Unknown Boy, Aged Four or Five

My 2018 Christmas story. I hope you enjoy.

Marcia looked out the windshield at the throngs of people standing outside the toy store. It wasn’t seven in the morning yet and people lined the sidewalk and stood in the parking lot six and seven deep. She took a heavy breath. There was no way she would find what she wanted with this many people here. 

She shook her head. She flipped her hair back over her shoulders and let the breath out. 

“I should have done this sooner.”

But she knew she couldn’t. It had to be on this day. It had to take place on Christmas Eve.

Marcia opened the door, got out of the car and closed the door back. She walked toward the crowd, stopping when she heard the murmuring excitement of rabid shoppers as the electronic doors opened and they began the mad rush for toys. People pushed forward, as if they tried to pack the store on the corner of Mall Drive. 

“We’re going to be like sardines in there,” she whispered. 

After most of the patrons had gone inside, Marcia made her way to the doors, took another breath, bracing herself for the craziness she was about to face, and stepped inside. 

It was as bad as she feared it would be. People pushed by one another without bothering with an ‘excuse me,’ or a ‘pardon me’ or anything even close. Some folks with buggies had no problems bumping into others to get them out the way. She thought there might be a couple of fights as some customers gave dirty looks or snappy, sarcastic remarks. 

Marcia made her way by most people, detouring in and out of aisles where the crowds were the worst. Though she walked and shuffled nonstop, it still took her twenty minutes to get to the back of the store where the stuffed toys were. Thankfully, there were only a handful of people back there, in the section that boasted the toys that weren’t highly sought after and worthy of being fought over. She thought it a shame that so few people thought their children might like one of the plush bears, dogs, rabbits and kitty cats. 

She frowned. The pickings were thinner than usual. All of the rabbits and doggies were gone. There were still a couple of kitty cats, but none that screamed ‘buy me.’ The small teddy bears were mostly the same, each one a solid color (either white, brown, tan or gray) with a bowtie around its neck, glass eyes, pink stitched nose and mouth. She shook her head and stood straight; her hands went to her hips. She rummaged the shelves until she came across a pink teddy bear and plucked it from the pile. She thought it was right for one of the two gifts she needed. Still, there was the other one, the one she knew would be harder to pick.

Marcia left the aisle and went to the next one over. No stuffed animals. The next one over from that one also held no stuffed animals. Neither did the other two. She backtracked and looked at the original aisle of misfit animals. She dropped to her knees and rummaged through the various teddy bears. Just as she began to give up, Marcia saw it, the animal that called to her, that said, ‘I’m the one.’ She reached for it, pulled it free.

It was a white lamb. Its eyes sparkled blue. Its lips and nose were the same pink stitched type as on the teddy bears, but on the tips of each foot was a split hoof. Its tail was a curly-q and the fur was fluffy and soft. Marcia hugged it and knew it was the one.

Pink_Teddy__19550.1386245092.490.588She didn’t mind standing in line for almost an hour. She didn’t mind putting the purchase on her credit card. She didn’t mind sitting in traffic for another hour, trying to get out of the mall area. She didn’t mind that she got home well after lunch. She didn’t even mind that she would have to get up early again the next day to make the two hour drive to Hope, South Carolina, a little do nothing town on the edge of the nowhere. She was happy. She found the toys she hoped to find.

It was cold when she arrived in Hope the next morning. She drove through the little town, across the overpass and down a road with sleepy houses on either side. She made a left and drove a couple of blocks. Then she made a right and pulled through the large entrance and onto the dirt road that ran between graves older than her grandmother, who was in her upper eighties. She continued along until she came to a grassy area along the side of the path where she pulled over and parked. 

“Come on,” she said and grabbed the lamb. It was colder out in the open cemetery on Christmas day than it had been in the parking lot of an old toy store the morning before. She zipped her coat up and her body gave a shiver. Marcia crossed the lawn, passing gravestone after gravestone, touching some as she went. Finally, she stopped near a chipped headstone with the carving of a square wooden wagon on it. Just below the wagon was the word UNKNOWN BOY. Below the name was a presumed age: AGED FOUR OR FIVE. 

The first time she came here was eleven years previous. Her little sister, Donna, was six then and her hair was pulled back into a ponytail that bobbed when she walked. Her green eyes dazzled and she had been excited to go on one of Marcia’s Christmas traditions, this time to the little cemetery in Hope. 

Donna had a fake flower in one hand and she gripped Marcia’s hand with her other one. 

“Why are we here?” she asked in all of her innocence.

“One of the things I do at Christmas is I go to a cemetery. I take a flower with me. Then I search the headstones for a name or a grave that I think would like a visitor. I place the flower on the grave and tell the person, ‘Merry Christmas.’”

“Why do you do that?”

“Because everyone should receive love on Christmas day.” That wasn’t the total truth, but it was really all Donna needed to know. She didn’t need to know that a friend of hers does something similar at the cemetery where her father is buried, only telling the dead, ‘Someone loves you’ instead of ‘Merry Christmas.’

“Oh.” Donna stood, staring at her flower for a minute. Then she looked up with that wide-eyed innocent look of hers. “Can I pick the grave?”

“Sure,” Marcia responded. “Go. Find the lucky person.”

Donna hurried toward the rows and rows of graves. She searched, diligently, pondering each stone, though she couldn’t really read the names. She asked questions about the ages of each person. Then she came across the stone with the wagon on it. “What does that say, Marcia?”

“Unknown boy. Aged four or five.”

“He doesn’t have a name?”

“I guess not.”

“And he was four or five?”

“I guess so.”

“What does that mean?”

“I guess they didn’t know who the boy was and they thought he was maybe four or five years old.”

“That’s younger than me.”

“It is.”

Donna looked at the flower again, then placed it at the base of the headstone. “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” she whispered, and patted the top of the stone three times gently. 

As they walked back to the car, Marcia holding tight to Donna’s little hand, her sister looked up and asked, “Can we come back next year, but bring him a toy instead of a flower?”

Marcia nodded, smiled. “Of course.”

That’s what they did. On Christmas Eve the next year, they went to the toy store—the same one Marcia has gone to since. 

“What type of toy would you like to get him?”

“A stuffed animal.”

“A stuffed animal it is, then.”

“But it can’t be just any stuffed animal. It has to be the right one.”

Like when searching the graves the year before, Donna took her time searching for the right toy, the right stuffed animal, and when she had, her eyes shimmered and her smile was as bright as it had ever been.

That was a long time ago, and so much has changed since the first year Donna went with her and now. She stood in front of Unknown with the lamb in her hand and tears spilling down her cheeks. Her heart hurt, but she thought it would break later. She knelt, set the lamb in front of the headstone, said, “Merry Christmas, Unknown,” and then stood straight again. She tapped the top of the headstone gently three times. When she took a deep breath this time, she let it go with a rattle and a sob. 

Marcia tucked her hands into her pockets, protecting them from the cold. She hunched her shoulders and walked away. When she reached her car, she looked back, saw the little ghost of a boy standing at his grave. He was pale and his hair was black. He wore a white button-down shirt and dirty black pants. His eyes held bruised bags beneath them. He was holding the lamb in his arms. When he looked up, he raised his hand in a wave. 

Marcia’s breath caught in her throat, but her hand lifted and her fingers moved in a slight wave. She watched as the boy faded, leaving behind the stuffed animal where she had placed it. She got into her car and looked at the stuffed bear on the passenger’s seat. She would make the drive home now, this time to a different cemetery, one with a grave still not a year old. She would go and sit next to it, ignoring the cold. She would set the pink teddy bear on the grave and pat the headstone gently three times. Then she would say, “Merry Christmas, Donna.” 

And she would cry …

AJB

12/23/2018

Oh Come All Ye …

They’re all dead. The whole town. Not a living person to be found.

Hank leaned against the truck, a cigarette between his lips. He wasn’t much of a smoker, but he might not see another day, so why not? The first cigarette he had ever smoked made him lightheaded. It gave him one hell of a coughing fit, as well. The second wasn’t much better, but at least it didn’t take his breath away.

Strike that off the bucket list, he thought and flicked the cigarette away. It tumbled end over end and landed in the snow with a hiss and a light plume of gray smoke and white steam.

