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Dec. 9, 2020

Ep.60 – Welcome to Tiny Christmas, Iowa! - The Secret Santa Here is DEADLY

Ep.60 – Welcome to Tiny Christmas, Iowa! - The Secret Santa Here is DEADLY

Episode Notes

An overworked business woman takes a new job in the midwest winter wonderland town of Tiny Christmas, Iowa. As her Christmas spirit starts to warm up like a hot cup of cocoa something isn't quite right and giftwrap isn't all that's hiding things.

Welcome to Tiny Christmas, Iowa! by Michelle Adler

Music by Ray Mattis

Produced by Daniel Wilder

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I let out a sigh as my Uber passed the "Now Entering Tiny Christmas Iowa" sign. "According to the sign it's the Tiniest most Christmasiest place in all of Iowa!" My Uber driver Ajeet chuckled, sensing my displeasure.  "I'm sure it's just as Christmasy as all fuck" I say, trying to come off cheery and almost succeeding until that curse word at the end. I lied on my interview.  I hate Christmas, I hate the midwest, the only thing I know about Iowa is that it’s a Slipknot album, and I have never designed a window display in my life. I am just an unemployable, grumpy, freelance graphic designer from New York City, trying to find any work that isn’t stocking shelves at a grocery store.  To be honest, I didn’t realize the position was out of state until after I’d applied. I’d initially intended to turn the job down as I’d never had any desire to live anywhere other than the city that never sleeps. The high-rise condos, rats, street vendors, homeless people on every street corner, bodegas also on every corner, and constant bustle are things I’ve lived for, but at this point, maybe it’s time to stop pretending I could make it in NYC anymore.  It wasn’t like I had a support system either. No family left and no friends to speak of.  I hadn’t even been on a date in the last two years. My social life revolved mostly around my interactions with my landlord, none of which were pleasant.  I heard that she was so happy I was leaving apparently she even threw me a goodbye party.. After I left. I lived for my work, but things had been so hard lately. Maybe It was time for me to give up.  Maybe it was time for me to start over. “Ma’am, that’s all good and fine, but we’re here.”  Ajeet said while simultaneously unlocking the doors. I hadn’t realized we’d even stopped… or that I was talking outloud.  I guess it had been awhile since I’d been around other people.   I started to open the door before even looking at where I was. When I did, I pulled it back shut. “This can’t be right,”  I mumbled, fumbling for my phone to pull up the address I’d been given.  I was sure I was supposed to be in front of a house, my new house, or, I don’t know, anything, but instead we sat in a desolate parking lot on the outskirts of what was hopefully the correct town at least. Though it looked anything but Christmassy. In front of me, bloomed an industrial complex with a small collection of seemingly long abandoned warehouses and factories.  I felt a jolt of fear ping through my body.  It was quiet here, too quiet. Quiet enough for me to be raped and murdered without anyone noticing.  “This is as far as I can take you,” I jumped as I realized Ajeet was already grabbing my luggage from the trunk. “What? Why?” So no murder then? “It’s a small town and a beautiful day.  Why not take a nice stroll through town on your way? I think the farmer’s market goes till 3..” He dodged. “No.. I-I don’t want to walk and it’s 30 degrees!” I said while repositioning the luggage he’d removed back into the uber,  “I just want you to finish driving me. What’s the big deal, it’s your job for christ’s sake!” Ajeet paused. “Listen, I don’t go in there. Tiny Christmas is not a town for people like me” He pointed to his turban.  “They’re racist…?” “I don’t know what you want to call it, but I just don’t want to spend the afternoon stuck there while they try to convert me… again.  Last time I didn’t even get to take a lunch break and I’m really hungry today, so you’re on your own.” He said as he finished re-removing my luggage. “Like I said, small town, very friendly, I’m sure you’ll have no problem finding the place.” “W-well, I personally respect the Islamic religion” I chased him as he walked back around to the drivers side door and pulled it open, “I’ll even buy you lunch, how’s that?!” “Nope. Therapist said I need to start defining my boundaries or people are going to walk all over me for the rest of my life, “He slammed the door and pressed the lock down, “Enjoy your stay in Tiny Christmas, I’m sure you’ll have a wonderful time.” With that he and his Nissan Altima, pulled out of the lot. “Wait! You can’t be serious!!” “And I’m Sikh, you asshole!” He called back as he sped away. I stood there shivering in the cold, confused and becoming increasingly angry at my predicament. “No, you’re the asshole,” I grumbled as I grabbed my luggage and resigned myself to walking into town.  As I’d mentioned before, I was basically left to fend for myself in an abandoned wasteland.  A beautiful young woman such as myself should not have to subject herself to such a dangerous situation.  I pushed through the dystopian scenery with a confident stride, preparing myself for whatever unsavory situation lay ahead of me.  