He watched out the window with a marked grimace as the children frolicked in the snow, light icy crystals falling gracefully before young impressionable eyes. The white flecks nearly covered his yard with their sloping mini-hills, and in the distance he could hear a too shrill voice bleating out something about joy and the world. Mike Jove merely sputtered, and shook his head.
He turned his attention from the eager pre-Christmas revelers, a Norman Rockwell still life if he’d ever seen one, and gazed instead at an old picture frame held snugly in his hands. Portrait of an ideal family, all wide-brimmed smiles, captured forever in a frame. Mike’s stare was blank and baleful, not really seeing what he was looking at, as he slowly rocked back and forth in a recliner with his own thoughts. A grimy finger rubbed the smooth glass, his eyes closing, as he lost himself in thought. It could have been so different.
It was unnaturally warm in Mike’s house, even for the yule time, yet the large man still wore a sweater. Wrinkles creased in consternation, Mike couldn’t have gripped the frame harder if it were a life preserver in a sea of drowning. He averted his eyes, the frame all too painful to look at, as the don’t-quit-your-day-job caroler hummed on about bells of silver and other such shiny things. His dining room was a more comfortable sight than the joyful kids, but it still held its own sense of loss.
A tree squatted haphazardly near the hearth, precariously close to toppling; Mike rarely used the fireplace anymore and the precious few gifts set before it had mostly his own name on both the to: and from: lines. The mantle itself was barren. He had taken down the crucifixes at the same time he had taken down the pictures. There was no manger and no baby Jesus. The oaken table was set, as it always was, with three place settings, a single unopened letter resting before one of them. It was not just any letter, it was the letter, the only one that ever mattered. The corners of the frame dug into Mike’s hand but he scarcely felt it. It was the stockings, hung with such care, that really got to him every year. They were flat and empty, one smaller than the rest. He didn’t know why he did this to himself. It was almost as if things were kept prepared, maybe there was some hope that things would somehow, some way go back to the way they were, back when things were right. If he could only wait long enough…
It was the small stocking that did it; the soft red felt with carefully cut letters stuck on with the reckless care of an over-eager child with Saint Nick on his mind, those letters with their glitter, a constant reminder of the joy that went into their construction that always brought the tears. Mike Jove had watched and he had laughed and he had shared the laughter, once.
“Owww!” Mike cursed as the glass bit him. He had been pressing harder and harder against the frame and the glass had cracked, a shard digging deep beneath his skin. The broken frame, now in pieces, fell to the floor unnoticed as Mike pried the sliver free. A healthy flush of blood followed, but at least that shard was gone. Mike stood up quickly, only to fall back down again into the chair. He had put weight on his bad leg too quickly. It had been years, but sometimes he still forgot which side was the weak one. Remedying his error, he stood.
Mike Jove applied pressure to his wound, trying to staunch the bleeding. Gathering up the pieces, miring them with blood in the process, the wounded man attempted to pile them upon an end table, not wanting to repeat his luck later on with a shard in the foot, also realizing that he would probably be too drunk to remember if he didn’t do it now. Leaving his minuscule testament to pain, he went into the kitchen. He couldn’t help but stare, as he always did, as he passed the unopened once a year holiday letter, written in that familiar feminine scrawl he knew as well as his own, grimacing at the Florida postmarks. It only made him walk faster. Somewhere, not far away, a voice was crooning that it was beginning to look a lot like Christmas.
His stomach grew sour as he stared blankly at the blood welling from his finger, thinking about it again. Mike’s mind had been turning back to the subject with alarming frequency as of late, and as he queasily observed the red trickle, he wondered, not for the first time, if he had the courage to go through with it. Mike honestly didn’t know when he’d decided to do it. If he was asked, as he was sure he would be afterwards, he was not even certain if he could articulate a valid answer and wondered, if there truly was a single reason. Sure, there were those old cop-outs: too many holidays alone, too much stress, tack them onto the never ending list, but honestly Mike didn’t have a clear reason. He simply knew he was going to kill someone. That’s all there was to it. He would find someone who he had a valid reason to kill and then he’d do it. People talked about it all the time. Man I’d love to kill that guy or What I wouldn’t give to see that guy dead. His thoughts were hardly abnormal, he reasoned, he was just going to take it one step further.