He coughed again, but not from smoking. No, this was from the infection. He was sweating from the fever and his eyes watered. Scratches were on his arms, neck and face. Blood had dried on a few of the deeper wounds. His leg throbbed, but at that point, he no longer cared. What he did care about was taking out the biters shambling along the dirt road.

They didn’t seem to notice him. He blamed the infection for that. If he weren’t dying, not being noticed by the dead would be a good thing, but now, as his body threatened to shut down and turn him into one of those creatures, he wanted to be noticed by them. He wanted them to see him coming.

A biter lurched passed him, her grayed hair disheveled, skin sagging from either old age or decay … or both. What Jeanette would have called a housedress barely hung from her shoulders, the flower print speckled with crusted blood.

“Hey lady,” Hank said and reached for the axe next to someone else’s truck he had been leaning against. She turned, not just her head, but her entire body, and seemed to look through Hank. If she would have actually noticed him, she would have seen the stocking cap on his head, the fuzzy white ball hanging from it. She may have even wondered why he wore such a thing if it wasn’t Christmas. Hank didn’t know if it was actually Christmas. Again, he didn’t care.

He hefted the axe in both hands and took a few quick, almost lunging steps. He swung it as hard as his weakening muscles allowed. The top of the woman’s head shattered beneath the blade and she crumpled to the ground. A halo of brownish red blood formed beneath what remained of her head.

“Merry Christmas, lady.”

Hank wiped a spatter of thick blood from his face and then reached into the pick-up truck. He mashed the horn and held it for several seconds. The biters along the streets and in the yards of the small community where he thought he would die turned and began their awkward trundle toward him.

Hank coughed hard, the action tearing at his chest. His stomach cramped and released and then he spat out a string of yellow phlegm, streaked red with blood. It was time and he was tired. Beyond that, he was pissed. He tapped the front fender with the bloodied blade and gave a sickly smile. As the first of the dead approached him, he raised the axe and began to sing.

“Oh come all you biters, come and get your head split …”

 

Darren, the Joey Ramon Look-alike

I want to put a bullet in his head.

The thought was simple, to the point, and exactly what Dutch wanted.  The world sucked these days, and honestly, the holidays were the worst, Christmas being the big lie of them all.

Dutch walked up the street, passing cars lined along the road, his guitar case slung over his shoulder.  Occasionally he passed a few folks getting out of those cars, their jackets buttoned or zipped all the way to their necks, ski hats on their heads, ear muffs over, well, isn’t that obvious enough?  They carried their fold out stadium chairs and blankets, and a few of them even had bags, thermoses and doughnuts (the last of those supplied by the Krispy Kreme four blocks from where Dutch parked his car).  A couple of times he gave a nod, only to not  get one in return.  Yeah, the world sucked, and Christmas was the epitome of that suckage.

Half a block away, he could see the police car as it made a left turn onto the street he was on.  It circled back and blocked off the road.  He still had time.  Seeing the cop would have made some men run—especially men with the intentions he had—but not Dutch.  They wouldn’t notice him, and if they did, no one would remember him.  He looked like an ordinary middle-aged man holding onto his dreams of being a rock star.  By the time they figured out where the shot came from, he would be long gone and his disguise—a graying beard, green contacts, a ball cap happily proclaiming he loved the local college team—would be burning in a 55 gallon drum down on Hobo Row.  And the gun?  A smile crossed his face.  Some cop was in a heap of trouble when he was finished—never leave your car door unlocked when there’s a rifle on the front seat.  Idiot.

He rounded the corner of The Sewing Shop.  The little store used to be a Kress all those years ago, back when dime stores were as popular as dollar stores are now.  He leaned on an old rail—the same one that had been there when he was a kid and his grandma had worked as a cashier at Kress.  For a brief moment he was taken back to the days when he would sit at the back of the store, at the small diner there, and would eat a tomato and mayonnaise sandwich and drink a root beer float—an honest to God root beer float, with IBC root beer and Pet vanilla ice cream.  Christmas back then wasn’t as commercialized as it is now.  No, there were none of those Black Friday sales, Pre-Black Friday sales, Late Evening Thanksgiving Day sales, and there was no mad rush to get the latest overpriced toy.  People actually enjoyed the season—the season, mind you!—without the whole need for bigger, better, more expensive gifts.  Oh, how he missed those days.

A couple walked by him, clearly having seen better days before marriage and laziness had kicked in and the pounds were packed on.  The woman pulled a red wagon with two kids in it who were old enough to walk on their own two feet.  The man carried everything else—the chairs, blankets and, yes, somehow he managed a box of those doughnuts.  Lagging behind was a teenaged boy, his hair black and covering his eyes, his clothes a little dirty and as black as his hair.  His hands were shoved down deep in their pockets and he walked hunched over as if the weight of the world was on his shoulders.  He could have passed for Joey Ramone when he was a teenager.

“Come on, Darren,” Mom called without looking back.  “We want to get a good seat so your brother and sister can get a lot of candy.”

“Whatever,” Darren said back.

Dutch almost chuckled, but refrained.  No need to give them a memory they could recall later.  It didn’t look like Darren cared too much about the candy or the parade.  He understood how Darren felt.  The holidays and all their suckage, and there he was, guitar case slung over the shoulder, the perfect Ebenezer Scrooge just waiting for the party to get started so he could crash it.

“Don’t ‘whatever’ your mother,” Dad said, whipping around as fast as his portly body would let him while trying not to drop anything.  Especially not the doughnuts, Dutch thought.

Darren stopped.  Though Dutch couldn’t see his eyes, he could feel the disdain the boy had for his family.  Maybe Dutch should do him a favor and just lie in wait for them, maybe put that bullet he had for good old St. Nick in Dad’s brain instead.  He shook his head.  No, that wouldn’t do, that wouldn’t do at all.

He checked his watch.  Half an hour to go.  Then he watched the Happy family, Mom, Dad, Darren and the Siblings Duo.  Darren leaned against a light post near the edge of the street and said very little to anyone.  Mom and Dad set up the chairs, then laid a blanket out in front of them.  The Siblings Duo sat on them and constantly argued back and forth.  A couple off to their left moved their seats down a few feet.  Mom wasted no time, spreading her’s and Dad’s chairs out, taking up space that someone else could have used.

Dutch shook his head, grit his teeth.  They were America—the epitome of what the country had become.  Selfish and arrogant and rude.  No wonder Darren didn’t want to be with them.

A police siren wailed, a loud whoopwhoop that hurt Dutch’s ears.  The parade was starting.  Looks like they were just waiting for the sun to go all the way down.  His thoughts took him back to his childhood days again, when Grandma and Grandpa would take him to the parade, not at night, but during the day.  He remembered how the floats started rumbling down the street around ten in the morning on Saturdays (to him, it was the only Saturday of the year that was worth leaving hot chocolate and cartoons behind for something outside in the cold).  And it had been on a different street—the same one the Krispy Kreme was on now—and he would sit between his grandparents on the edge of the sidewalk.  There were no folding stadium chairs or blankets placed on cold concrete.  There were no doughnuts or hot chocolate from thermoses.  There were certainly no complaints or whining.  Those drew swats on the bottom and a swift exit from the festivities.

The cop drove by, his blue lights like strobes.  Dutch looked away.  The first vehicle crept by, a truck with a Christmas tree in the back, lit up with fake presents beneath it.  The people riding in the truck’s bed with the tree were bundled up and waving, their smiles seemingly frozen to their faces.

Walking on either side and behind the truck were various teenagers and women holding bags of candy.  They ran to both sides of the road, dropping candy into outstretched hands, skipping a few kids here and there—though probably not intentionally—and moving along at a brisk rate to keep up with their float.  Several of the kids who didn’t get candy poked their lips out.  A couple of parents complained loudly that their child was missed, then grumbled some more when the givers ignored them.

He shook his head.  Tis the season of giving and grinching and complaining, as well.

Dutch turned, went back the way he came, careful not to draw attention to himself.  He rounded the backside of the building, scanned the parking lot for any stragglers who may have just arrived.  When he saw none, he made his way along the back until he came to the ladder bolted to the block structure.  The store’s name may have changed, but that old ladder was there when he was a kid. How many times had he shimmied up and hung out on the roof where nobody could see him?  He had no clue, but it was good to see that some things hadn’t changed so much.