However when I finally rounded the last warehouse, I was not prepared for what I saw.  Ahead of me, across a set of train tracks, lay the most adorable little downtown I had ever laid my eyes on.  As I walked onward the air became filled with the scent of pine, cinnamon, and roasted chestnuts.  The streets were packed with happy looking townsfolk, each one going out of their way to say hello as I passed. And Ajeet was right, there was a farmers market!  As nice as this all was, I have to admit I was a little uncomfortable with the level of friendliness and Christmas I was experiencing. I felt a bit of guilt well up inside me for not immediately being drawn into the merriness. I managed to brush it off quickly, though.  I wasn’t wrong, they were the ones that were wrong. As I slowly became increasingly annoyed at the pleasantries I happened upon a coffee shop. “Welcome to Christmas Coffee!” An overweight elderly woman hollered in an alarmingly cheery tone as the door jingled closed behind me. "Would you be able to point me in the direction of 616 Pine St?" I am an unemployed graphic designer with no chit chat skills. "Oh! I know who you are! You're the new window display coordinator from the big city!"  "Well yes, and I'm running late--" "Oh sweetie, you look just about chilled to the bone! Did some ethnic cab driver refuse to take you the whole way?" She asked. I wondered how common of a thing that was. "Here you go," she poured a cup of coffee and slid it to me "free coffee, on the house! I'm Amanda by the way." I took the coffee avoiding her outstretched arm, "that's really very nice of you, I'll be sure to stop back when I'm settled, but I'm running late right now, so.." Yeah, I was never coming back. "Oh right, 616 Pine was it? Make a left then it's two blocks down. You couldn't even miss it if you wanted to!" I thanked her and sped out the door before she could continue to waste my time. I took a sip of the coffee as I walked out into the holiday pandemonium and stopped dead as the warmth hit my tongue. This was... the best cup of coffee I'd ever had in my life. It was rich and full bodied with notes of cinnamon, allspice, and honey. It brought back a flood of childhood memories. Drinking hot chocolate after school as my mother brushed the snow out of my hair, watching movies huddled by the fire, my mothers warmth as she rocked me to sleep. God, I missed her. If only, I thought, I could have something like that again in a real, non coffee based sense.. Wait, what was I thinking? I am a powerful, competent, unemployed graphic designer.  I’d never wish for a family, I convinced myself, brushing the tears from my eyes.  I went to take another sip of coffee, but I was beginning to feel nauseous, so instead I dropped it in the next available garbage can. Amanda was right, this place was hard to miss. Two blocks down was almost a full mile away and basically in the woods. The quant tutor with 616 scrolled across the door was the only building on the entire street. As I walked up the driveway, I realized how eerily quiet it had become. I hadn’t seen a single car pass me in the last half mile.  I shivered as the wind whipped up, this was the perfect place for an unsuspecting young woman to be raped and murdered. I was all alone.. No wait, I was being watched. “Well hello there, Rachel!” I jumped as the door of the house popped open to reveal a smiling middle aged man in a suit. “Oh. oh, hi…” I tried to collect myself, “You must be--” “Correct! I’m Jake from the agency, so glad you were able to find your way here! I was getting a little worried that you hadn’t been able to find a ride into town.”  “Funny you should say that---” “Anyway, this is the place!” He cut me off, holding the door open beckoning me inside. The interior, despite having a certain charm, was covered in a layer of dust and white sheets. The air had a musty quality that signaled that this place had been long forgotten. I sighed, I do not like cleaning.  “As mentioned earlier,” he continued, “it’s $250/month and you’re responsible for paying all utilities as well as any yard work or snow removal that needs to be done. Also, I think there are Christmas lights in the basement so you won't even need to buy any to decorate.” “I won’t be needing them, but thank you, I just want to settle in.” “Oh,” He seemed crushed, “Well, they’re there in case you change your mind.  It would probably go a long way to making the place feel like home.” “Umm thanks… well, how long has it been vacant?” I slid my fingers through the dust on the fireplace mantle and almost gagged at the many years of dead skin cells. “‘Bout five years, I think?” “That’s.. Why so long?” “I couldn’t really tell you, I’m just a real estate agent, I don’t own it or anything,” He shrugged. “Oh.” “Well, I mean, if I had to guess, maybe it was the murders.” “Murders?” I parrotted. See! I knew I was going to be raped and killed! “Sorry, I misspoke, disappearances is what I mean. It’s not really murder without a body.” Jake said matter of factly, “But anyway, that was a long time ago and I heard that tenant was like, really into meth, so it was likely drug related.” “Wait, didn’t you say---” “Anyway, here are the keys,” He handed them to me while also turning the doorknob “You should be good to go! Have a wonderful life in Tiny Christmas!” And with that he was already halfway down the walk. “...Murders?”

