Dino crept down the carpeted stairs in his footy pajamas, making no noise whatsoever. He had to be careful. This was a life or death situation. He was an anxious child, and whenever Dino told Mom or Dad that things were a life or death situation, which was often, they would tell him not to worry so much, that his imagination was getting the better of him.
But this was really, really a life or death situation.
Dino reached the tile floor of the hall and tiptoed over to the cased opening leading into the living room. He pressed himself against the wall, his heart pounding, and peered around the corner. There it was, by the fireplace; the object of his terror. The Christmas Tree.
It was massive, almost eight feet tall, filling an entire corner of the room. The star topper brushed the ceiling, and its broad base of dark-green branches filled the space between the mantel and the armchair. Dino stared at it, his eyes wide. Almost every square inch of the thing was draped and encrusted with ornaments – thick ropes of tinsel and beads; tchotchkies and doodads of every size and description; colored lights that strobed on and off hypnotically. It was beautiful. Beautiful, but deadly.
Dino's eyes strayed to what lay below the tree. There were presents stacked there, two feet deep – a potential treasure trove for a seven year old boy. One box was larger than the others, wrapped in emerald green paper and stuffed almost entirely under the tree's branches. It was the precise size and shape, Dino knew, of a box containing a Cryptocon action figure, specifically the AwesoMaster, with real triple-blaster action and laser-skates, for which Dino had been begging for the past three months.
Somehow the tree knew which present Dino wanted the worst. It knew, and it purposefully tucked that present deep underneath itself, to lure Dino in close, to make himself vulnerable. Dino wanted to shake that box so badly, to make sure that was what it really was, maybe even peel up the tape and peek. But he dared not.
The tree stirred, sighing and settling itself a little squarer in its base. It shifted its upper branches, its ornaments jouncing and sparkling enticingly. Then it belched, loud and deep, and its concealed maw made smacking noises as it settled down, patiently, to wait.
Little boys would come. They always did.
Realizing the tree was awake, Dino came out of hiding. He didn't cross the threshold into the living room, but he stood awkwardly at the entrance, in full few. Shakily, he pointed at the presents under the tree.
"I… I just wanna look at those," he said. The tree said nothing.
"I'm not gonna open any," added Dino.
The tree chuckled, its branches convulsing, the glittery snowflake ornaments bouncing all over the place. One decoration, a clear globe containing tiny snowman, fell off one of the low branches and rolled onto the hearth rug. Delicately, one of the slender tinsel strands disentangled itself from the tree and reached out to pick up the fallen ornament. It dexterously replaced it on its hook, then wound its shimmering tentacle back up on its branches.
In the corner was a broom. Dino grabbed it and advanced on the tree. "Now don't make any trouble for me," he warned. "I'm just gonna poke a present loose so I can look at it."
The tree growled, full-throated. Four of its tentacles snapped free, and the tree leaned towards Dino and lunged. Two of the tentacles snatched the outstretched broom away and snapped it like a matchstick. Another lashed at Dino's ankles, and a heavy strand of pearls flicked at his face. Whimpering, Dino recoiled just in time, fleeing to the hall once more. Disappointed, the tree pawed at the place on the floor where Dino's feet had been standing. It picked up the two pieces of the broom, held them above the tree's upper half, and slowly fed them into its maw, the entire tree shaking as it chewed. It belched again and then settled down to stand guard, once more, over the presents that served as its treasure, and bait.
Dino was close to tears. "I just want to look!" he wailed. The tree made no reply. Dino looked at it from around the cased opening. Then he had an idea.
Dino went up to his room and dug in his closet. He found the remote control truck his uncle had given him for his birthday. It was a Dirty Dawg, with 4-wheel drive action and a bumper-eye camera that sent a small picture to the controller . Dino put a charged 14V battery pack into it and put fresh D-cells in the remote control. Then he slipped back down the stairs. He set up the truck on the floor and sat on the stairs. Dino engaged the controls and sent the truck whining down the hall to the entrance of the living room.
The remote control truck peeked inside. Through the camera, Dino could see that all was basically as he had left it in that room. The tree was perfectly still, as it always was when adults were around, lying in wait like a true ambush predator. Dino put the truck in its lowest gear and barely pressed on the forward lever.
With a barely audible drone, the truck crept forward, inches per second. The image of the living room table grew in Dino's display, then vanished off to the right, as the tree swelled and filled the picture.
Dino paused and panned the truck's camera-eyes up. The tree was still not moving, even though the truck was easily in reach of its arms. If the tree didn't recognize the truck as prey, perhaps Dino could drive right up to the base. Perhaps he could push a present loose, sliding it to the hall where Dino could safely reach it. Dino engaged the truck and it crept forward again.
Suddenly the angle of the camera skewed somewhat, and the truck stopped moving. Instead of the low drone of the engaged engine, Dino heard the high pitched whine of the wheels rotating freely. "Oh, no," he moaned. Putting down the controller, Dino tiptoed back to the entrance to the living room and peeked inside.
Two feet away from the tree, the truck had gotten hung up. One of the presents had fallen off the pile; it was a low box that looked suspiciously like it might hold a shirt from JC Penney's. The truck had gotten high-centered on it, and its wheels were spinning in the air. Dino cursed silently. The good news was, the tree didn't seem to be reacting to it. Dino thought, if I can just knock the truck loose, maybe this plan will still work.
There was a can of tennis balls on the kitchen counter. Dino retrieved them and popped the lid loose, then ran back to peek into the living room. The tree, he thought, seemed to be sleeping; its boughs appeared to rise and fall rhythmically, and was that a wheezing kind of snore he heard? Gingerly, Dino reached around the corner and threw the first ball.
It landed wide of the truck, bouncing into the fireplace and rattling around. The tree seemed to stir, snorting and smacking its hidden maw, before settling itself down and resuming its rest.
Dino considered his target. It was pretty far away, and also the living room table partially blocked his shot. Perhaps, he thought, rolling the ball would be a better option. He risked exposing himself to view, standing openly in the room entrance, and lined up on his target like a bowler. He rolled the tennis ball as hard as he could; it shot under the legs of the living room table and hit the Dirty Dawg dead on.
The truck lurched but then tilted back, its wheels still not touching the floor. Almost! thought Dino. So close. But he had to get closer, that was it. He would have to take a bit of a risk. If he could improve his angle on the target, just get a little nearer, he could bean that thing and it would be loose. Dino was good at Little League baseball; he knew he could free up his truck. He just needed to get a little, tiny bit nearer.
Dino checked the tree to make sure it was still quiet. The tree was breathing heavily and slowly again, and the faintest of whistles was emerging from its maw. Dino took a step into the room, and then another. The tree was ten feet away, but his view of the truck was still blocked. Dino took two steps to the left, then another one forward. He ducked down. The armchair now shielded him partially from the tree. His shot on the truck was clear. Dino edged right up to the chair and took careful aim.
The tree moved.
It was a peaceful holiday scene in Dino's living room. The soft blinking lights of the tree illuminated the otherwise dim room, making it a festive scene. An evergreen wreath was draped across the top of the window blinds. A stuffed Santa stood in the corner. Ceramic Nativity Scene figures had been artfully arrayed on the living room table. And from the mantel, the bulging stockings had been hung with care.
One of them writhed.