He could hear some folks cheering, hear the amped up high voltage music of Trans Siberian Orchestra as another float passed by, probably with a few men being pulled on a trailer and playing air guitar.  That made him smile, if only for a moment.

Again, he looked around, and saw no one.  Dutch climbed, the guitar case shifting from side to side as he did so.  He reached the flat roof and pulled himself all the way up.  So far, so good.  He pulled a pin light from his coat pocket, flicked it on.  Though the flashlight itself was no bigger than a tube of lipstick, the glow of white that it put out stretched several feet in front of him, making it easy to walk along the roof without stumbling over anything that could have been left behind by kids who ventured up there over the years.

At the edge of the front of the building, he peered over a wall that was about two feet in height, plenty enough space that if he needed to duck quickly he could do so.  The tail end of one float that was nothing more than strung lights on the hood and top and bumper of a beat up sedan passed right in front of the Happy family.  A marching band followed—he saw the black and garnet colors lit up by white lights that had been attached to the uniforms and knew it was the band from his alma mater.  He watched as they passed by and then another vehicle took its place, creeping along slowly.  The next car blared a song about white Christmases.  Following behind the car were several people carrying bags—more candy givers.  They looked happy to be passing out the treats to the children, but like the ones from earlier, they couldn’t hit everyone.  It would have been impossible to make sure each kid had a small candy cane or tootsie roll or whatever was being given out.  And, like before, the Happy family was passed over.  This time Mom stood, though it was a struggle to get to her feet.  The stadium seat seemed to exhale in relief once Mom was up.

There was a moment where it looked as if Dad would say something.  He raised a hand as if to say, ‘calm down,’ then dropped it without so much as muttering the first word.

Several others watched as she yelled at one of the candy givers.  The woman— who couldn’t be too far removed from her teens—gave her a shocked, wide-eyed look before hurrying away, crossing the street to the other side.  Darren shook his head—an embarrassment was what his mom was, and probably his dad, as well.

Dutch placed the pin light in his mouth and unsnapped the guitar case.  The rifle fit neatly inside—though barely.  He turned off the pin light and placed it back in his pocket before picking the rifle up.  It was light, and that was a good thing.  Dutch peered through the site, aiming it toward the sky and staring at the stars.  Lowering the gun, he nodded.  The site was accurate—he had tested it the day before out in the country where his own Mom and Dad used to live before they died a couple years previous.  All four cans he placed on fence posts went down, no bullets wasted on misses.

Another float passed, this time carrying the mayor and his wife sitting on the trunk of a convertible.  They waved sporadically, the wife in a heavy fur coat, her hands covered by thick gloves, but still she shivered right along with everyone else.

The Temple Cars came an hour into the parade, nothing more than suped-up go-carts driven by older men who were part of the local Lodge Chapter.  They zoomed in and out, almost hitting each other as they made their figure eights.  When he was a kid, the Temple Cars were his favorite part.  The smell of the exhaust, the way the tires squealed with each turn, the loud motors, the near to death moments as the cars grew dangerously close to the sidewalks.

Darren pushed off the light pole, uncrossed his arms.  The look of disinterest left his face and he flexed his fingers.  From where Dutch sat on the rooftop, it looked like Darren was suddenly nervous.  Darren stepped around Mom.  She swatted at him, no doubt a gesture of ‘move your butt.’  Still, he moved closer to the sidewalk.  He knelt down next to the Siblings Duo.

Dutch watched, a steady wonder growing in his mind.

“What are you about to do?”

Could his loathing for his family be so strong that he would…

“Don’t do it, kid.”

A thought, fleeting as it was, ran across Dutch’s mind.  Here he held a rifle with the intent to put a bullet in the icon of All That is Wrong With Christmas and he was suddenly afraid that some teenager living in a hell wrought by his family was about to push his brother and sister into the oncoming go-carts.  His chest tightened and he swallowed hard as he watched Darren intently.

Then it happened.  Instead of pushing the Siblings Duo into the road, Darren put his arms around their stomachs and pulled them back, just as the first of the Temple Cars reached them.

Dutch released his breath, his chest deflating.

Darren sat down on the concrete behind his siblings, no longer a statue against a light post, no longer a sulking member of society.

The floats passed, and one by one, Darren pointed out things the siblings didn’t seem to know.  Dutch watched as candy givers went by and Darren helped his brother and sister to their feet and stretched their arms out so the candy givers would see them.  The Siblings Duo squealed happily each time a candy cane was placed in their hands.  At one point, the little girl gave Darren one of the peppermint treats, and in a display of true emotion, Darren openly hugged her, his Joey Ramone rebellious persona gone in an instant.

Loud cheers drew his attention from Darren.  People were beginning to stand about a block away.  In the distance was a red fire truck, and sitting on the back was Santa Clause.  He waved his white-gloved hands to the crowds and he was probably smiling broadly beneath the frosty white beard.

Dutch lifted the rifle, looped the strap around one elbow and set the stock in his shoulder.  He sited Santa, drew a bead on the jolly old man’s forehead.

“Come on, fat boy,” he said, and lined up the shot.  Another hundred yards and Santa would be at the intersection, just thirty or so yards from the Happy family.  He let the site trace its way to the perfect spot.

As Santa neared, the people on that block began to stand.  Mom and Dad Happy struggled to get up from their seats, but Darren had little issue at all with picking up the Sibling Duo, one in each arm, and holding them so they could see better.

Dutch took several deep breaths, letting each one out slowly.  His hands began to sweat, and that trigger finger grew itchy.

He glanced back to Darren.  His sister held him around the neck, the brother holding tight to one of his arms.

Back to Santa.  Just a few more yards and it would be all over.  He lined up the shot again as if he were lining up a ten-point buck out in the country.  It was an easy kill.

Another glance back to Darren.  The siblings looked happy.  There was no more Joey Ramone left in the teen—even the punk rocker look seemed to change with the smile that had grown on his face.

Santa was now beyond the shot point.  Sure, he could line it up further down, but he had no desire to.  Dutch lowered the gun and watched as Santa past by the Happy family, as the two little children in the teenagers arms screamed and waved.  And Darren was smiling wide as he looked, not at Santa Clause, but at his siblings.

He set the gun back in the guitar case, then stood and watched as the crowds dispersed.  It was a while before he made his way across the building and down the ladder, the guitar case strapped over one shoulder and across his back.  He shoved his hands into his coat pockets and smiled.  His thoughts came back to Darren and how protective he was of the Sibling Duo and how he picked them both up so they could see Santa Clause better.  The parents might not have been worth the air they breathed, but Darren, the Joey Ramone look alike…in him Dutch saw hope.

Being–A Christmas Story

He made his usual walk, starting down at the very end of the manmade path.  On most nights, the walk ended for him beneath the bridge that crossed the river at the other end of the Riverwalk.  It was there, beneath that bridge, where Kross would find shelter from rain and sometimes the cold, by crawling up the embankment and bedding down where concrete met dirt at its highest point, and far enough off the path that no one would notice him.  Especially not one of the retired city cops that had the job as security along the six miles or so of the path.

It was dark and cool—but not cold, thankfully.  His light coat wasn’t quite warm enough for a cold night, but he hoped to get a different one, maybe trade in the one he wore for a heavier version at the Salvation Army or even the Goodwill, if they allowed it.  On normal nights he walked that concrete sidewalk alone, occasionally passing another walker, or jogger, usually someone with a dog.  There were bikers and boarders as well, especially in the warmer months when the daylight hours lasted well into the eight o’clock hour.  But this wasn’t a warmer month.  It was definitely a cooler one and the days were shorter, giving way to evening around the same time most folks left their office jobs.

Kross tucked his hands into his pockets, lowered his head and wondered where breakfast would come from in the morning.  Supper had been a stale, hard bagel that he had to wipe something—what, he didn’t know—off of it.  It was chewy, but it was food, and bagels tended to stay on the stomach far longer than most foods he ate these days.  Though it was bland and he would have liked some water to wash it down with, it was better than nothing, for sure.