Mike knew he wouldn’t kill just anyone; that was what a crazy person would do. No, he would find someone who really deserved it and then, bam, he would pop them one. Well, not really pop them one, he rationalized, too loud, too messy. But a nice little slice here and there, that would do just fine. Looking at his bloody finger now, and picturing pools and pools of the red liquid was enough to give Mike second thoughts, but he knew that he’d reached that point where all he could do was plunge the knife into himself or someone else.
The towel soaked up his blood nicely, the pressure forcing his body to coagulate and quell the flow. He gazed about, not wanting to focus on the crimson stain lest he lose his resolve. His kitchen was plain, austere, only the necessities. Mike pulled the towel away, cautiously inspecting the jagged gash. He looked toward his wrists, transposing that line. It was a futile exercise. He had trudged this road before, and glancing at the large carving knife, a multi-purpose Ginsu, sharp for a thousand cuts or so the ad claimed, he knew that if he been serious about taking the punch-your-own-ticket route, he would have done so long before now, like on that first Christmas alone. Picking up the phone he dialed his cell phone number, the task made more difficult by the pain in his thumb, forcing him to cradle the receiver in the crook of his shoulder. Punching in his code, his spirits lifted as the mechanical mistress’ voice informed him he had one new message. Carol? Despite Mike’s best efforts to quell his rising hopes, they came all the same.
It was a sultry voice, one that sounded more than a little drunk. “Hey, Merry Christmas you sexy boy. I hope you’re thinking of me, I’m thinking of you. In fact I can’t stop thinking of you. Give me a call big boy. I’ll be waiting. Oh and Phil, bring some more champagne. We’re all out.” Figures, Mike thought bitterly, the first provocative message I’ve ever gotten and it’s the wrong number.
Mike hung up the phone with resentment. He didn’t have long to think about it because a loud chime drew his attention to the door. He had never really had many callers, and as of late that declining number was trickling off faster than ever. It wasn’t just his cynical unsociable manner, it was his cynical unsociable manner and the fact that, quite frankly, Mike Jove was a man headed the wrong way down a one-way street and everyone knew it. Walking through to the dining room, and hearing a familiar nasal voice jingling from behind the door calling, “Seasons Greetings from your friend Greg,” Mike retreated, grabbed the Ginsu with his good hand, and went to make his acquaintance with his new friend Greg, the limp making the progress slow, if not more than a little agonizing.
“Hey, Merry Christmas to you, friend. Wow, will you look at that hand. Boy that had to hurt.” To Mike, the man was every bit as disagreeable as the tone of his voice. The stranger’s penchant for bluntness, coupled with the fact that he was gawking at Mike’s hand like he had two hands growing from his wrist instead of just some minor cut that was soaking into a towel, unnerved him. Mike’s good hand, held surreptitiously behind his back, clinched involuntarily, tightening its grip around the knife. “My name’s Greg Atan. Nice to meet you. God bless and keep you.” He extended his hand, which Mike made no gesture to shake, and after a few seconds, Greg withdrew the appendage.
Mike smiled. “Merry Christmas to you too, friend.” He was actually kind of enjoying this. Toying with his potential prey, trying to see if this new arrival fortune had so graciously placed upon his doorstep could fit the criteria.
“Wow, what a nice place you’ve got here. I can’t believe it’s just you living here. This is a perfect house for kids.”
Way to rub it in buddy. Chalk one up on the scoreboard. Mike almost slammed the door shut right then and there on this brazen interloper, but something tugged at his mind. “How do you know that I live here alone?”
