This Memory of Happiness

This Memory of Happiness

Illustration by Denny E. Marshall

by C.J. Henderson


“At Christmas play and make good cheer,
for Christmas comes but once a year.”
–Thomas Tusser

The slithering darkness formed slowly, patiently—as it did every cycle at that time. The days growing shorter certainly contributed to its increasing progress, as did the planet’s ever-expanding distance from the star around which it generated its orbit. Less sunlight to burn the growing seed, less of the noxious radiations spewed by the miserable, fourth-rate sun around which it twirled to hinder the steady progress.

Atom by atom it formed, carefully finding the bonding pairs it desired, using the terrible Arctic cold to help it attract the electrons it needed. Bending the surrounding elements to create itself anew. Slowly, patiently.

Bit by bit.

Every cycle, another attempt. Every completed circling by the miserable, insignificant dirtball of its gravitational center gave the visitor another chance. Of course, it was not as if the darkness minded the waiting—the repetition. Indeed, it possessed no actual concept of haste, no understanding of urgency. It did not scramble to accelerate its arrival. Such was impossible, impractical—worthless. It would expand as it expanded, a handful of particles at a time. Such was all that it knew.

During the comforting shelter of night, when the world’s inhabitants drowsed, shutting down the infernal chatter of their minds, disconnecting from the ether, the devouring growth would rally forth and blossom all the greater. When the day broke and set their gibbering brains screeching endlessly at one another once more, it would retreat, its progress slowed to a crawl.

Seven hundred and nineteen times had it grown, only to be beaten back on the shortest day. Several times over the centuries it had been stopped with barely a struggle. Five, if it remembered correctly. Hundreds of times it had almost won through. It did not matter. The long dark was coming, and it would try again. How could it not? After all, once more an entire, delicious world, filled with life, awaited its arrival. In only a handful of rotations the planet would reach the outside of its orbit—the shortest day of its year. Darkness would last its longest.

And the moment of escape would come.

The slithering ebony form thought on that moment, feeling the world rotate beneath it, its roots grasping—drinking. Building it. Strengthening it. Forming it slowly, patiently—as they did every cycle at that time. As it waited for its moment.

The moment when it would devour everything, turning the place called Earth into a charred and barren cinder. Before it moved on, so it could do it again on some other world.

As it had so many thousands of times before.

* * * * *

Jason Fletcher stared at the ceiling of the room he had been given, ignoring the heat, barely noticing the sweat running down the sides of his head, pooling between his back and the bed beneath it.

“Why me?” he asked the empty chamber, knowing the answer. He knew “why” him. The man who had come to him had told him exactly “why” him.

“I want you to be Santa Claus.”

Jason remembered the moment clearly, wishing he could not—laughing at the memory—terrified of it.

“What? You mean a job? What?”

He had stared, thinking as any reasonable person might that perhaps the fellow meant employment.

Yeah, sure, he thought, sighing with frustration as he did so. I guess I could play Santa Goddamned Claus.

He had let his hair go, after all. He needed a shave—and there was plenty of premature gray mixed in with the brown.

“But still, okay,” he told himself. “Yeah, maybe I let myself get overweight, but I haven’t turned into some jelly-bellied fat man.”

Still, as his self-pity tried to throw away another crumb of an opportunity, another part of his mind slapped at him brutally, screeching that a job, any kind of job, any handful of greasy, miserable dollars could be the difference between living and dying.

“Can you actually afford to just flush away another opportunity,” his brain hissed at him. “When was the last time one came our way? When was the last time anything came our way? Or do you just want to die?”

“Is that it—do you want to die?” another part of his mind had asked him then, snarling the question brutally, not surprised when he did not answer. Could not decide. “Do you actually want to die on Christmas?”

Jason wondered if he did. It would make things easier. In an instant, he watched his life flash before his eyes, witnessed in a moment the cavalcade of events which had blundered him to that second in time. Childhood and school and college, useless degree earned, career abandoned as his interest shifted to music, to rebuilding old instruments—

She had entered his life then, Melinda, encouraging him, pushing him, helping him build his business. Or, so he thought. Falling-down-in-love, he had worked feverishly, letting her take care of the financial end of things. He had thrown himself into his work for her. Had been willing to do so forever.

Forever had lasted eight months, two weeks and three days.