A jogger passed going in the opposite direction, her head up, a blond ponytail bobbing from side to side.  She seemed oblivious to the homeless man walking the same path.  He gave a shrug at this, but didn’t turn to watch her go, like most men probably would have.  Kross, knowing someone like that would be revolted if he even said, ‘hello,’ saw no reason to look, to follow her with his eyes and dream of something that could never happen.  He was, after all, invisible to those with lives, with clean clothes, three meals a day (with snacks in between or a coffee from Starbucks), and a roof over their heads.  Yeah, he was invisible to everyone, except the police or the owners of restaurants who throw out their leftovers in the dumpsters behind the buildings, only to get mad at him when they catch him digging around for food.

He wound his way along the sidewalk, passing under the occasional light, passing by the occasional EMERGENCY HELP boxes—one press of the button and the retired cop comes a running, or at least in his shiny golf cart with the red lights on—passing by benches to either side, none of which held young couples or even solo folks sitting on.

Kross looked up, stopped in his tracks.  Off in the distance he saw lights, but they were dim and on the ground and there were two rows of them, one on each side of the sidewalk.  He took a few steps forward and heard something he didn’t normally hear, something he hadn’t really heard in a long time, not that he paid much attention to holidays or even the seasons.  To Kross, the seasons were warm, hot, cool, cold, and right then it was cool, not cold, so why the music?  Why the singing?  Why the…Christmas carols?

He walked toward the lights, noticed they were in bags.  Just beyond the bagged lights were people standing around.  Off to the edge of the sidewalk beyond the crowd was a small band of women playing instruments, a violin, banjo, upright base, acoustic guitar, and was that a tambourine?  Yes, yes it was.  He moved closer, stopped about fifteen feet from the gathering of people.  The women singing had a country, bluegrass sound, right out of the backwoods, Kross thought.  As he stood there, they sang The First Noel and Silent Night, and the violinist stood out among them.  Kross couldn’t tell if she were really young and just very good, or really old and just very short, and still very good.  After finishing Silent Night, he clapped, like everyone else, and walked by them.  He glanced at the violinist and still couldn’t tell if she were young or old or maybe somewhere in between.

No one spoke to him, but moved aside as he passed, as if pushed by a force field.

Invisible, he thought, and hunched his shoulders.

A little further down a man stood off to the side of the path, another crowd had gathered around him.  He played a saxophone—Hark the Herald Angel was the tune of choice.  Kross tapped his toe and folded his arms over his chest as he listened.  Again, when the song was done, he made his way through the crowds, unnoticed, or maybe noticed and ignored.  He thought it was a little bit of both.

He reached another group, a Baptist men’s choir.  They sang a song he didn’t know, harmonizing the best they could, but still managing to sound like a group of cats on a hot tin roof.  He went on by, not waiting for their song to end.  Still, no one paid him any attention.  He thought for a moment that the little girl with the glasses and light-up shoes noticed him, but did she really?  Nah, his mind told him.

As he passed the men’s choir and left the crowd behind, he noticed a sign with their name on it.  Beneath their name were the words, SPREADING THE CHRISTMAS SPIRIT WITH EVERYONE.

Christmas spirit, he wondered.  Yeah, sure, they have the Christmas spirit. Bah Humbug. 

There were two other bands and in between them stood a hot chocolate stand set up, complete with snacks and apple cider as well.  As he approached the stand hoping for a fresh drink for a change and something to wash down that nasty bagel taste, several people cut in front of him.

As if I weren’t here. 

Kross sighed heavily.  His shoulders slouched further down, his head lowered.   He walked a little slower now, not paying attention to anyone else there, any of those folks who have encroached on his nightly walk to his nightly bed beneath the bridge.  His stomach hurt, maybe from the stale bagel, but quite possibly from the lack of being.  It was Christmas, after all, the season for giving, the season to be jolly, to be happy, to show love to your fellow human…being.

Further down, he came to a group of adults playing hand bells.  Unlike the other times, he stayed in the shadows, just off the path and away from the largest of the crowds so far.  They played beautifully, like a well-tuned machine, not missing a note.  When they finished, the crowd clapped loud.  Several folks headed away, looking for another group to perform for them.

Kross stayed in the shadows.  There were eight of them, seven women, mostly older, and one man, probably the youngest of the group.  There was one woman, near the center of the group, who seemed to be one of the main ringers.  She was younger, her brown hair pulled out of her face with a ribbon, her motions fluid and smooth.  She was smiling, and it never left her face.

The tinkles of the bells held his attention, mesmerized him.  He didn’t know how long he stood there—until the last of the carols had been rung by the hand bellers—but for a short while, he felt the Christmas spirit spill through him.  When the show ended, he stood a while longer in the shadows as the crowd dispersed, some speaking of how good the music was, how amazing the bell ringers were.

Kross ducked his head and stepped beyond the last of the lit up paper bags.  The brief Christmas spirit fled him with the last of the rung bells.  He was well into the darkness along the path when he heard someone calling from behind.

“Excuse me.”  It was a female voice and it was soft and sweet.

He walked on.  Surely, no one was speaking to him.

“Excuse me, sir.”

Kross stopped and looked back.

The young woman from the hand bells stood in front of him.  She was still smiling.  In her hands she held a Styrofoam cup.

“Are you talking to me?” Kross asked, expecting her to recoil from his raspy voice.

“Yes,” she said and held the cup out to him.  “I thought you might like a cup of cocoa.”

“Cocoa?”

“Yes.  Unless you would like some apple cider.”

“No.  No.  Cocoa is fine, thank you.  I haven’t had cocoa in years.”  He took the cup from her and put it to his lips.  He could feel the warmth rising from the cup.  The first sip was hot and burned his tongue, but he didn’t care.  It tasted great and made him think of Christmases as a kid at his Grandma’s house.

“Thank you,” he said and smiled, something he rarely ever did.

“Have a merry Christmas, sir.”

Sir? 

“You too.”

The girl turned and left.  This time he watched her go, but not because he thought there would ever be a chance of anything.  No, he watched her go because he was no longer invisible, at least not to someone.  To someone, he was still a person, still a being…

Kross took another sip of the hot cocoa, relished the warmth.  Tonight maybe the bridge wouldn’t be so cold.  As he walked away he hummed, a song about Christmas…

Not Like It Used To Be

As I’ve gotten older, my love for the Christmas season has dwindled significantly. This is terribly sad. Sad, I say. I guess that happens to a lot of folks when they realize the magic of the season fades as you get older. No, it doesn’t fade for everyone, but most. There is still a certain joy at points during the Christmas season, but for me it doesn’t carry that sense of awe like it used to. Yes, sad…

I guess it is the commercialism which lends to seeing Christmas stuff up in stores in August (yes, there was a store here in South Carolina that actually had their trees and lights and decorations up in August) and the Black Friday sales, Cyber Monday sales and all the insane traffic around any store for months in advance of Christmas.

There is a part in A Charlie Brown Christmas that I’ve always enjoyed. Good old Chuck has just been laughed out of the auditorium because of the Christmas tree he picked out. Charlie Brown then wonders about the true meaning of Christmas, and Linus obliges an answer by telling the story of the birth of Jesus. Now, that’s not the part I am talking about. The part I like is right after that as Charlie Brown is looking up at the sky to the North Star that shines bright, he smiles and says:

Linus is right. I won’t let all this commercialism ruin my Christmas.

Linus is right.

Still, Christmas just isn’t like it used to be. And that is the basis of today’s story. I hope you enjoy.

Not Like It Used To Be
By A.J. Brown

Families line the streets. Kids are bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while, but fade, leaving shivers along spines.

“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.

“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.

There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.

A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.

“Here they come,” a kid shouts. Others echo his words. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers. Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd L shape. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”

The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads Miss WW III 2038. She smiles. Her teeth are missing.

A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squeak and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp, a rope tied around his waist. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite as spectacularly grotesque.

A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.

Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels, motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns, but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.

The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.

The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and somehow love.

The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.

Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”

The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and shredded wrapping paper. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building. It collapses, brick, metal and glass tumbling to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers. Others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…

“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.

A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.

A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.

“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”

“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air before stepping into the car. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, places it on her head.

