The skies were powder blue when Paul Rourke’s plane touched down at Sarasota-Bradenton International Airport.  It was mid-December, before the holiday rush, and Paul easily navigated his way past the shops and restaurants in the airport to the baggage claim.

He paused like most tourists do at the large salt water fish tank just beyond the security checkpoint to watch the colorful fish swim back and forth.  It was calming, and like the palms that could be viewed swaying in the distance, reminded him he was back in Florida.

Barbara had told him this trip was a waste of time and money.  She had just visited a week before to check on things at their summer home in the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Ian.  Sarasota had been fortunate and was largely unscathed compared to the cities in the south like North Port and Fort Meyers that had suffered severe flooding and even numerous deaths from the storm’s fury.  

But damn it, even if they were undergoing a trial separation, this was still his property too, or at least half of it was, and he meant to inspect any damage for himself.

It was a short drive from the airport to the house and as Paul cruised around the popular St. Armand’s Circle the downtown shopping district seemed to barely have been impacted by the storm.  The bars and restaurants were crowded, and locals and tourists alike smiled as they made their way down the sidewalk.  

The summer house was on the waterfront side of South Washington Drive.  Paul eased the Cadillac CT4 into the deserted driveway and shut off the engine.  He was content to simply sit in the car for a moment and breathe it all in.  As Barbara had mentioned, the house and the grounds had suffered little damage.  There were a few small palms that had been recently planted to replace the older palm trees that had been uprooted.  Other than that, the home appeared to be untouched.

The house was a massive affair, far more house than Paul had ever wanted, but in the end, Barbara got her wish, and they purchased the home back in 2010.  It was all white, with floor to ceiling windows to provide as much light as possible.  The house had been built in the modern style, and the roof was flat instead of peaked.

Finally, Paul got out of the car and walked up to the house.  Barbara had already circled two of the small palms with Christmas lights and trimmed the door frame in a green garland during his previous visit.  The news was that she and her parents would be spending Christmas at the home—without him.

Fishing the keys out of his pocket, Paul opened the massive double doors.  They opened smoothly on well-oiled hinges, and the house was exactly as he had remembered it.  Despite his original misgivings about the place, Paul had to admit it had its charm. Outfitted with all of the modern amenities, Barbara had found a way to make it cozy with ornate rugs on the hardwood floors and oversized leather couches.

Paul could feel the pleasing sensation of the sun on his skin as sunlight poured into the home from the spacious floor to ceiling windows.  The artificial Christmas tree was already up and decorated.  Barbara didn’t leave much to chance.

Walking over to the fireplace, Paul chuckled as he spied a small figure on the mantle, the cliche “elf on a shelf”.  Satisfied with his survey of the main floor, he made his way upstairs to the bedroom.

The cleaning service had left the master bedroom immaculate.  Paul sat down heavily on the bed—the bed where he and Barbara had slept—and held his head in his hands.  His pride wouldn’t allow him to openly weep, so he instead granted himself a few muffled sobs and sighs.  He wished that Barbara was with him.  He wished that she would give up on the trial separation and come home to him.  He wished he knew that this would always be their summer home, not some asset on a balance sheet to be divided up by ruthless attorneys.

It was a cathartic moment, the culmination of travel, exhaustion, and heartache, and almost as suddenly as it had come over him it passed.

After all of the stress of the past few weeks, he needed to relax.  The house was equipped with a stocked bar, but before that, he wanted a short steam in the sauna.

He retrieved a towel from the linen closet and headed downstairs to the sauna.  In the small changing room, he undressed and wrapped the towel around his waist.  He turned up the steam and entered the small room, pouring some water over the rocks in the middle of the room for effect and then laying down on one of the wooden benches along the wall.

He covered his eyes to shut out the light and began to drift away.  Paul wasn’t sure how long he had been sleeping, but there was a click and suddenly the steam stopped hissing.  Uncovering his eyes, he bolted up, only to discover that the overhead lights were out as well.

What a time for the power to go out!  he thought.

But there was something else.  Something was in the room with him.  He could hear it breathing and rustling around the room.

Was he going crazy? he wondered.  Was the intense heat frying his brain?  

Then came the worst part.  Whatever was in the room with him rubbed against him. It had rough leathery skin that was somehow moist and dry at the same time.  And when Paul thought things couldn’t get any worse, the thing licked him, licked him with a sandpapery forked tongue.

Paul screamed and made for the door, cursing as he bumped his shins on one of the low benches.

Finally, he reached the hallway and the light from the windows allowed him to rush out the front door and into the fresh open air.  He didn’t even bother to close the front doors as he hastily stumbled down the steps.  Tripping on one of the palms as he tumbled into the yard, he caught the seam of his bath towel just before he lost it.

Paul waited, gasping for air and happy to be out of the close quarters of the sauna.  Would his assailant show himself?he wondered.

At first, he wasn’t sure if he were imagining it, but then noticeably the doors which were already slightly ajar were pushed open even wider.  The first part out of the door was that constantly darting, terrible forked tongue.  Following the tongue was a primitive snout like that of a dinosaur, followed by large dark eyes.  Next two webbed feet plopped down on the porch, and behind it a low-hanging abdomen like an overstuffed leather pouch.  Finally, it was completed by two more clawed webby feet and a serpentine tail that flicked back and forth.

Paul began to laugh.  At first it was just to himself, and then it grew from deep within his belly to a boisterous guffaw.

An old woman walked past the driveway with her walker, clearly disturbed by this half-naked madman laughing hysterically in the bushes and sped up her pace as much as she could muster, occasionally throwing glances back over her shoulder in Paul’s direction.This just made Paul laugh harder, and it continued for many minutes, another moment of healing catharsis in the face of the absurdity of his situation, as he realized this was his Christmas—an elf on the shelf, and an iguana in the sauna.