He had needed to purchase some varnish for a shipment of string instruments. If there had been thirty-seven dollars and eighty-six cents in his account he would have never known. But there had not been. She had taken it all, thousands—and left him with nothing. When he questioned her, she had not even bothered to deny anything. She had simply sighed, letting him know he had been fun for a while, and then walked out of his life.

Leaving him with nothing but a staggering pile of debt and a heart made numb. He had sat down on the floor and cried, and when his tears had ended, he had remained where he was, unable to move. The next day he discovered his rent had not been paid for three months, that Melinda had taken everything possible. He discovered this when the landlord had arrived with the police.

Jason had not struggled or protested. Silently, he had merely stood and left the apartment, not even bothering to gather up the loose change strewn across the dresser in his bedroom. Stumbling his way to the street, he had simply gone off to die, not caring when it happened.

As he sat in the alley, wondering on whether the effort to carry on was actually worth it or not, the man standing above him answered his question, saying;

“Well, it is a job, in a way. Not a job in the sense you’re thinking, though. No putting on a red suit, listening to children beg for crap they don’t really need, no suffering the greed of humanity as it reaches down to infect those who can barely speak—none of that. No, do understand me, sir, I didn’t say that I wanted you to play Santa Claus…”

He heard the words again, listened to them as they echoed within his head, slamming against the walls of his skull, seeming more absurd with each increasing ricochet—all of it so out of focus to him—especially being called sir

“I said I wanted you to be Santa Claus.”

“What…” Jason’s voice finally struggled itself upward out of his throat once more. Some vestige of pride swimming to his defense, he demanded, “what are ya, crazy? What’re you talking about? Don’t screw with me, wise guy. There is no Santa Claus. No one can be Santa Claus.”

“Funny,” the man had replied then, his voice sad, his eyes not looking directly at Jason, “it was only a few weeks ago when I would have said exactly the same thing. And probably with a great deal more conviction.”

Jason heard the sadness in the man’s voice, realized that for some reason, the fellow before him was feeling such not only for Jason, but for himself as well. Jason could understand the emotion being aimed at him. People had been pitying him for years. No one more so than himself. But, this time, something was different. Something about the resignation in the man’s voice which intrigued and frightened him at the same time.

“But, like you’re saying… now, something’s different. Now, for some reason… you believe in Santa Claus?”

“What I believe, my good sir, is that every year at this time, as the days grow shorter and the night sky stretches across the world to its greatest duration, that evil, that an unspeakable horror is given a chance to destroy all of us.”

Jason stared into the strong, deep blue of the man’s eyes, noticing the tiny lines of fear etching their way out of the corners. It was a look with which he was familiar. A look he had seen staring out of mirrors at him for years, until one day he lost his fear. Not because he had found his courage, but because he had run out of things of which to be afraid.

“My name is Piers Knight,” the man said quietly. “I’m a curator at the Brooklyn Museum, and… I was chosen by… for lack of a better word at the moment… angels… to find you, and to convince you to fight for the salvation of the human race.”

Jason stared—out of words—unable to comprehend what was being asked of him. Understanding this, Knight had said;

“I know this must be unbelievable to you. All I’m asking is, please, let me… try to explain. It’s not much of an offer that I have for you, and I wouldn’t blame you if you sent me on my way. But…”

Knight had stared down at him then, seated on the frozen cement there in the alley, wedged in between the garbage bags for warmth. With nothing of condescension or demeanment in his tone, his entire self radiating nothing but sympathy and a sense of commiseration, the man added;

“Why don’t you let me take you somewhere for a good meal? I mean, if we’re all going to die, we might as well do it with some level of contentment, eh?”

Agreeing that if he was going to die on Christmas after all, it might as well be with a full stomach, Jason forced his way up off the bitter ground of the alley, following the curator out into the already gathering darkness.

* * * * *

Oddly enough, Knight did not take Jason to an eatery close to the alley in downtown Brooklyn where he had found him, but instead bundled him into his car and drove him down along the coast of the borough almost the entire way to Coney Island. Getting off the Belt Parkway two exits before the landmark, he drove instead to a restaurant nearly as old as the amusement park, and more favorably regarded by those who lived in the area.

“As far as I’m concerned,” said the curator, passing a menu to Jason, “this is the best Italian place in Brooklyn. The entire city, really.”

Jason was willing to agree simply from the fact they had allowed him entry. Knight had given him his own overcoat, leaving his guest’s in the trunk of his car, to help curtail the man’s pungency. Jason had headed for the restroom as soon as they had entered. When he emerged, he had washed both his face and hands, his hair and his armpits, in the cramped men’s room. Knight did not comment, other than to recommend they split a platter of the restaurant’s fried calamari as an appetizer.