“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”

Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”

The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some parents, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids…

With the recent events in Connecticut, I took one story out of the mix for my Happy Horrordays postings. I had to think about whether I wanted to post a horror themed story today or write about the events that unfolded yesterday. I chose to go with the story—so many others have written on the tragedy and my commentary wouldn’t be much different than most.

Still, I am a horror writer (by definition, I reckon), and my stories have a decided slant toward the darker things. I hope you enjoy the story, this one written in 2009 and originally published in Estronomicon.

Grandma Haygoode and the Devil In Me
By A.J. Brown

My initial reaction to seeing her dead on the floor was shock, tempered with joy. Grandma Haygoode had always been so loving, doting on Charles and Winnie, showing compassion to dumb George, feeding stray animals and taking in the homeless. Yeah, she was a caring old woman for certain.

Except when it came to me. For some reason or other, Grandma didn’t like me much. She would swat my head if I spoke out of turn; spank my bottom if I came home late from school. I got kicked out the house at fifteen. Dumb George got my room and the vagrant that slept in the empty corner lot near the Holiness Church got George’s basement quarters. It was like we all traded spaces, with me getting the cardboard box. It was filthy and stank of crap and urine and body odor. I don’t even want to know what the stains along the box’s walls were.

Right up until just before I turned eighteen I roamed the streets, begging for food or a bit of spare change. The looks folks gave me—you’d think they would want to help a poor teenager in need, kicked out of the home his parents had owned before their deaths. That wasn’t the case. Many shunned me, others chased me. Preacher Hollings lectured me every few days about doing right by the Creator and begging for forgiveness, not just from a higher being but from Grandma Haygoode as well.

Reckon a feller like yourself done did something mighty bad to fall out of her good graces,” he would say while wagging a crooked finger at me. “Confess your sins, boy and make things right with her.”

You’d think that Grandma Haygoode was akin to being the Creator that Hollings preached about. When he spoke of her his face would light up, his breath would hitch like he had himself a good orgasm and his bottom lip would glisten with saliva. The first few times I heard him talk of her I thought he would cry, or maybe he had been in my shoes at one time, put out by the Saint of All That is Good in the World. Not the case, though I do think he secretly fantasized about getting between her wrinkled thighs. Just thinking about that makes me shudder and my stomach lurch.

Charles visited me in the back alley one evening, said Grandma Haygoode wanted to see me. Sick with the fever and chills, I shrugged, staggered home for the first time in nearly three years. Being Christmas, I thought maybe she had forgiven me for the nonsense of eating one too many slices of bread at dinnertime. Yeah, that was the sin that got me put out at fifteen. The house was all decorated in bright greens and reds, a tree sat in the corner, dozens of presents under and around it. Stockings—too many of them—hung from hooks along the room and on the mantle piece. She waited in the kitchen, her blue apron on, cinnamon rolls baking in the oven. When she turned to me I had to hold myself still. She had changed.

Her face was lined with deep grooves—not just wrinkles, like they used to be, but valleys that bore right down into her very being. The skin around her eyes and mouth sagged. I thought for a moment that she looked like one of them bulldogs that Old Man Harper has—they are some ferocious animals that would rather rip your leg off than lick your hand if given a chance. She had lost weight—about a person, if you ask me. But what startled me the most was that she smiled when she saw me.

Rarely did she smile at me. Everyone else she loved, smiled at, but for me it was a scowl and a snarl, like I was the devil or something. Maybe she thought I was. Preacher Hollings sure made it a point of telling me how the devil had hold of my soul and that I need to break free from his treacherous grip. Yeah, that’s the words he used: “treacherous grip.”

I‘m getting away from my thoughts here. You see, Grandma Haygoode, well, she went and smiled at me, exposing her yellowed teeth. A few of them were missing that weren’t before, but the one in the front, I’ll never forget that one. It was bright white, not yellow like the rest of them. I wasn’t too certain it was real or fake, like some of them folks who have those dentures the tooth doctors make for them.

Something was wrong though. The tooth, well, it seemed to glitter and all, like it could have been some small light instead of a tooth. I stared at it for a moment, not sure I was awake and standing in the kitchen or still asleep in my cardboard box, the one that used to belong to the bum that sleeps down in the basement now.

The trance was broken when she closed her lips, concealing the tooth from me. I shook my head, trying to force the cobwebs away. Dazed and disoriented, I stumbled back until I bumped the wall. My head pounded, eyes hurt.

Marty, it’s been a while. You look like the devil done got hold of you.” she said and shuffled toward me. Her voice was like glass breaking against rock. I guessed age had caught up to her. She motioned with one knobby-knuckled hand. “Have a seat. Let’s talk a spell.”

At that, I didn’t know what to do. I just stood there like a knot on the log, dumbfounded, my head humming a tune of pure pain. “I need to go—I ain’t feelin’ all that good.”

She smiled again, showing off that tooth, repeated her request for me to sit. Without thought, my legs moved on their own and I found myself sitting in the chair across from her.

All the energy drained out of my body and I slumped in the chair, vision blurred, sweat spilling down my face. My head swooned.

Never before did I want to run away from my own home, but at that moment, in the kitchen with Grandma Haygoode, my head swirling and the fever biting down hard, I wanted to scream, to run away and never come back. I just didn’t have the strength to push myself out the door and down the steps. Even if I did manage to get out the house I didn’t think I could make it much further than the front walk without collapsing.

Doubt surfaced, like so many times before in my life, but different this time. At that moment I thought I would never be able to leave the kitchen, to free myself of Grandma’s ancient eyes. It’s like she had her claws sunk deep in my skin and she was reeling me in for the kill. And all I wanted to do was escape, go back to the empty lot by the church and hide myself away from the world. If I was lucky, I would die and it would all be over. No more Grandma Haygoode, no more Preacher Hollings, no more worry of the devil getting me.

How about you tell me what ails you, Marty.”

All I could see were blinding white dots dancing in my vision. Half of her face had been blotted out by these moving white lights, but her tooth remained, sparkling, shining. My thoughts became muddled and the fever overcame me. Nausea swept through my body and I dropped from the chair to my hands and knees. Very little came from my stomach, mostly stomach acid and a few half digested pieces of bread I found in one of the trash cans on the other side of town.

Poor child,” she said and stood. Her ice-cold hand touched the back of my neck. Shivers trailed up and down my spine. I held onto my fading world, trying not to pass out. I bit down hard on my lip, drawing blood and fresh pain. The world came back, no longer washed away in confusion and lightheadedness.

Please,” I said, grabbed the edge of the table and pulled myself onto my knees.

You want me to help you?” she asked, the smile never wavering.

No,” I said, refusing to look up at her. “Stop smiling.”

Everyone loves my smile, Marty,” she said in that broken glass voice of hers. Her hand tightened on the back of my neck, nails piercing skin. I felt the warmth of blood trickle from new wounds.

With my strength waning, I swung a fist up, catching the bottom of her chin. Her few teeth clattered and she fell back. Crawling, I tried to get to the door, but it was so far away. Exhausted, I reached it, and then looked back at Grandma. She lay on the floor, her head to one side, blood spilling from her open mouth. The tooth lay beside her, part of her gum still attached to it.

Yellow voids appeared in the corners of my vision, faded to brown, then black. I awoke some time later, head cloudy, neck hurting. Sitting up, the pressure eased on my skull, neck and shoulders. Grandma Haygoode still lay on the floor, her eyes turned to the ceiling, mouth open, tooth by her head. Blood crusted along the side of her face and had soaked her white hair. The smell of burnt cinnamon rolls hung in the air.

Early evening peeked in through the windows and I wondered where everyone was. Then I remembered, Grandma had a standing rule. If you lived with her, you spent the Christmas holidays taking care of the things she couldn’t. I guessed most of them were out doing her bidding. But with the coming of night they would all get home sooner rather than later and what would they do when they found Grandma dead in her kitchen?

As I crawled toward her, I kept an eye on the tooth, but it no longer sparkled. I picked it up. It was just a regular tooth, chipped where her bottom teeth had clipped it when I punched her, a flap of dry gum hanging from it. My fever must have made it appear special, like folks thought Grandma Haygoode was. Was. I nudged her to be certain she was dead.