I had an unremarkable first night despite wondering just how many “disappearances” Jake had accidentally inferred. I tried not to concentrate on it too much, I was starting my new job the next morning after all.

Holidays And More! occupied the largest building in town. It was two floors of highly polished marble and glass. The first floor held the perfect area for a window display, but was currently empty. “This will be my canvas,” I thought.  I put my hand up to the glass wistfully only to have it slapped from the otherside of the glass by a burly man with a beard.  I jumped back and he let out a chuckle and motioned me to come inside. “I’m Mr. Santan the general manager,” The burly man explained, giving me a firm handshake. “Great to meet you in person. Thank you so much for the job.” “We’re just so pleased you accepted it.  The entire board was unanimous in the decision to hire you. Your plan for a Christmas display that gets us back to our roots is genius!”  “Thank--” Before I could finish he pulled me in for a hug. “Say no more, Ms. Adler, we’re just so happy we can add you, another true believer of the magic of Christmas, to our wonderful family!” He said while patting me on the back. I recoiled slightly and he seemed to catch my discomfort and let me go.  “Sorry, I just love Christmas so much, I get carried away sometimes.” “Thats… I just, I should probably get to work, right?” I deflected. “Oh, of course!  There’s only two weeks till the big reveal after all. I’m sure every second counts.”  Mr. Santan led me over to my workspace and introduced me to my assistant, Tom Thompson, a tall and slightly too handsome man in a red vest. I felt.. Uncomfortable looking at him for too long, like I might, I don’t know, blush if I did?  “You know Tom, you could take notes from Ms. Adler here,” Mr. Santan said before leaving, “Up your holiday game a little and maybe you’ll be the next one promoted!” Tom looked towards me and let out a little sigh, “Yes sir.”

