DARK SHADOWS ON THE EARTH • by Cat Rambo

I loved Christmas lights till I knew better. Loved to look out my kitchen window, down the hill, and see the lights twinkling, sparkling, lines going off and on, leading the eye in complicated cuneiform, punctuated with glowing candles and the faces of luminous angels.

When the new guy first moved in, three years ago, that Christmas was downright subdued by the standards he’d come to set, but even then everyone said Gaudy in whispers or sometimes not whispers, conversations on the street or at the bus stop, in the grocery checkout while buying tasteful pine wreaths and poinsettias in red and white and marbled pink.

No one said anything that first year, but in October they started talking about nipping it in the bud, gathering conscripts for a delegation sent the Sunday before Thanksgiving to ask him to tone it down that season. Do something a little more in fitting with the overall atmosphere of the neighborhood.

No one expected someone so dedicated to Christmas cheer to meet them wearing a dilapidated Santa suit with Kevlar showing underneath split seams, bedraggled red velvet. He was hostile, he was obdurate. He shouted, “Atmosphere? Just wait till you’re breathing methane!” And then he laughed and laughed, just before he punched Mr. Takenada from 830 Park Avenue in the face.

He would not explain his ways, let alone change them.

I mentioned something about it to my brother-in-law Arturo in Denver, and he said, “There’s one in every neighborhood, isn’t there? We have one, moved in a couple of years ago, and you wouldn’t believe the problems we’ve had.”

Even then, see, the clues were there. How could I have been such a fool?

I don’t know, but I was — even when Willa at work mentioned her own homeowner’s association having problems.

I wasn’t the only stupid one. You would have thought that someone in a satellite would have noticed the overall patterns. The pictograms formed by the display locations. Even if no one could read them. Even if no one realized they said, Almost ready.

And so we the neighborhood didn’t grasp the larger picture. We took that year’s display as war, not realizing it was literal. He expanded the gnome village, had them all over his lawn and garden, each one carrying a lantern. There were choirs of angels perched on the roof, in the garden, everywhere, even a big golden one next to his mailbox. And five Santas, each in a different location, with herds of reindeer and elves capering around him. Christmas carols blaring whenever it was legally possible. And the lights, all night, bright and twinkling and illuminating his display and the dark shadows it cast on the snow.

This year we thought we were prepared. Takenada had figured out the power lines: exactly where to snip, long enough to get in close and do additional snipping. Cut those wires enough times that he’d take a thousand years to splice them all back, he cackled. Takenada has always been one to hold a grudge. It was a rainy season, and we didn’t even have snow yet, just rhododendrons with leaves curling against the cold and dry leaves scrabbling at the ground as the wind scraped them away.

Rudolph and all the other reindeer had a feral look to them, and the candles the angels were holding looked more like laser pistols. We waited until a half hour before the dark, when the lights would snap on. We figured that was the closest to dark we’d get.

His defense system was in full working order. The gnomes swiveled, the lanterns flickering to life. The angels on the roof peered down and revealed fanged smiles. The Santas let out ear-splitting whoops, a discordant version of Jingle Bells.

We pushed forward, not understanding until it was too late.

They landed when all the lights across the city came on and unleashed the hunting robots. All those other Christmas figures came to life and joined them. By then Takenada had gone down screaming when that big golden angel sliced his throat with a razor-edged wing tip. I barely got away with my life; I was in no shape to resist when a patrol of elves rounded me up with some other resisters.

Did they pick that scheme because they thought we’d be vulnerable, filled with love and the spirit of the season and therefore unable to understand the attack until it was too late? Or was there some special humiliation, a particular way to score points in some enigmatic alien game we had no chance of understanding, scoring points for despoiling our childhood loves and turning the holiday into horror?

I do not know. Nowadays we toil in their factories, under the eyes of wise men and security Santas. Walking home at night, I see the angels swooping overhead, watching us, their lasers in their hands. They glow, the angels, and as they move, they cast dark shadows on the earth, and the shadows make their horrible glow all the stronger.


Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 150+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov’s, Clarkesworld Magazine, and Tor.com. Her short story, “Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain,” from her story collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012 and her first novel, Beasts of Tabat, appeared in 2015. She is the current President of SFWA (the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America). For more about her, as well as links to her fiction, see www.kittywumpus.net.


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 average 3.9 stars • 30 reader(s) rated this

Every Day Fiction

  • Paul A. Freeman

    Crikey. That’s one to read to the kids next Christmas Eve. Who can resist a bit of holiday horror? Not me. An enjoyable piece of alternative festive season fun.

  • Jeepers – where’s Dr Who when you need him? I’d watch that episode from behind a whole furniture department of sofas!

  • A 5-star concept, but its execution (no pun intended) put me more into editor mode than reader mode.

  • Sarah Crysl Akhtar

    Well–sorry. As Jeff said–great idea. But how’d we miss the caravans of factory-filling spaceships delivering sinister Santas? When and where did the first crop of bad neighbors touch down? And if, perhaps, each of ’em built a battalion of the conquering army in their own garages, then we’d surely have been able to confront them with our own technology.

    The loose wires need to be connected to a believable power source, and that wasn’t done here, and the formality of myth-speak waters down the horror considerably. Three stars.

  • Joseph Kaufman

    I thought this was utterly fantastic. The thought of neighborhood rebels joining forces as alien/fantasy oppressors was worth five stars already, and this had much more than just that.

  • Michael Stang

    Taken in by who this was written by, a heavyweight SFI Swashbuckler, I was ready with my very own childhood Asimov Space Rocket (I hear there is only 3 million left on the planet), and my personally Lucas signed laser. I was ready for you, Cat Rambo, but methinks this was not your best effort. I will put my toys away and wait for another day.

  • S Conroy

    Eek. This is what Christmas looks like when you’re just not in the mood. Good one.

  • What a strange and confusing story. It really didn’t make a lot of sense to me. After two full reads, I still don’t know what’s really going on here. And so many commas!

    I think I liked the concept. The writing, while confusing, was still enjoyable. Thanks for sharing.