Running wasn’t gonna do me much good. Once the law found out Grandma was dead and that she had been talking to me when it happened, well, I would get strung up right there in the yard, no trial, just a bunch of pissed off executioners. And, I guess the devil certainly would have had me then, now wouldn’t he.

To tell you the truth, which is I guess what I have been doing all this time, though Grandma’s tooth wasn’t a light stuck down in her gums, it did kind of look like one, but without the bulb. I went into the front room where the logs in the fireplace crackled and all the pretty decorations were hung.

On the tree were lights strung around. Their bright yellows, reds, greens, oranges and blues flicked on and off every few seconds. My heart ached and I longed for Momma and Papa, to be with them in the grave instead of alive and despised by all in our little town just North of Hell.

Anger filled me, and all the years of hate that I had suppressed for Grandma and Charles and Winnie and that old bum who slept in the basement surfaced. And for Dumb George, too, who wasn’t so dumb after all—he just liked to play stupid so folks would feel sorry for him. I rolled that tooth in my palm with my fingers, and I stared at that Christmas tree wishing I had decorated it with my mom and dad. That Devil, well, he did get hold of me then.

Lying about it will do me no good now. There was an axe on the back stoop—sharp enough to cut through firewood, sharper still to cut through flesh. I sat and waited at the front door, listening for the others. One by one they came home, their faces weary from a hard day’s work. Too tired to fight me, they were easy to take. Charles first, the bum next; it was a little harder on my heart taking out Winnie—deep inside she was always a good person, but influenced but Grandma Haygoode, well, I guess even the best folks can think bad about someone when encouraged enough. I took their teeth with a pair of plyers that had been beneath the kitchen sink.

Laying in the dark, hidden by the door, I wait for Dumb George. He should come in soon and when he does, his teeth will join the others along a strand of lights, ornament hooks twisted around them and holding them in place. They look nice around the Christmas tree, all glowing and glittery with the glare of the colored lights shining off of them. Then I’ll call Preacher Hollings, invite him over for a while. And he’ll come. He’ll come because I’m at Grandma Haygoode’s and he’ll want to rejoice with her and me and everyone else because the Devil, he don’t have me in his clutches no more. Like the rest of them, he’ll be wrong…

***

Until we meet again, my friends… stay safe and love one another.

Rudy–Another Seasonal Short Story

In 2006 I wrote a lot of holiday themed stories, from Halloween to April Fool’s Day to Boxing Day to, yeah, you got it, Christmas. I even wrote a Valentine’s Day story, though I wouldn’t call it very romantic. This story is another one of those 2006 pieces, but only slightly reworked.

Instead of going with my normal style of writing, I went in a different direction with this one. I hope a bit of the humor comes through. Sit back, relax and enjoy the read.

Rudy
By A.J. Brown

“Rudolph, you can stop now.”

“Relax, Nick,” Rudolph said and stomped on the woman’s head again. It squished, as if someone had stepped on a slug. He looked up from the bloodied body beneath him. “She had it coming, boss.”

“How can you say that?” Nick looked at the gore on the ground, the mass of light brown hair that was graying and soaked in red. The woman’s face was gone, ripped away by the incessant pounding of Rudolph’s hoof. Her chunky body was bruised, and in some places, bones poked out of skin and clothing.

“Take a whiff,” Rudolph said and backed away.

Nick sniffed the air and shook his head. He then inhaled sharply. “What am I smelling for, Rudy?”

“You can’t tell what that is?”

“Rudy, all I smell is crap and blood.”

“Come on, Nick,” Rudolph said, gave a roll of his eyes. “Have all the cookies and candies gone to your head instead of your stomach? Stop playing around and sniff her again. Get down between her thighs if you have to, but take a good whiff.”

Nick bent down close to her midsection and took a deep breath He inhaled a second time, taking in the scent of the dead woman. There was some perfume and blood and the stench of a fresh bowel movement. There was also the scent of something else; something that forced Nick to pinch his nose in disgust and stand up quickly.

“How could you tell?” he asked.

“Nick, I’ve got a sensitive nose, remember?” Rudolph said as he stomped on the woman’s head one more time.

“Rudolph, your nose is a flashlight—that doesn’t make it sensitive.”

Rudolph smiled and his nose lit up. “I tell you what, boss: you get you one of these noses and tell me it don’t get a little sensitive after having it on all night.”

“You were born that way, you freak of nature,” Nick said and laughed aloud before growing serious again. “How could you tell?”

“Nicholas, old boss, wasn’t it you who said you have to be able to smell a hater from a mile away?”

“Well, yeah, but that is just a figure of speech.”

“Not for me, Nick. I could smell her an hour before I saw her. Granny, here, reeks of someone who hates Christmas. And she don’t just hate it, she despises it.”

Nick nodded and scratched his nearly bald head. “How’d she get all the way out here?”

“She must have been determined,” Rudolph said and looked around. “You know yourself, what determination can do for a person.” Again, his nose lit up, shining brightly, then dimming. “There are tracks leading from the woods—she’s been waiting.”

“I wonder what she was up to?”

Rudolph rolled his eyes again. “Think about it, Nick. She was here to take you out, old man.”

”But why would she—“ Nick started to say before it dawned on him. His eyes popped open, his jaw went slack.

Rudolph nodded.

“I see now. If she gets rid of me, then there is no Christmas.”

“That’s right, Nick, old boy,” Rudolph said and stepped away from the body. “I don’t know what you did to her but you pissed her off pretty bad. I’ve never heard of anyone trying to take out Santa Clause.”

“Do you really think she was here to do me harm?” Nick asked as he looked down at the pulpy mass.

“Dude, she was here to kill you,” Rudolph said. “But don’t sweat it, Boss, I’ve got your back and she’s just meat for the bugs, now.”

Nick clapped Rudolph on the neck and they started away from the body. He glanced back momentarily and smiled.

“Would you like a beer?” Nick asked.

“Nah,” Rudolph replied, “but I’ll take a fuzzy navel, especially if you’re buying.”

“Oh, I’m buying, alright.”

“Nick, do you have a cigarette?” Rudolph asked.

“Sure do,” Nick said. “But, don’t let Martha know. She thinks I quit.”

Nick placed a cigarette between Rudolph’s lips and looked back toward the woman. Pulling out his lighter, he flicked it several times before it came to life. He lit the cigarette and stepped back.

The sound of the rifle penetrated the air. Rudolph teetered, one eye wide in disbelief. The other eye was gone, as was the back of his head and his once bright red nose. Nick bent down slipped the cigarette from between Rudolph’s lips and placed it between his own.

Rudolph’s body twitched, his back hoof jitterbugged.

“Cocky son-of-a-bambi, wasn’t he?” came a voice from the shadows.

“Yes, Blitzen. The cockiest.”

“You reckon he knew?” Blitzen asked, nodding and motioning to the woman.

“I don’t think so, but if he did, well, at least he was good for something before he died.”

“Do you reckon Martha knows about the affair?”

“No. But, she would have, if it wasn’t for Rudolph sniffing her out.”

“He had a good nose,” Blitzen said and walked off.

“Yeah, that’s about the only thing I’m going to miss of him.”

“You may want to get someone out here to clean up the bodies. You don’t want to leave them here overnight.”

“I’ve already got it taken care of, Blitzen,” Nick said and blew out a long strand of smoke. “Ahh, here they come now.”

Rounding the corner was an old beat up pick-up truck. One head light was blown out, but with the way it kicked and sputtered there was no doubt to Nick who it was.

“Howdy, Nick,” the driver said as he pulled up. His hair was a brilliant white, as was the stubble on his knobby chin.

“Evening, Jack. How’s Mrs. Frost doing?”

“She’s fine, and Martha?”

“Oh, she’s doing well. Gearing up for the Christmas rush.”

Jack got out of the truck and rubbed his head. “So, what is it you need, Nick?”

‘Well, it seems one of my trainees has been shot.”

“Ahh, man, I’m sorry to hear that,” Jack said and shook his head in disgust. “I thought it was illegal to hunt in these parts.”

“It is, but sometimes they do it anyway. You know how it can be.”

