously. “He’s so ugly.”
Skinny Pete jerked toward the camera. Then he lurched forward until his head dominated the screen, then kept coming until his eye—round and quivering, with a horizontal cat’s-eye pupil—filled the screen. “Always remember to be polite, babies. Christmas is a time for good will and cheer, not insults.”
Nicky whimpered. Jake and Charlie exchanged a frightened glance.
Skinny Pete’s eye dominated the screen a moment more, blinking once or twice, then pulled back and smiled. I wished he wouldn’t; the image of bright, perfect teeth in his twisted face made my stomach churn.
Skinny Pete settled back and surveyed his surroundings. It was a nice-looking house, with the kind of décor I can’t really describe, except to say that it was frilly and old-fashioned, the way you’d expect your Great-Aunt Gertrude’s house to look. “Well,” he said, waggling a finger at the screen. “Your house is nicer, babies. But this one isn’t bad, is it?” He grinned, a department store catalog smile set into his malformed face. “Let’s have a Skinny peek around!” He chuckled.
For the next several minutes, Skinny Pete gave us a guided tour of the house. Living room, bathroom, kitchen, dining room. None of it exceptional, and honestly boring.
“This is the stupidest channel ever,” Jake complained.
“What was that, babies?” Onscreen, something creaked upstairs. Skinny Pete froze, eyes going so wide they looked like they were bugging out of his face. Then he grinned and held a finger to his lips.
Skinny Pete tiptoed through the kitchen and up the stairs in an exaggerated manner reminiscent of the Grinch. Framed pictures hung from the walls. It was a little hard to tell through the shadows and grainy footage, but I was pretty sure they were family photos. I couldn’t help but wonder at the gruesomeness of Skinny Pete’s relatives, and suddenly wished the video quality was high enough to make their features out.
Reaching the upper floor, Skinny Pete paused at the first door and tapped at it. The door opened as if in response. He reached in and flicked on the light, revealing an empty bathroom.
I released a breath I’d been holding overlong and quickly gulped another.
Skinny Pete danced to the toilet and pointed. Impossibly, the water was swirling, lapping at the sides of the bowl as if it had just been flushed.
Skinny Pete covered his mouth with the tips of his fingers and jumped up and down, as if in glee. Then he darted back into the hall. He stopped at the next door and tapped. Again, it opened as if from within. Skinny Pete ducked inside and turned on the light.
It was clearly an adult’s room, also empty: king-size bed, with a large vanity covered in perfume bottles and makeup. On the opposite side of the room was a coat tree hung with men’s coats and hats.
Skinny Pete pointed to a tube of lipstick and an open jewelry box. “The grownups,” he whispered, “are at a party. They’ve left the children home all alone, on Christmas Eve of all nights! But no worries. Skinny Pete is here to take care of them!”
Skinny Pete slid out of the room, turning off the light as he went, tapped at the next door, which of course opened as though on command, and glided inside. With a gleeful grin, he flicked on the light and bellowed: “Merry Christmas, children! Skinny Pete has come!”
Two little girls blinked dazedly from their beds. The room was like a daydream, an idealized version of a children’s bedroom: lace curtains and shelves of stuffed animals, illustrated books, and ribbon-embellished furniture.
The younger girl began to cry. The other, however, smiled tentatively. “Skinny Pete? You’re real?”
“Real as rain, sweetie, and here to whisk you away to the Winter Wonder Woodlands!”
“W-what?” the girl stammered.
“He said it wrong,” Charlie murmured. Onscreen, Skinny Pete visibly stiffened. “It’s supposed to be ‘right as rain.’”
Skinny Pete turned to glare at the camera, and growled, “You shut up, now.” Just as though he were actually looking at us.
Charlie looked at me nervously. I shrugged and continued watching as Skinny Pete got on with the business of persuading the girls to run away with him, to spend Christmas in the Winter Wonder Woodlands.
“We have hot chocolate,” he said, “with marshmallows! And singing birds and magic deer and happy hoppy bunnies dancing in the snow!” He snaked forward and perched on the end of their bed. He gesticulated wildly. “We have all the presents you can open, piled under the most beautiful Christmas tree you’ve ever seen! It stretches to the heavens, and I’ve decorated it with real stars!”