The pair ordered when their waiter came, and if Jason was still reeking anywhere near as badly as he had been previously, the older man taking their order gave no hint that such was the case. Unable to help himself, Jason grabbed up a large portion of bread from the complimentary basket when it arrived, unable to wait long enough to butter it, or even for his coffee to be delivered. Knight said nothing, waiting for his guest to speak. After he had devoured some six slices of Italian bread, Jason muttered;

“Okay, we got a few minutes, I guess. Why don’t you start talkin’? Tell me what you meant about ‘angels’ sendin’ you to find me. That ought to be good for a laugh.”

“The Bounteous Immortals,” said Knight quietly. “The story is that Ahura Mazda, an earlier version of God, historically speaking, created them to aid him against evil. It’s an old, old story. Most scholars believe they were the inspiration for Johnny-come-lately Christianity’s archangels.”

“Yeah, so… what’s that got to do with me?”

Knight tried to speak, then stopped, unable to continue. Staring at Jason, his mouth open, wordless, he lowered his head, not knowing how to proceed. His silence did not worry his guest. Nothing worried Jason anymore. Not really. Finally, though, his expression one which implied he had little faith in himself at that moment, the curator asked;

“You’ve heard the expression, ‘God works in mysterious ways,’ yes?” When Jason agreed that he had, Knight nodded, tight-lipped, then said;

“All right, fine. Here goes. Several weeks ago, I was visited by… I don’t exactly know what, really—a presence? A vision? Angels?” The curator considered for a moment, then said;

“A better word than some, I suppose. Now, do understand, I’m not referring to the winged, Nordic chaps we’re all so used to in paintings and the such, no. These were primitive things, white, but in the way the sun can appear white. I could not look directly at them. Had to shield my eyes…”

As the waiter returned with their coffee, Knight stopped speaking, gave the man a pleasant smile and then waited for him to move out of earshot before continuing once more.

“They took me from my home, but didn’t… I don’t know how to explain—I was in two places at once. Sitting in my favorite chair, and yet somehow in the Arctic at the same time. I was freezing, but I wasn’t. Snow blew against my face, melted against my shirt, I could feel the dampness, but wasn’t wet—”

Knight stopped talking once more, his eyes filling over with a sad confusion. He stared at Jason, desperate to explain himself without sounding like a lunatic, not only to his guest but to himself as well. Grabbing hold of his emotions, his body trembling, he finally whispered;

“I’m sorry, I don’t know how… I know I must sound utterly mad to you. But, it happened. And please, do believe me, I’m not a drug addict, I don’t drink to excess, I—”

“Forget it,” interrupted Jason, holding one hand up to slow the curator’s words. “Trust me, I know something of drunks. I know something about crazies, too, and… I kinda hate to admit it, but I’m beginnin’ to wish you were one. But… you ain’t. Are you?”

“No,” admitted Knight sadly, wishing he were lying. Wishing what he was trying so desperately to put into words were something he could dismiss as simple madness.

“They showed me something up at the North Pole. Something growing there. A darkness, a blackness, some thing… I don’t know what else to call it. It was developing like a plant, rooted deep into the ground, feeding not on the ice and water, but on the very atomic structure of the planet. But it wasn’t actually a plant—”

Again the pair were interrupted as the waiter brought their appetizers. The calamari, plentiful, delicately fried, the aroma of it hammering at Jason’s long diminished sensory organs, and a plate of mozzarella sticks, finely breaded, bursting with steaming cheese dribbling from their seams. Knight stared at the calamari in particular.

It was possible that Spumoni Gardens was his favorite restaurant in all of New York City. It was certain their fried calamari was his favorite dish. And yet, he could not bring himself to eat. He was too frightened, too agitated by the duty that had been set before him, which he was trying so desperately to perform. Indicating that Jason should eat, he took a drink from his water glass, appreciating its icy chill, then began again.

“It was a creature, a thing that travels from planet to planet. It drifts through space, looking for worlds to… ingest. It delights in places where it finds life. Intelligence. It seems to need to find places where life has developed to the point of consciousness. Because, that’s what it really lives on. Thought. Emotion. Souls.”

