I opened one eye and tried to blink enough sleep away to see my daughter's face. She was stood next to my bed, clutching the teddy she had been inseparable from since she was two, and I expected to see a smirk playing on her beautiful lips. As my eyes adjusted to the half light of my bedroom, however, I saw tears where I expected to see mischief.
"Oh, for God's sake," I muttered, my voice still thick, and pushed the covers away. Had my husband been in the room at that point, I probably would have kicked him, but instead I pulled my bereft child into my arms and squeezed her as tightly as I could without hurting her tiny frame.
Once I felt her relax a bit into my chest, I pushed her away gently by her shoulders and looked into wide eyes that still glistened with grief.
"Listen to me, darling. Daddy and I control the elf. We move him in the evenings to make it look like he comes alive at night. I promise you it isn't real and I'm sorry we lied. I'm really sorry that you've been frightened."
Pete had been enjoying playing the Elf on the Shelf game as much as any young dad with social media accounts, and poor Kringle (as Meredith had christened our inanimate friend) had found himself in all sorts of compromising positions for the amusement of our social circle. However, there was one cast iron rule: always create a scene suitable for our five year old before she woke up. Last night it had been Pete's turn and he had clearly neglected to deconstruct his makeshift horror scene before leaving for work in the morning; on Christmas sodding eve of all days.
Meredith was looking at me doubtfully.
"Kringle did it, Mummy. He told me."
I sighed and ran my hand over my puffy face. My head was pounding.
"No, darling. He didn't. You were dreaming," I said, but Meredith just shook her head and pointed into the hallway that laid dark beyond my bedroom door. As I opened my mouth to speak again, we heard a shuffling in the gloom and Meredith dove under my duvet with a small, strangled yelp.
"It's just the cat," I mumbled, trying to sound more confident than I felt as I made my way towards the sound. I had owned Sooty for almost eight years and I had never once heard him scuffle around like that; it sounded sinister, threatening even. As I reached the hall, the unmistakably tinny smell of blood filled my nostrils and I gasped. I fumbled for the light switch, filling the corridor with fluorescence and immediately wished I hadn't.
Sooty was sprawled in a mangled heap on the carpet, his insides a vivid red against the normally light beige pile. And then I saw him, stood upright against the bannister, his blank eyed grin unchanged and yet somehow twisted into a menacing sneer.
"K-Kringle?" I managed, feeling both terrified and ridiculous all at once. I heard Meredith yelp again at the sound of his name and turned briefly to glance at her huddled shape before returning my gaze to the scene of horror before me. In that split second, Kringle had moved. He was right in front of me and his wiry little arm was reaching out for my leg.
As his felt hand made contact with my skin, I saw the truth about the elves and why there were sent. I saw Santa Claus, not the jolly old man from greetings cards, but a hulking mass of judgement, seething in his dank cave as he reviewed the behaviour of the human race over the course of our existence. As he toiled through years of war and pain and cruelty, he grew in size and his rage filled the cavern. I saw my own life in vivid colour: the fights, the affairs, the drinking, and I knew in that moment that it was over. Santa was not making a naughty list, he was preparing to wipe out the sinners and he had played the long game. The elves had been deployed to do his bidding, gradually infiltrating every home across the planet, and only the innocent were safe.
I thought of my baby girl, shaking with terror in my bed, and looked down at the red clad figure at my feet.
"What about Meredith?" I asked in a low, trembling voice.
"She is good," said the elf, his painted lips not moving.
"I am not," I admitted, hot tears spilling down my cheeks as I squeezed my eyes shut.
"No, you have been a very naughty girl," said the elf, before calling to the shape under the duvet, "say goodbye to Mummy, Meredith. Santa will see you in the morning..."