The idea of hot chocolate and presents and dancing bunnies was enough for the girls, although to be fair, it would have been enough for me, too. Skinny Pete took them each by the hand and danced to the window. Together, the three of them heaved it open. Wind whistled in, carrying a flurry of snow. “Ready, girls?”
“Ready, Skinny Pete!” they chorused.
Skinny Pete looked over his shoulder and gave the camera a wide, perfect smile. His eyes crinkled. “Merry Christmas, babies! If you’re not too good, maybe next year I’ll take you to the Winter Wonder Woodlands!”
With that, they clambered onto the windowsill and jumped.
I heard two thuds and a young child’s moan. Then the wind gusted again, its icy shriek drowning whatever might have followed.
The screen faded to black, then slowly came back to life; a languid, pulsating light that spread, revealing the kind of scene you only see in dreams: a towering Christmas tree lit with candles and an awe-inspiring assortment of ornaments, embellished here and there with what looked like Skinny Pete’s promised twinkling stars.
Deer pranced across the snow and rabbits ran rings around them. As we watched, the deer rose up on hind legs and began to move in a slow circle around the tree. The rabbits hopped to and fro, kicking up great skirls of snow as they joined the deer in their jerky, disjointed dance.
Skinny Pete peeked from behind the Christmas tree. He wasn’t smiling; in fact, he looked lifeless. Like a prop, or a puppet. His eyes gleamed dimly, a flat, featureless monochrome grey. The deer began to dance faster, great powerful haunches propelling them into strange, broken jumps. Their hooves hit the snow with soft thuds, punctuated by their shrill, pain-filled cries.
The screen faded slowly to black. Then the black disappeared, giving way to the hissing roar of TV snow.
“Whoa,” Charlie whispered. “That was some weird shit.”
Naturally, that weird shit became tradition, airing (as we discovered) every Christmas Eve at 11:13 p.m. Always just the four of us, my brothers and I watched Skinny’s Pete’s antics from our giant sectional in our equally giant living room, a room our mother had inexplicably decorated with moose art. It was oddly fitting: a semi-surreal accompaniment to the totally surreal Yuletide Special.
Each year, Skinny Pete hosted a new special, except they all looked old—as my brothers put it, “black-and-white-times” old—and they all followed the same script: kids home alone on Christmas Eve, abandoned by their parents for parties or family or work, whisked away by Skinny Pete to the Winter Wonder Woodlands for hot chocolate, presents, and fairy tale animals.
Truth be told, I didn’t much like it. Skinny Pete creeped me out, and the episodes were achingly stupid and lacked any semblance of a story. The only interesting thing was the customary scene of the giant ornamented tree at the end with the twisted, cavorting deer.
My brothers loved it, though; Jake especially. Charlie adored it for its sheer weirdness. Nicky regarded it with loving terror.
We watched it for six Christmas Eves straight. Same title card, same orchestral swell of Christmas music, same Skinny Pete, with his Santa hat, deformed face, and model-tier smile.
The year after our sixth special, things started to change.
I was sixteen and had suddenly outgrown my brothers. Things that had amused me only months before were suddenly intolerable. Without any real rhyme or reason, I decided that Jake, now fourteen, had evolved into a raging asshole. Twelve-year-old Charlie was okay, I grudgingly admitted, but not for long, because he was falling more under Jake’s influence with every passing day. At ten, Nicky was still sweet. He was the baby, and the babies are always the easiest to handle. But he was far from perfect. He stole from the kids at school, ran away at recess, picked fights. None of it was new, but it was newly infuriating.
Needless to say, by the time the seventh Christmas Eve rolled around, my brothers and I were all seething piles of resentment. Charlie and Nicky were still reasonably close—in fact, they’d been playing video games together that entire Christmas Eve—but Jake hid in his room. I only emerged to cook grilled cheese sandwiches before returning to my own room.
Later that night, with a pang of overwhelming melancholy, I realized this would be the first night in almost half my life that my brothers and I hadn’t nestled together to watch Skinny Pete’s exquisitely pointless arthouse antics.
It didn’t help that I could hear Charlie and Nicky from the room next door, making jokes and imitating the ridiculous dialogue. “If you aren’t too good,” Charlie trilled in an eerie impression of Skinny Pete, “Maybe next year I’ll take yeewoo to the Winter Wonder Woodlands!”