Jason’s hand slowed, then stopped, as Knight uttered his last word, the forkful of calamari frozen in space inches from his mouth. His slightly abated hunger still gnawing at him, his mind replayed the curator’s words in his head.

that’s what it really lives on… thought… emotion… souls

The words were no more impressive than anything else Knight had said, but it was the manner in which he said them, his tone, his obvious desire to not be speaking—to not be hearing what it was he had to say—which had immobilized Jason. Suddenly, with the most preposterous thing he had said, he had convinced Jason that at the very least he believed what he was saying.

“And how do you know all this, about this thing, I mean? That it’s from space and all?”

“The creatures that showed it to me, they don’t exist within the boundaries of this world, or don’t choose to, I’m not certain. They act as conduits. What they could see and understand, so too could I. They showed me what this thing is capable of, what it can do, if it’s allowed to complete its development and free itself from the Earth.”

Jason’s hand finally moved forward, shoveling the calamari into his mouth, as he chewed absently, not tasting, unaware he was actually eating, Knight said;

“Once it’s reached its full size, under cover of the longest night of the year, it begins to hatch. Four days later it will expand forth throughout the ether, touching each of us one after another, sucking away our consciousness, our souls. We will know we are dying, but be powerless to resist. We will all die screaming, terrified, like babies being slid into a meat grinder—not understanding the how or why of what is happening, only feeling the pain. Our pain, and the pain of all those around us—everyone’s pain. All of it merged as our world is stripped of life.” Knight paused for a moment, “The solstice was two nights ago, it emerges in less than two days. Christmas.”

Finally swallowing, Jason washed down his bite with a long gulp of coffee. Stabbing at the calamari, absently loading his fork once more, he asked;

“So, did these guys show you anything else?”

“Yes,” answered Knight, his tone of resignation sounding more hopeless than ever. “They showed me you.”


“I can not tell you why the Bountiful do as they do,” answered the curator. “I don’t understand the, the science behind it, the reality of it… all I can say is, as I shared their minds, alien as they were, I received an idea that this is their… duty. Every year at this time, they pick two people. They have done this since this thing first crashed into the Earth hundreds of years ago. They pick one who they feel can stop this creature… and one they feel… can talk them into stopping it.”

“So that’s what you’re all about, you want me to… you think you can make me—” And then, finally a monstrous realization settled over Jason’s mind. Laughing a bit too loudly for polite company, he wiped at his eyes, choking slightly, then snapped;

“I just got this… I just got the whole picture here. This is nutty enough to have been dreamed up by Congress. This hell thing that’s supposedly eating the North Pole, that’s goin’ to make dinner outta all of us, you said they do this every year… that they find some con man like you to sucker some boob like me into fighting this thing—right?”

Knight nodded his head.

“And so, every year, the boob goes to the North Pole and fights this monster, and… and… and what? I don’t get it. You said this’s happened hundreds of times. It don’t make no sense. You said this thing, if it gets out it’ll kill everyone in the world—right?”
Knight nodded again.

“So, so… what are you tellin’ me? I mean, if it got beat hundreds of times, then it’s dead—right? How does… why does, I mean, how can it—”

Jason stared into space, his mind reeling, the various sections of it arguing amongst themselves so vocally he could not communicate. Part of him still could not even believe what he was being told. He knew he trusted Knight, knew the man across the table from him was not lying. Knew that at the very least, the curator believed every word he was saying.

Yes, it was possible Knight was insane, but Jason did not believe such was the case. As ludicrous as everything he was being told sounded, as fantastically ridiculous as the story was, something deep within Jason assured him he was not merely being told what another believed, but what was.

For a while, neither man spoke. Neither knew what to say. After a handful of minutes, their dinners arrived. When the waiter arrived with his tray, he looked at the barely touched appetizers, immediately asking if there were any complaints. Both men shook their heads, Knight muttering that they had shared some bad news and it had put them off their game. Joking that there was no way anyone could ignore the fare of the Gardens’ kitchen for long, he assured the waiter they would be cleaning their plates.

So saying, the curator picked up his fork and speared a mozzarella stick, dipping it in the small bowl of hot sauce which had been brought with it. Popping it into his mouth, he spoke as he chewed;

“Come on, let’s eat. Forget why we’re here. The food in this place is too good to waste. Tell me about yourself, Jason. We’ll get to the other stuff later. For now, let’s just enjoy ourselves.”

Numb from all he had accepted, Jason nodded, taking up his own fork once more. At that stage in his life, enjoying himself was almost a foreign concept. He was, however, he announced with a fair approximation of a grin, willing to give it a chance.