“Yeah, so what’s one of your trainees got to do with me?”

Nick pointed at the ground where Rudolph lay, his head face down in the snow. “I hear you like venison.”

***

Again, I hope you liked the story and, well, it’s time for a shameless plug. If you would like to find more of my work, you can pick up my short story collection, Southern Bones, here

I would appreciate if you would pick up a copy, and leave a review. Like the page, if you will.

Okay, no more plugging for now.

Until we meet again, my friends…

O Christmas Tree–Free Seasonal Fiction

It’s the time of year where folks are supposed to be joyous and merry and cheerful and… yeah, whatever. Christmas is not what Christmas used to be. There’s really no need to pretend. Most folks just don’t get into the Christmas spirit and plenty of them have forgotten the reason Christmas is even celebrated.

I must be honest, I’m not a big fan of this season, but not because Christmas isn’t a joyous time of year, but because of all of the commercialism that Christmas has become. It wasn’t like this when I was a kid—or at least, I didn’t notice it being this way.

Since there are only 16 days left until Christmas, I’m polishing off the Christmas stories and writing a couple of new ones to post in the next two plus weeks. Hopefully, you will enjoy them. Please, feel free to comment or share with others. And try and have a wonderful Christmas season.

O Christmas Tree
By A.J. Brown

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” Cory sang as he climbed down from the attic. In one hand was a small white box. The other held tight to the railing. He folded the ladder, locked it in place and closed the drop door to the attic. “With the kids jingle belling, and everyone yelling—”

He paused, his song not sounding quite right. Ad the lyrics ran through his head, he tried to recall how the song really went.

“It’s not ‘yelling’ you dense fool,” he said to himself and began singing again. “It’s the most wonderful time of the year. With the kids jingle belling and everyone telling you ‘Be of good cheer.’ It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”

Nodding in satisfaction, Cory walked into his living room and set the box down on the coffee table. He looked around at the other boxes that held lights, ornaments, tinsel and other little knick-knacks. There was a Santa Claus doll and a train, complete with tracks and a smokestack that blew out real smoke, thanks to a sliver of dry ice and a dab of water. There were several houses in little red boxes, a town he liked to put together around the tree, places for the train to pass by as it went along its merry way.

“I love this time of year,” he said and clasped his hands together. “Don’t you, Charles?”

Charles looked up at him from his mat on the floor, his muddy brown eyes holding that forlorn look that all basset hounds seemed to have. His tail lifted off the floor and flopped back down—his best attempt at a wag.

“I knew you did,” Cory said and opened the box labeled LIGHTS. He pulled out several groups of green-chorded bulbs, bundled together and tied neatly with twine. Setting each strand aside, he thought of what he wanted on his tree this year. White lights? Multi-colored lights? The big ones or little ones? Bubble lights or maybe the little twinkly ones? Cory’s eyes lit up when he saw the blue lights. “I haven’t used these in years.”

As he untied the twine around the chord, Cory began singing again.

“Have a holly, jolly Christmas.
It’s the best time of the year.
I don’t know if there’ll be snow, but have a cup of cheer.”

Cory plugged the lights in and smiled when they came to life. “Blue it is this year.”

Carefully, he began to string the lights onto his tree. Though it held only two branches and was bare of leaves and that wonderful pine smell, it would still serve its purpose, even if it was unconventional. Cory shrugged at the unconventional thought. Most new-agers weren’t into all the Christmas tradition, but Cory was, so not having his normal lush green pine tugged at his heart a little.

With only the two branches near the top, Cory had to put hooks all along its trunk. Occasionally a little fluid seeped out where the hooks were, but Cory didn’t seem to mind. Charles always cleaned it up. For some reason, the old dog liked the way it tasted.

As he strung the lights, he sang again, changing a couple of words to reflect his own tree.

“I’ll have a blue Christmas without you.
I’ll be so blue thinking about you.
Decorations of blue on a white Christmas tree,
Won’t mean a thing if you’re not here with me.”

After the lights, he pulled out a long strand of garish yellow garland. He strung it a little more haphazardly, but tried to make sure it didn’t clash with the lights.

“I’m loving it,” Cory said to himself and opened a box of ornaments.

He was searching through them, trying to find the right ones when he heard a soft moan. Cory’s head jerked up and he turned around. A smile creased his face. “Awake so soon, my dear?”

The lady in the corner said nothing, but her eyes spoke volumes.

“Oh, don’t be afraid,” Cory said. “They’re only Christmas decorations.”

Another moan escaped the blonde’s throat, this one coming out much louder than the first one.

“Please, don’t fuss, sweetheart. It’s Christmas remember? The holidays?”

A third, louder moan that would have been a scream if she could have opened her mouth.

Cory shook his head in disappointment. “I knew you wouldn’t be in the holiday spirit,” he said. “Well, maybe when I’m done, you’ll change your mind.”

Turning away from her, Cory picked up two ornaments, both bright purple with white sequins forming a curly-queue pattern on them. He attached a metal loop on each one and then walked back over to his tree—to the lovely blond who had been less than vigorously ringing the bell outside the department store earlier in the evening. She hadn’t been too cheerful at all and she made it obvious when Cory dropped his change in the bucket. Cory thought it was because of the charity hour she had to donate to the cause of the homeless.

“Have a nice Christmas,” he had said and listened as the coins rattled in the bright red kettle.

“Yeah, right,” she murmured under her breath.

Cory didn’t think he was supposed to hear the comment but he had, and it bothered him. He stopped and looked at the woman, her green eyes underneath eyebrows that were furrowed down, making her look angry. She wasn’t the most appealing woman in the world but there was a certain prettiness even through her cold demeanor.

“Ma’am, would you like to have dinner with me?” he asked.

“You’re kidding, right?”

“No, I’m serious. You seem like you’re not too much into the Christmas spirit and I would like to help change that.”

“No,” she said, flatly.

“Suit yourself,” Cory said and walked off.

By the time he reached his car, Cory was distraught over her reaction to him. “I must change her mind,” he said.

Patiently, he waited until her shift was over and she made her way to her car, a couple of parking spots down from his own. With her back to him she wasn’t able to see him until his reflection appeared in her window. Her eyes grew wide as she spun around to defend herself. Cory grabbed her face and smashed her head backwards into the driver’s side window. The window cracked into tiny outstretched lines, like a spider’s web, as a smear of blood rolled down it.

“You’re a mean one, Mrs. Grinch,” he sang as he lifted her to her feet and helped her to his car. “You really are a heel. You’re as cuddly as a cactus. You’re as charming as an eel, Mrs. Griiiiinnnnnch. You’re a bad banana with a greasy black peeeeeel.”

“Aren’t these lovely?” he said and held the ornaments in front of her. “I think they’ll look great on you.”

He went to hang the two ornaments on the hooks he hard carefully screwed into her flesh. She struggled to move her arms and legs, but the wooden cross she hung on held her arms out and her legs together, making it impossible for her to do anything but shiver and shake. He placed the ornaments, one at each elbow, and went back for more. Again he sung a song as he decorated her body with ornaments of all different shapes and sizes.

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas everywhere you go. There’s a tree in the Grand Hotel, one in the park as well; the sturdy kind that doesn’t mind the snow. It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas, soon the bells will start. And the thing that will make them ring is the carol that you sing right within your heart.”

He looked up at the tears tracing down his blond tree’s face. Wiping them away, he frowned. “This isn’t working, is it?”

She screamed the best she could, but with her lips sewn shut with green thread it came out muffled.

“That’s okay,” Cory said and pulled the Santa Clause from its box. Lifting it up, he brushed off a year’s worth of dust that somehow got into the box and set it at her feet. It matched her red toenails.

The houses that normally went around the tree, went along the mantle above the fire place, set up in a precise manner that had the town’s small Christmas tree in the center. Santa Claus was on one roof, about to set foot in a chimney. All the while, Cory sang Christmas carols, sometimes stopping to put his hands in the air, dramatizing each movement and word he belted out.

“All that’s left is to plug in the lights,” Cory said, happily.

Carefully, he plugged all of the lights into surge protectors and turned off the overhead lamp. The lights came alive when he flipped a switch on the main power chord and the room became a glow of blues and yellows and whites. Santa Clause danced at the foot of the tree and Charles even sat up for a moment, his tail smacking hard on the floor a couple of times.