I banged on the wall. “Go to sleep!”
Nicky giggled as Charlie mumbled something I couldn’t make out. I rolled my eyes, but let it go. Let them be dipshits. They were preteen boys, after all. What else were they supposed to be?
After a moment’s silence, they exploded into laughter again, followed by moronic giggling, pointless swear words and that stupid Skinny Pete impression. With a growl, I threw on my coat and went outside for a walk.
It was beautiful: snowy and quiet, the rolling landscape broken only by snow-laden pines and the bare skeletons of elegant oaks and the occasional lonesome house. The sky spread overhead, blanketed with a mad swirl of stars. It looked like a fairy tale. Like the Winter Wonder Woodlands.
I felt another pang of melancholy. What was I thinking? What was I doing? It was Christmas Eve! The most magical night of the year, filled with good will and cheer and happy shit. And here I was, running away from the most important people in my life.
It took a while—maybe as much as an hour—but eventually, I swallowed my puerile pride and went back home. It was five past eleven. I felt an unexpected swell of excitement. It wasn’t too late. We still had time to catch Skinny Pete’s special.
I knocked on Nicky and Charlie’s door. “Guys?” I asked. I cracked open the bedroom door. It was pitch-dark and still, with only a box fan to break the silence.
I thought about waking them up, but why? They were asleep at a reasonable hour for once.
So I crept down the hall and knocked on Jake’s door. “Hey.”
“It’s time for Skinny Pete’s Christmas Special.”
“I don’t want to watch it with everybody.”
I rolled my eyes. “It’s just me. The little boys are asleep.”
This was enough to coax Jake down to the TV. I switched it on and flipped through channels while Jake adjusted the antenna.
We found the right channel just as the orchestral Christmas music swelled.
Already a head taller than me, but lean as a rake, Jake plopped down beside me, smiling despite himself as Skinny Pete’s grotesque face filled the screen.
“Merry Christmas, babies!” Skinny Pete trilled. “I have a surprise for you tonight! A brand-new Yuletide Special, my very first in years!”
The film did not look much fresher though, as if it had long since gone to seed, and was now being played following a chance discovery in a deceased dotard’s attic. The camera pulled back, revealing a large living room with a giant sectional, a hundred pieces of moose memorabilia, and a huge oil painting of a familiar snow-capped mountain.
Cold nausea began to brew in my guts as I realized that we were looking at our living room.
“See this house? It’s a wonderful house. Every bit as nice,” he guffawed, pointing at the camera, “as the house you’re in right now!”
Skinny Pete whipped around and pranced down the hall. He stopped at my parents’ door. He tapped it; it opened as if opened from within, as always, revealing their austere room. “Empty! Gone to work, on Christmas Eve of all nights! Nothing new there, right, babies?”
He scrunched up the left side of his face in an exaggerated wink, then returned to the hallway and tiptoed to my bedroom. He tapped twice, whereupon the door swung wide. It was worse than déjà vu, seeing my room displayed on the TV screen in old-fashioned black and white. “Nobody home?” Disappointment marred his face, quickly replaced with disgust. His lip curled, twisting his face into something horrific. “She knows. She knows better, and she still left them all alone on Christmas Eve, of all nights? What is she, a grownup?” He slammed my door furiously, then pranced to Jake’s room, where he paused. “We don’t talk about him,” Skinny Pete whispered conspiratorially, long fingers grazing the closed door almost lovingly. “He’s what those who speak the common, vulgar parlance call a dick.”
I wanted to ask if Jake was also seeing this, but he was staring slack-jawed at the screen; proof enough that I wasn’t alone.
Skinny Pete tittered, then crept on to Nicky and Charlie’s room.
With a flourish, Skinny Pete threw the door open. Nicky and Charlie looked up, startled. They were playing video games. Polygon characters and blindingly bright landscapes filled their TV screen.
“What?” Charlie shrieked. “No way. No fucking way!”
“Language.” Skinny Pete wagged his spindly finger. “Babies, do you know who I am?”
“Jake?” Charlie swiped at Skinny Pete’s face and missed. “Quit messing around!”
Nicky quavered, “You’re Skinny Pete.”