“What the hell,” he thought, already knowing the extent of the rest of his life, “what’ve I got to lose?”

* * * * *

Several hours later the pair found themselves in Knight’s brownstone home in the Park Slope district of Brooklyn. The curator had offered Jason a room, saying;

“If I’m insane, if I imagined all of this, it the gods are merely having sport with me, well then, bless all the tiny monkeys, so be it. You’ve got a place to stay for life. Welcome home.”

Knight had shown his guest to a bedroom, one with its own bathroom. Jason joked that the museum business must be a good one. It was an awkward comment, one which made neither of them laugh. Breaking the silence, the curator offered tactfully that since they were both tired, it might be best if they got some rest and waited to talk in the morning.

“After all,” he said, “it’s only the twenty-third. Nothing’s actually supposed to happen until Christmas—right?”

Jason had muttered some sort of agreement, then gone into his room and thrown himself on the bed. He did not bother to close the door. Having lived on the street for the past handful of months, the concept of privacy had become foreign to him. Stretched out in a comfort he barely understood anymore, he let his mind flow over all he had been asked to accept that evening. To merely catalogue the sheer enormity of it all took more time than he expected.

For more than seven hundred years, he was supposed to believe, some evil thing had repeatedly tried to grow large enough to destroy the world. Apparently it did not exist completely within our own plane of reality, meaning that humanity could not simply carpet bomb the Arctic and be done with it.

As Knight had explained it, the Bounteous Immortals, these angels, or whatever they were, considered this horror to be a test laid on humanity by their idea of God. Meaning they did not care one way or the other if mankind survived or ended up as entrees. Their only duty was to find someone to fight this thing, and then to find someone to talk them into it.

“Christ, like it just doesn’t make any sense.”

“Why,” he wondered, “why show Knight all this shit, and then have him try to get someone else to fight? If they want me to do it, why not show me?”

Maybe it had something to do with faith. But, even if he believed it all, even if he had the faith of ten men, what good would it do? This thing was supposed to be able to destroy the world, to suck the souls out of every living being. How was he supposed to fight something like that?

Of course, the Bountifuls had an answer for that, too. As Knight had explained it;

“They’ve been influencing events in the background of humanity for a long time apparently. Have you ever heard the fact that the historical figure of Jesus was actually born in the summer?” When Jason had assured the curate that he had, the man continued, telling him;

“Yes, well it seems that they exerted pressure from beyond on various church rulers to have them make the switch to coincide with the older pagan holiday that took place in late December so that the majority of humanity might be celebrating at the same time. In a cold, frightened, barbaric world, on its darkest day, if most of mankind’s functioning minds were filled with thoughts of joy, peace, good will, it gave them a weapon.”


“When I was joined with their… essence… I could feel their plan. The joy of mankind at Christmas, the focus of children’s expectations on one individual, Santa Claus… it’s all been planned. As the creature has grown stronger, year by year, the idea of Christ’s birthday and revering gods has been allowed to fall by the wayside…

“But, the idea of Santa, however, has been enshrined. Millions, billions of people, thinking about St. Nick, not consciously believing in him, not really expecting a jolly elf to invade their home with gifts, but still, in the back of their minds, swirling with all the best parts of their childhoods, is this hope, this memory of happiness…”

Knight had stopped talking then, the struggle for words wearing him down. Besides, the entire idea was overwhelming him as well as his guest. It had been at that point the curator had shown Jason to his room, then gone off to his own.

Stretched out on his bed, still sweating, still staring off at nothing, Jason’s mind went numb, unable to find its way to any kind of conclusion. Yes, fine, he knew Knight believed in these angels, knew the man believed everything he had said. The curator had invited him into his home. Jason had lived long enough on the streets to know he was not being set up, not being deceived by his host. He also knew that Knight was not insane. No, he was frightened by what had been put before him, shocked and saddened and filled with pity for Jason—the man he had been tasked with sending off to his doom.

Which meant that it was true. That hell was being born at the North Pole, that some undying, unreasoning terror from another world had only another day to wait until it could murder all of humanity.

“And then it just jumps to another world and does it again.”

It was madness. As true as it must be, still it was insanity. The idea of Santa Claus, engineered to create a false happiness so angels could fuel a champion with love. Every year, Christmas grew by leaps and bounds, more chaos, more shrill, obnoxious spending, more glitter, more commercial damnation, because every year this unkillable monstrosity grew stronger, and more of humanity’s energy was needed to stop it.