On that first day, we spent most of our time going through boxes, taking inventory of what supplies the store already had so I’d know what we would need to buy. “So,” I broke the silence, “Mr. Santan wants you to up your holiday game, eh?” “Yeah, I guess he’s noticed I haven’t been my normal cheery self for that last.. Couple years” He seemed as surprised by that timeline as I did. “That’s a long time not to be happy.” Like I’d know what happy was.  I was a weirdly employed graphic designer caught in what was increasingly feeling like a low budget Christmas movie. “I guess so, I just haven’t been myself since my wife died.” Ohh, he was single and not even the divorced kind!  Widowed, the good kind of single! I stopped going through the box of christmas lights, my hands were shaking. “Yeah, it was really tragic. She hit a deer..”  He was going on about his dead wife, but all I could concentrate on was my own heartbeat as it began to speed up.  Why did I care if this guy was single? What was happening to me? I concentrated on regaining my composure.  I just needed to take it easy. This had been a big move, a huge change, and I’d lost my bearings. It was perfectly reasonable that I would feel confused and even want to fit in. Things would get less weird once I was used to my surroundings.  “...and that’s when we took her off life support.” Oh god, he was still going, “I just don’t think I’ll ever really love anyone again, you know?” “I get it, but you’re young, you’ll meet someone again when you’re ready.” I tried to console.  He blushed slightly. “You’re a really good listener, you know? Hey! Would you like to come over for dinner on Sunday? We make a big meal after church so it’s always nice to have some extra company.” “Oh no, no, I don’t want to impose, we don’t really know each other and--” “Please? Think of it as me repaying your kindness for letting me dump all my problems on you like this.” He begged. “Well, when you put it that way, sure.”

After a relatively uneventful week, I awoke from a particularly weird nightmare at 3am Saturday morning to the sound of talking. Frustrated and groggy, I did what any good New Yorker would.  I pushed the window open with a level of violence that this house had probably never seen and leaned out into the dark. “Shut the fuck up or I’ll fucking come down there murder you!” I yelled, the, slammed the window shut, and lay back down. It was quiet for a minute, but then, was that chanting? By that point my complete consciousness had returned and I realized that I was no longer in an apartment, I was in a house.  I was in a completely isolated house. No one should be outside.  I lay there in silence, trying to get a grasp on what I was hearing. Chanting? Crying? Maybe it was a wild animal, I thought. I’d heard foxes kind of sound like people. I honestly didn’t want it to be people or animals, both seemed like they could be dangerous and for the first time since the day I’d moved in, I considered what the word “disappearances” could possibly mean.  After what may have been hours the strange noises dissipated, but I did not sleep for the rest of the night. In the morning, I decided maybe I would put up those Christmas lights. The house had no exterior lighting at all and seeing as it had sat unoccupied, there was a chance someone could still think it was vacant and try to break in.. if the noises I’d heard were people anyway.  If it was foxes or wolves or something, the light should deter them too. Despite being opposed to my core beliefs, I’d do it for my safety. I found a box with one whole strand of lights in it in the basement. Just enough to do the awning out front.  I figured it was better than nothing and it also meant I didn’t have to spend all day putting them up, so win win. There was however, another box in the basement.  I’d thought it was more Christmas decorations originally since there was a piece of garland at the top, but when I brought it upstairs I realized that what I had really found was a gun. A shotgun of some sort, to be more specific. Along with it was a little box with just a few bullets in it, seven, I counted.  I’d never really handled a gun before and felt conflicted about realizing that it had been in the house with me for the last week. Who’s was it and why would they leave it, anyway?  Shit, for all I knew, all houses in Iowa came with guns.  After some careful contemplation and youtube videos, I decided to keep it by the door, loaded, in case I did end up running into whatever I had heard the night prior. When I heard the noises again that night, I at least managed to convince myself I could protect myself and got the smallest bit of sleep. By the time Tom came to pick me up on Sunday, I was already exhausted and a little jumpy. “You look tired, are you ok?” He asked as I fastened my seatbelt. His genuine concern made my heart feel all warm for some reason. “Yeah, just insomnia.” “I used to have that real bad when Joanne first died.  It’s hard being in that house all alone, huh?” “Not really. Why would it be hard?”  “I just guess I find being alone really difficult. Everyone needs someone to hold at night.” He informed me. Was he suggesting he wanted to hold me at night?  We arrived at his parents' lovely little colonial only a few minutes later.  I may have neglected to say this, but he’d been living with his family since his wife died.  I thought it was a little weird, but I also knew grief could really mess up a person, so it was better I didn’t judge.  Anyway, the house was all decked out in a literal ton of blinking christmas lights, outside and in. It was really too distracting and tacky for my taste. His mom and dad hugged me immediately as we entered and thanked me for taking such good care of their son. Did they think we were a couple?  Did I want us to be a couple? What? No! We had a nice dinner and his family told me stories about what Tom was like growing up. After dinner they wanted to sing Christmas carols so his mom gathered us around the piano as his father played. I don’t know any full carols, but I managed to stumble through alright. We laughed a lot. It was.. It was really nice to feel like I was part of something again. It made me miss my parents terribly.  I wanted so much to feel safe and loved like that again. Maybe, I thought, just maybe the Thompsons could be my new family. Maybe this place could be my new something to be a part of. We kissed my driveway before I got out of the car.  He told me he was falling for me. Maybe I was falling for him too.