“Well, Mike, I’ve been doing this a long time and, I mean, everybody knows that you’re here all by yourself, since, well you know.” Strike two.
“How long is a long time?”
“I’ve never seen you before.” Mike said.
“Well, Mike, let’s face it,” the colloquial, I’m-your-buddyness of his speech was somehow the worst part of all, “you aren’t exactly the most friendly guy in the neighborhood.” This guy was just asking for it. “In fact this is the first year, I’ve even had the guts to come up and knock on your door.” Greg made a gesture like he was going to impart some grave secret, leaning close and dropping his voice a bit with the last, “To be perfectly honest man, you kinda scare me sometimes. You know, all shut up in your house all the time. I mean it’s just a little cuckoo, if you ask me.” He took a step back, laughing as if he’d just cracked the world’s funniest joke. “Ahh I’m just messin’ with you, pal.” Mike did not move, nor did he smile. Becoming a bit uncomfortable, Greg felt it his duty to fill the dead air. “So do you want to hear a tune? How’s ‘Dashing Through the Snow’ sound, or a little ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer’?”
Mike beamed at him. “Why don’t you come in?”
Greg smiled like he’d just hit the lottery. “Really? Thanks. You’re so nice.” There was something about Greg’s over-the-top friendliness that rubbed Mike the wrong way. People like Greg looked at everything in life, no matter how bad or hurtful, as if it could be gathered, processed, squeezed and quantified, and turned into something happy and wonderful. To Mike there was just something blatantly wrong with that kind of thinking.
Mike led Greg into the dining room, taking great pains to hide the fact that he limped, but the caroler didn’t even look at his host, taking in every detail of the house, as he plopped carelessly into a chair at the dining room table. Mike fumed at the intrusion, but he kept his composure. His palm grew clammy holding the blade and he took every effort to make sure his guest didn’t catch so much as a glimpse of it. “You must be thirsty after all that singing.”
“No, not really. You get kind of used to it. Man, I just love to see the looks on people’s faces when I show my stuff.” Greg smiled, brushing a recalcitrant lock of hair out of his face. On the whole, his mane was long and unkempt, as if his mission to provide happiness to everyone in the world made it all right to neglect personal hygiene. “Hey, how come you got three place settings? You expecting company?”
“Just you.” Mike had to bite down hard on his tongue to keep from spitting a harsh rejoinder.
“Oh, but look, you got three stockings…”
“Yes, I do, don’t I?” Mike cut him off before he could say more. It stung enough as it was. “So what do you want to drink? Brandy? Scotch? I’ve got a lot to choose from.”
“When I’m doing the Lord’s work I don’t like to drink. Just a little water will be fine.”
Mike turned to the kitchen with a speed that was almost a run.
* * * * *
The knife sat on the center island of the kitchen and Mike Jove was staring at it with a trance-like intensity. He just couldn’t believe this guy. The man had barged into his home and was laying to waste everything that he still had left in his life. And he was so glib as he was doing it. He was practically begging for it. This interloper had done everything but call him a lonely degenerate. But still, there was something… Mike didn’t know if he could go through with it. After all the bolster, all the bravado, he just didn’t know if he could kill someone, especially a Christmas caroler. But on the other hand, the things this guy did, and the way he had appeared at just the right moment, it was almost a sign. Mike paced, wringing his hands as he did so, the wound on his finger tearing open again and a fresh sputter of blood beginning to trickle out. He had to do this. He had committed to it. He ran his thumb along the blade, marveling at the obscene beauty of the crimson smear on the polished steel. It would be done so fast. One, maybe two, slices and it would be over. His stomach could handle that much. The guy would never know what hit him. Sink it in, pull it out, and it would all be done.
Mike shook his head. Try as he might, staring at the blade and all its possibilities, he knew he just couldn’t bring himself to do it. Shaking his head, he poured himself three fingers worth of brandy from his decanter and filled a chipped glass with water for his guest. Sardonically he thought, maybe he’ll cut his lip on the chip. I’ve heard bacteria grows in those cracks, nasty stuff, festering stuff. Maybe he’ll get a right good infection. Mike smiled at his own cleverness.