“That’s right!” Skinny Pete spread his arms wide. “Skinny Pete, come to whisk you away to the Winter Wonder Woodlands for hot chocolate, dancing deer, happy hoppy rabbits, and more presents than you can count, all tucked under the most magnificently Christmassy tree in the whole wide universe!”
“No way,” Charlie repeated. “This is a dream.”
Skinny Pete turned around and mugged at the camera. “Yes! A dream come true!”
“Who are you talking to?” Nicky asked the intruder.
Skinny Pete’s smile grew even wider. He winked conspiratorially at the audience—at me— then turned back to them. “Why, I’m talking to all the wonderful folks left at home this fine-as-glühwein Yuletide Eve!”
“Dude,” a dumfounded Nicky whispered.
“Now,” Skinny Pete said, “are you ready to accompany me to the Winter Wonder Woodlands?”
Charlie swiped at Skinny Pete’s face again. Skinny Pete didn’t try to dodge this time; Charlie snagged his skin and pulled, clearly under the impression that it was a mask. It parted from Skinny Pete’s skull with a wet, shudder-inducing crackle, leaving a dark oozing mess where human features should have been.
Charlie began to scream. Hopping in place, Skinny Pete burst out laughing and clapped his hands as Nicky dissolved into tears.
The screen faded abruptly to black.
Before I could react, it pulsed back to life, light flickering like a candle, growing until it illuminated a familiar scene: Skinny Pete’s fabulously towering tree lit with myriad stars and candles, surrounded by deer and milling rabbits.
As if sensing my attention, the deer rose painfully onto their hind legs and began their jittery, broken dance. Rabbits hopped toward them and began to circle around their hooves.
Through the deer’s cavorting legs, I caught glimpses of a body propped against the tree. Boy-sized and terribly familiar, with an overlong neck, as if he’d been hanged.
I recognized him immediately, even though I didn’t want to.
The dance grew feverishly fast as the deer began to bleat and cry. As they capered faster and faster, Charlie’s body began to move. It jerked upward as if he were an empty sack filled with rats. Up and up, side to side, until he was on his feet. His head flopped forward on his overstretched neck, bringing his face into view. His eyes gleamed, flat and monochrome like dirty glass. After a while, his jaw began to move, rolling strangely under his skin. Suddenly it stretched wide. With several sharp cracks and pops, it swung all the way down to the ground.
Then, from that impossibly gaping maw vomited a great black mass, and everything went dark, breaking the TV’s spell.
Jake and I ran upstairs to Nicky and Charlie’s room and threw the door wide. The sash window was all the way up—something I hadn’t noticed when I peeked in earlier. Wind and snow wafted through, turning the room into an icebox. Jake switched on the light, illuminating blood-spattered sheets. On the floor was a wet, crumpled mass of grey. I picked it up. It was fleshy and wet. I spread it out and immediately flung it away with a shriek:
Skinny Pete’s grey, grinning face.
Jake raced to the window and looked down. He recoiled and screamed.
I ran after him, peering over the sill, and burst into tears.
Nicky’s twisted body lay partially buried in blood-streaked snow. His eyes were missing, and the wet, dark holes were already crusted with fresh white powdered snow.
The coroner kept Nicky’s body for months. We didn’t get to bury him until June. They never found Charlie at all.
Jake got into drugs within the year. He fought as best he could, but very few people, let alone teenage boys, are strong enough to defeat the one thing that brings them comfort. He died last year. Overdose, they said. But I think it was suicide.
Sometimes I want to follow, but I can’t do that to my parents. They already blame themselves for everything that happened.
I’ll tell you the truth, though. It’s an ugly, senseless truth, but I think most truths are just that: Every Christmas Eve, starting at about eleven, I turn on my old TV and start scanning through those weird channels. Bitch Parrot lives on, but Lolita Lady Tea Party hasn’t aired in over ten years. Neither has the man who stares into the camera for an hour straight.
Neither has Skinny Pete’s Christmas Special.
But I search through the channels anyway, every Christmas Eve, hoping to stumble upon Skinny Pete’s terrible, twisted face and beautiful smile.
It is Christmas Eve, so I will search again tonight. It’s my ritual, my tradition. A lonely, solitary tradition with no good will or cheer. I don’t know why. I don’t know what I’m hoping for.
But whatever it is, I hope I find it.