“Something is wrong, Charles,” Cory said as he stared hard at his beautiful tree. “What is missing?”

Charles only glanced up before lying back down on his mat, closing his eyes, as if to try and forget what his master was doing.

“A-ha,” Cory shouted in elation. “There is no star on top of the tree.”

Cory knelt down and rummaged through several of the boxes. Standing up, he walked over to where the little box he had pulled down from the attic was. Opening it, he took out a silver star.

“I thought I cleaned this, last year,” he said and began to wipe the crusted red flakes from its sharp steel tip. Underneath the flakes was rust that had set in and wasn’t coming off easily. “Oh, well, I guess she’ll be the last one that gets to wear this star, Charles. It gets tossed out with the tree this year.”

Cory stood and walked back to the tree, singing.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how steadfast are your branches!
Your boughs are green in summer’s clime
And through the snows of wintertime.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, how steadfast are your branches!”

“You’re going to be so beautiful,” Cory said and stepped onto a step stool.

Charles sat up, his tail wagging faster than it had in a long while.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, what happiness befalls me
When oft at joyous Christmas-time
Your form inspires my song and rhyme.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, what happiness befalls me.”

The woman let out a loud muffled scream that tore part of the green stitching away from her lips just before Cory drove the star into her skull. It cracked and then gave way under the tip’s pressure. Blood trickled from around the star and dripped down her face. Her body convulsed, violently at first, slowed and then ceased moving altogether.

Cory stepped back and wiped a speck of blood from his brow. “I almost toppled the tree this year, Charles,” he said. “That would have been a terrible thing, don’t you think?”

Charles stood and walked over to Cory, his eyes fixed on the small puddle of blood underneath the woman. He lowered his head and started lapping at the puddle.

Looking up at his work of art—the woman with no Christmas spirit—Cory began to sing once more as tears brimmed in his eyes.

“O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your boughs can teach a lesson
That constant faith and hope sublime,
Lend strength and comfort through all time.
O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree, your boughs can teach a lesson.”

***

I hope you enjoyed O Christmas Tree, and for anyone who knows me, then you know I like telling folks where story ideas came from.

O Christmas Tree is a product of the blond-haired woman portrayed in the story. One evening in 2006 (when this story was written) I exited the local Wal-Mart with a bag in hand and in a bit of a festive mood. The woman stood outside the front doors, bundled up and barely ringing the little hand bell that comes with the hour long commitment to The Salvation Army charity that happens all along the country. This ‘commitment’ is voluntary—unless of course, a business sponsors it for a day or week, then the workers get ‘volunteered’ to do it, which I suspect is what happened in this case. None-the-less, if you are going ring the bell for an hour, the least you can do is appear that you want to be there. I generally give to those who are singing and saying Merry Christmas and are smiling and saying thank you and all that good stuff. It’s harder to give to those who just stand there like our Mrs. Grinch.

I placed a dollar in coins in the bucket, said ‘Merry Christmas,’ and proceeded to walk away.

‘Whatever,’ came mumbling from her lips. I honestly don’t believe I was supposed to hear the comment, but I did. I turned and looked at her. She glared back at me, as if daring me to say something. I smiled, though my head was shaking from side to side and my lips were somewhat tucked in against my teeth. ‘That’s sad,’ I said and walked off.

I would love to say I brushed this off and forgot about it, but I didn’t. I was disappointed in the attitude of the volunteer and just couldn’t let it go. I started to go back and say something when I noticed someone was standing beside her. She handed the bell to an older black man, and then walked away, her hands shoved into her pockets, her head down and a somewhat relieved, yet angry expression on her face.

There was no need to say anything to her. She struck me as an unhappy person who would just argue anything I—or anyone else, for that matter—would have to say. Instead, I walked off, reached my car and went to get in. That’s when I noticed her car was only a few spots away from mine. No, I didn’t go over to her and smash her head against the window, but right then the story came to me and I knew that one of my favorite character’s, a guy named Cory, would make another appearance in a short story. I went home that night and wrote O Christmas Tree.

I hope you enjoyed the read, and until we meet again, my friends…

A Bit of Nostalgia

So Christmas has come and gone and left its mark on the world. Gifts were given, Christmas shows were watched, food was eaten, people were visited and… to be honest, I’m glad it’s over. I’ve never been a big fan of the Christmas season, but I try to be cheerful and I try to get into the Christmas spirit…

But, really, sometimes it’s just hard to… Then other times it’s not so tough… I’m not sure which one it was this year, maybe an in between?

For those out there, I hope you all had a great Christmas.

And Ma Nature was only a day late for us. We almost had a white Christmas. But, she gave it to us on Boxing Day so, I guess that means we have a white Boxing Day instead. This means I have excited children, even if the snow is only sticking on the grass in the front and melting in the back—yeah, I know, it’s weird.

This post is not about Christmas though. It’s about Baseball. No, not professional baseball, but baseball in its purest form: little league, tee ball, coach’s pitch… yeah that baseball. Wow, I just used the word baseball four times… oops, now five times in one paragraph. Oh well. Baseball…

On Christmas Eve my wife and daughter did the annual women’s shopping that her family always does. In the meantime, that left the boy and me together. We ate at Arby’s and then played Star Wars. Guess who won? I can give you a hint: it wasn’t me. After that we went to the park, played chase.

Ohh, let me tell you what that stinker did. He fell down while I was chasing him. When I caught up to him he was on the ground and I was about to attack him (because that’s what monsters do, yah know) and he cries out:

Logan: Ouch, ouch, ouch.
Me: Are you okay?
Logan: I hurt my leg. I hurt my leg.
I helped him up and brushed his pants off.
Me: Which leg did you hurt?
Logan, as he runs away: hahahahaha… stinker…

Yes, he tricked me, much like his mother does.

We left that park and went to the baseball park where my son hopped on his scooter and rode around the ball fields. As he did this, I walked onto the first field, looked out over the red clay infield and the once green but now brown grass. The bases were still in place. Lying between second and third just on the outfield grass was a baseball. I walked onto the field, picked the ball up and gripped it tight. I rolled it over on my palm, ran my fingers along the strings, rubbed the ball, wiping away any wetness that may have still been on it from the rains a few days earlier.

Being a writer, my mind began to roam. I stepped off the field and back through the dugout. My son was doing ‘tricks’ with his scooter and I watched him, a smile on my face. When he raced off, I followed, passing the concessions stand in the center of the complex. By then baseball was entrenched in my mind.

I love baseball. Understand this, I’m no longer a fan of pro baseball—PED’s and money hungry players and agents, cheaters and teams trying to stack the tables so they can win. I’ve lost a lot of respect for the professionals—it’s a game and they’ve lost sight of that. I love the little leagues, when the kids are still kids and enjoy playing (if not practicing) the game.

I love the smell of fresh cut grass, the sound of the ping of bat on ball, the kids cheering for each other and making calls at the other teams: We want a pitcher, not a belly itcher and other sayings that really make no sense at all. I love the tastes of hot dogs and chili fries and nachos with cheese. I love the sound of parents cheering and boys laughing. I love coaches who want to teach (not so much the coaches who only want to win) and kids who want to learn. I love pre-game batting practices and getting to the ballpark just a little early. I love when the lights come on, bathing the world in a white glow that centers on the diamond. I love when the children play the game and it’s still about having fun.

That is the baseball I love.

As I watched my son, I recalled the two seasons of Tee Ball that he played and how much fun it was, not just to watch him and the other kids playing, but helping coach the teams.

It took me back to when I was a kid. I wasn’t a very good hitter, but I was an okay fielder. I would have never made baseball a career—definitely never was good enough to do so. However, I miss the feel of playing, the anticipation of stepping onto the field, of how it felt to catch a ball and throw it to first base, to swing and miss or, if I was lucky, make contact. Boy, I miss those days…

If you have children or even if you don’t, go out to the ball field one day, listen to the sounds, watch the joy in those wondrous faces. If you’ve never loved baseball before that, you will by the time you leave…

For now I’m AJ and I have children who want to go outside and play in the spotty snow…