“What does it even matter?” wondered Jason, his eyes closed, breathing rushed. “How many more years could we have? If this thing just gets stronger… nobody really cares about Christmas anymore… nobody cares about anything anymore.”

“I don’t believe that to be true.” As Jason looked up to find Knight standing in the hall beyond his doorway, the curator added;

“And I don’t think you believe so, either.”

“Yeah, why not?”

“Because if you did, you wouldn’t be tormenting yourself so over this.”

Swinging his feet off his bed, Jason pulled himself into a sitting position. Wiping at the sweat on his forehead, he looked up, then said;

“It doesn’t matter what I think… I can’t do this. These angels, they’re wrong—they’re nuts.”

“They seem to have a fairly decent track record so far.”

“It only takes one mistake.” Staring at the curator, his eyes unblinking, Jason shouted;

“A loser like me can’t do this. How am I supposed to be Santa Claus, loved by everyone?” Tears breaking from his eyes, he screeched;

“I couldn’t get even one person to love me!”

“Maybe,” responded Knight quietly, “the Bountifuls aren’t looking for someone who has love. Maybe what they need is someone who has it to give.”

Trembling, Jason rose from the bed. Staring at Knight for a moment, he then turned and stared into the mirror over the dresser. Once more he saw his life pass before his eyes, but this time he did not merely relive it, This time he saw it as a spectator, viewing it from the outside, watching the twists and turns of the events which had built his existence not as things that had happened to him, but as choices he had made.

Every path trodden, he suddenly realized, he had chosen to walk. It had been Melinda’s choice to rob him and use him—to try and destroy him. It had been his choice to allow her to get away with it.

Turning, shaking from the realization, Jason looked at Knight and asked;

“You have anything to drink in this place?”

“There is a bar downstairs. Rum, brandy, bourbon? I do make a splendid Belmont cocktail.”

“Dealer’s choice,” answered Jason. “Something a condemned man would get a bang out of.”

Knight stared long and hard into his guest’s eyes. Seeing that Jason had made his decision, he asked;

“So, you’re thinking of going?”

Before Jason could answer, suddenly the room around him began to shimmer. The molecules of the air, super-excited, vibrated so violently the two men could hear their movement for an instant. And then, they were there. Tall and fiery, as wide as vision, as long as time, blindingly brilliant, the Bountiful Immortals stepped into human existence. As he had before, Knight turned his face, his eyes blinded, his hearing stolen.

Jason on the other hand merely smiled, understanding at last. As his old self fell away, the chemical stink of physicality eroding in an instant, he felt the joy of the world begin to course through him. And then, finally, he understood.

The Bountifuls could not reside on the human plane. To utilize the spirit of mankind, to transform what goodness and cheer and selflessness there might still exist within the souls scattered across the face of the Earth in their own defense, they had to find one to act as its conduit, one who might join them in their endless task.

In but an instant, Jason existed as man and spirit, and then he was gone, all trace of him absorbed into the brilliance which vanished along with him. When he finally dared open his eyes, Piers Knight found himself alone within his home, no trace of his houseguest remaining.

“Well,” he thought, his spirits suddenly somehow improved, “A Belmont still sounds like a capital idea.”

Heading downstairs, the curator headed for his kitchen for the necessary sweet cream, crushed ice and raspberry syrup. The dry gin he would get from the bar. And, after his cocktail, he decided, he would head out into the street.

There was an entire day left before Christmas arrived… or the end of the world. Whichever it was to be would be decided by how much cheer the planet’s populous might scrape together to offer its solitary defender. That meant wherever there were carollers, he would join them. Wherever someone needed a hot chocolate, he would be there to fetch it for them. Wherever the memory of happiness needed to be restored, he would be there to breathe on its embers until the fiery brilliance of it was felt once more.

Minutes later, armored with hat and gloves and overcoat, the curator stepped off his front stoop, marching off into the first moments of Christmas Eve. Looking upward into the dark expanse of night, he gazed at those stars visible in the Brooklyn sky, then asked softly;


After which, in one of those amazing moments which were almost enough to make one believe in a higher power, the first snowflakes of the season began to fall. Feeling his heart grow lighter within his chest, Knight smiled, saying;

“Well, God bless us… everyone.”

And then he walked off into the night, singing the words to “White Christmas” as best he could remember them, almost certain he would live to see the next day.



Holiday Greetings

by Eric Bonholtzer

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?”

“Three years.”

“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.