I woke up in pure panic at 3am. I wasn’t even aware of why I was so scared for a minute until the events of the evening came back to me.  Something was terribly wrong with me. And the noises were back.

The next week was crunch time. We had to make this display the most wonderful the town had ever seen. We could do it, I knew we could. Tom and I spent most of our waking hours together making sure everything was perfect for the big reveal on Friday night. Well, he spent most of his waking hours, I mean. He was probably sleeping, I was still hearing those weird noises. However, I was beginning to think that living in the country just meant hearing unexplained sounds at night. It was nothing to worry about and I had that gun just in case, which I’d decided to leave by my front door indefinitely. Plus, Tom and I were considering moving in together, so he would be able to protect me. Everything was ok. Everything was better than expected. Friday went wonderfully. Mr. Santan praised us both and offered me a permanent position which I gladly accepted.  I invited Tom over that evening to celebrate. “So are you going back to NYC for Christmas?” He asked me as we cuddled on the couch. Christmas was just five days away, wasn’t it? “Nah, I’m just gonna get some Chinese food and watch movies.” “That sounds really sad, Rachel, you should come over to my house. We always decorate our tree on Christmas eve then we do presents in the morning. You can sleep over, it’ll be fun!” He suggested. “My family loves you, so I’m sure they’d be so happy to have you.” “That sounds really nice, but actually, I think I just want to take it easy.” “Oh.” His expression fell. “No, it’s not like that, but I’ve…” I needed to be honest with the man I loved, “I’ve been lying to you. I’m not..” There was that chanting again. “Lying?” He asked, but then saw the fear on my face. “What’s wrong?” “Do you hear that? What is that?” I said in a whisper, my voice shaking. Tom listened for a second.  “The singing? That’s carolers isn’t it?” I held my breath to try to ascertain what I was hearing.  It was getting closer this time. Tom was right.  It was people singing. “Carolers” I breathed. “Yup, the weekend before Christmas they go out and sing at people’s houses.  Didn’t you have that in New York?” I shook my head. Had this been what I was hearing the whole time? Carolers practicing somewhere? “It sounds like they’re right outside.” I jumped as the doorbell rang, but convinced myself it was ok to answer it. Outside were seven of the townsfolk decked out in Christmasy attire. As soon as they saw me they began to sing. I wasn’t familiar with the song, but it was just so beautiful that tears started coming to my eyes. Here I’d been all worked up about people singing Christmas songs. This wasn’t NYC, nothing was going to try to hurt me here, no one had been anything but kind to me. I stood in the doorway listening for a long time, just taking in the joy. I let the New Yorker part of me fade. It was ok now, I was ok. Maybe I should go get some money for them or something, I thought. That was the least I could do for this kind of spiritual awakening, right?  I was about to turn around to find my purse when something stopped me.  I stopped me. What the fuck was I doing? I was a savvy fucking new yorker, I didnt need this dumb shit. This wasn’t even what I all. What was I even doing with this boring, sad guy? I didn’t even like men and I hated Christmas carols! “Hey can you guys that's enough, you can stop now.”  I pleaded. "Really, please stop." No one seemed to hear me. I felt a deep primal fear rise up in my stomach. I needed to lie down or something. I needed them to stop singing already.  “Tom, can you--” I turned around just in time to see Tom lunge at me with a weird looking knife. Instinctively, I dodged and pushed him to the ground. I am a New Yorker who knows how to defend myself. I grabbed the shotgun. “Awwwww” The carolers grumbled in unison. “What the fuck is going on here?!?” I spat, clenching my weapon tightly. “You ruined everything, that’s what.” One of them moaned. I pointed my gun at the small crowd, “Are you trying to “disappear” me? Is that what this is?” “You know Tom, if you hadn’t waited so long…” One of them began.  