Taking up the two glasses, he started off, and then for the second time this day, he back-tracked, deciding to take the blade just in case, tucking the implement into his waistband, making sure his shirt tail covered the protruding hilt. He picked up the glasses and was off, safe in the knowledge that just because he had lost everything did not mean that he would make someone else lose everything. And to Mike Jove that was enough.
* * * * *
Mike dropped both glasses on the carpet as he walked in and saw Greg’s choice of reading material. Remarkably neither cup shattered, but both made a huge mess on the floor. He was livid. Mike had returned to see his holiest of holies violated. Each year he received a letter from his ex wife. A letter he never opened. He had hoped and feared and wondered and debated every Christmas about what was in each letter and yet he never opened any of them. A plea to come home or a stirring confirmation that his family wished he would drop dead. He would never know, but as long as he never opened it there was always that hope that one day they’d come home. He didn’t know what he would do if he knew that the most important part of his life was gone forever. He didn’t know how he would go on. So each year, for three long years, he looked at the envelope every day, tracing that fine scrawl with his finger, until the pain became just too much, the letter discolored by dried tears, and then it was filed away in his night stand until the next year’s mail came. But this guest, Greg, this stranger, had seen fit to open it and it wasn’t even his mail. And this was something more than just a letter.
“What are you doing?!” Mike demanded, suddenly torn between pulling out his knife and butchering the living hell out of his guest, or simply tearing the man apart with his bare hands. In the end, he did neither, only repeating, in a very strained voice, “What are you doing?”
“Man, that ex of yours sure seems like a nice lady. Seems all she wants is for you to get your act together. Get a job, provide a little security. Stop drinking.”
“It doesn’t sound all that bad man. And your daughter, I guess she’s doin’ okay too.”
“Just stop!” It was a scream.
“Don’t yell, Mike.” Greg had gotten up, dropping the letter back to the table and with it, Mike’s hopes and dreams, withdrawing a small pistol as he did so. “I really don’t like it when people yell. It’s time for this stupid game to end, Mike. This is one of those turning points in your life.”
“Who are you?”
“Someone who’s been watching you, Mike. Someone who’s been waiting for the right opportunity.” All the colloquial camaraderie was gone, and Mike found himself realizing just how much he missed it in the face of this cold-hearted demeanor.
“But why?” Mike was crushed, his emotions riding a rollercoaster of uncertainty, but superceding all, he was confused, utterly confused. Who was this man and what was he doing here? And more importantly what did he want?
“I guess there isn’t really a reason is there? Its just something you do. Something you decide on, then you do. You look at the rewards, then bang, you do it.”
“But… I don’t understand…”
“I studied you. I knew all about you. Lived alone. Wife took off with the kid a couple of years back. You know, you got some nice stuff here, so that’s a perk. You’re a shut-in so nobody’s really gonna miss you, and there won’t be any unwelcome visitors. You don’t spend a dime, so you gotta have some sort of stash somewhere. Now do you understand what this is all about? Its robbery, plain and simple. And now you’re going to get your money for me or I’m going do you a favor and put you out of your misery. A bullet’s the ultimate painkiller, bud. Wanna try?” He motioned with his pistol.
“So this… this was all a scam?”
“Damn straight. What better disguise than right out in the open. No one’s gonna believe that nice Mr. Christmas Caroler was a stick-up man, and even if they did, no one knows who I am. I case joints and knock ’em over at Christmas time. Best time of year, everyone’s so charitable. I was countin’ on you openin’ your door for me, but I had a backup plan, just be lucky I didn’t have to use it. Now I want you to take me to your stash and gather up anything valuable you have and I’m gonna make like wicked old Mr. Grinch.”
Mike backed up a step and Greg advanced, getting right on top of him. “Don’t even think of using that knife. I don’t know what you’re doing carrying a knife in the first place, but you’re the suicidal loner so that’s your business. I spotted it soon as I flopped down in your daughter’s chair.” Mike cursed and Greg exercised control, pressing the cool steel up against his victim’s temple. “Now, slowly, real slowly I want you to take out the knife and drop it on the ground.” Mike complied, fighting every inch of the way the urge to just lunge for Greg and grab the gun, knowing he had no choice. Now that he truly had his valid reason for murder he couldn’t do a thing about it. The knife made a muted clang as it hit the floor, taking Mike’s hopes with it.
“Now you’re going to tell me where that nest egg is.”
Mike stalled for time. “How can you do this? I don’t have anything anymore. It’s so evil…”
“You’re damn right it is. But hey, one life to live right? You were the perfect mark. Just asking for it. You know holidays are the best time. All that religious junk, it just makes people soft. Just like you. You let your guard down. You let me into your house. And now you’re gonna pay.” There was a marked hatred in his words.
“But you don’t understand,” Mike was near tears, “I don’t have anything.”
“Oh, yes you do. That job incident that ended your career. Why you’re afraid of work, why you drink. Oh yes, I looked into all that, yeah, I know all about you Mike Jove. It ruined your marriage and it’s the reason why you limp. You’re too scared to even leave the house for a few minutes. Afraid it’ll happen again. Shot in the line of duty.” He pressed the pistol hard into Mike’s skull. “And if you don’t do what I say, you’re gonna be shot again. There was a settlement. You cleaned up. Now it’s my turn.”
“No. No you don’t understand. I gave it all to her when she left. I wanted her to have something to know I still loved her, that I still loved our daughter.” His voice was cracking but there was grim triumph in his words. “Apparently you didn’t do your homework well enough.”
Then everything was like a flash frame, etched in perfect detail. Greg screamed in rage, striking out with the gun. The blow took Mike in the side of the head, issuing a ragged gash in his skin, the amount of blood seeming impossible. The blow knocked Mike to the side, Greg taking aim with the gun, apparently reasoning that if he couldn’t get the money from Mike he was prepared to get it in flesh instead. Then something miraculous happened. Mike’s weak leg, which threatened to buckle under the strain did no such thing, held with a strength that felt as if a warm glow was filling the socket, keeping it strong. The glint of the shattered glass from the broken frame caught his eye, and without thinking he snatched up a handful, unmindful of the pain and jammed it into Greg’s unsuspecting face. The agony was intense, the glass cutting both ways, but Mike did not relent, driving the shards deeper into Greg’s skin and eyes. One gunshot went off and then another. Mike felt a tug in his side but he saw no blood. He had little time to think as the gun fired again and he hit the floor. Blinded by the glass, Greg was firing wildly, giving Mike a chance to snatch up the knife. Slashing without guidance, his blade sliced the back side of Greg’s leg, dropping the man to the floor. The wild firing did not stop, but one quick thrust of the knife and it was over.
For several moments, Mike just sat there, stunned, in disbelief that this whole thing had happened to him, whispering prayers of thanks over and over again in a litany. Something had happened this day, something more than just a series of events. It had been a sign.
Mike scrambled over to the letter, his face matted in blood, fear still etched in his eyes, but tinged with hope. His heart beating like a marathon runner’s closing sprint, he read and re-read the floral stationery, tears pouring down his cheeks. He crumpled the paper against his breast, holding it there, letting the sobs wrack him and the warmth fill him. Mike finally realized that he had been living in fear. Ever since the incident he’d been afraid. Afraid of confrontation, afraid of the world. He had let his life slip away from him because he had been too scared to grasp it. Mike was smart enough to know a second chance when he saw one. He always hoped and wondered if he would ever have his life back. And now he had an answer. He thought of his wife and daughter. A slight grin curled at the corners of his lips as he grabbed the phone. Dialing would be difficult, but he would manage.
He would call the police. But, first, he had one more important phone call to make.