Tom was now sulking on the ground behind me.  I was waving the gun wildly between him and the carolers now.  “I just wanted it to be perfect, I’m sorry guys.” Tom shrugged. “She’s gonna taste like shit now. Adrenaline fucks everything up,” another said. “Will someone please tell me what’s going on!?” I shouted. “Tell me or I kill every one of you!” Tom sighed, “We were just trying to teach you the true meaning of Christmas.” “By killing me?!” “Of course not. Think of all the love we showed you these past couple weeks, that’s the true meaning of Christmas!” I recognized this one, it was the woman from the Cafe. “We know you felt it, we could tell.” “Felt it? This- this isn’t me! What did you.. Have you been putting something in my food?” “Aw, sweetie, don’t be so paranoid, everything we gave you was simply made with love, something you’ve been sorely lacking.” Amanda explained. “Well, that and just a tiny bit of LSD.” The others nodded in agreement. “You fucking dosed me with LSD?!” “What we did, Rachel, was give you the best two weeks of your life and we even got you back in touch with your religion!” said Mr. Santan. “My what?!” “Now you can die happily!” Tom chimed in, now standing over me again with that knife, smiling manickly.  “I’m Jewish you assholes!” I screamed and shot a bullet into Tom’s confused looking face. His body thudded to the floor. “Oh man! How are we gonna explain this to everyone?” they whined as I turned my gun back on them, “Can we even sacrifice a Jew?” “You’re not sacrificing anyone.  If you try, I’ll blow all of your goddamn brains out.” I threatened, holding the shotgun mere inches from them, but they ignored my warning and continued discussing my murder, like I wasn’t even there. Fucking rude townies. “It’s not ideal, but where are we gonna find a christian this close to the ceremony?” Santan explained, “A Jew is probably better than nothing. Even if she is all upset and will probably taste like sadness.” “Hey! I bet I taste just fine!” What was I saying? I did probably taste like sadness. But that wasn’t the point, they were trying to kill me! I knew if I wanted to survive the night and ever see my actual home again, I was going to have to stand my ground and take those fuckers out then and there. I broke their disagreement with a single shot, fired directly into the chest of the weirdo closest to me. He fell to the ground in a motionless heap. That was finally the motivation the rest needed to actually come at me. But I was the one with the gun. “What? You’re not even going to try to rape me first?” I shouted as I fired mercilessly into them. Turns out it isn’t actually that hard to shoot people when they’re that close to you. I don’t know if I killed them all, but I certainly shot them enough to make it so they’d have a hard time chasing me if they survived. I ran as far away as I could get before calling you.  I don’t know if others are coming for me, but I’ll be ready if they do. I would have called the police, but I’m sure they’re in on it. You were right, that town is crazy. ”

Ajeet let out a sigh. How many times, he wondered, was he going to help someone flee from a crime scene? This couldn’t be worth the money. He’d be better off working for one of those takeout services. Yeah, he was going to sign up once he got home. No more transporting crazy people, just transporting food to crazy people.  “Wait, weren’t there 8 of them total?” He asked hoping this didn’t set her off,  “Didn’t you say that gun only had seven bullets? Doesn’t that mean you missed one?” Rachel thought for a second. Nope, she’d definitely shot 8 cultists, she’d counted. “I guess you could call it a Hanukkah miracle,” she giggled. Ajeet let out a fake laugh, not sure what she meant. “So.. airport then?” “Yeah, please.”

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