Hauling himself to his feet, his bones creaked almost as loudly as the old floorboards. Clutching a mug in both hands, as if its steaming contents were an unstable potion at risk of detonation, he uncertainly navigated the cluttered kitchen and peered out the window. The comforting ember glow struggling upwards to tinge the warped horizon, ever more briefly each morning since the autumnal equinox, had now been completely banished from the sky and only a perpetual expanse of blackness, dense and stifling, stretched out over the flat empty ice.
“Fucking winter,” he spat bitterly, releasing one hand from the mug and rubbing eyes as swollen and red as a post-tantrum child’s. Fern-leaf frost patterns had spread out from the corners of the panes in a creeping invasion and he began chipping wistfully at one of the bolder fronds with a neglected fingernail.
“That’s no excuse to be spiking your coffee at 9 o’clock in the morning,” piped a shrill voice from behind, causing an in-progress swallow to redirect towards his windpipe. Doubled over hacking and spluttering, he rotated awkwardly and glared at his wife through tearing eyes. “I can smell it from here!” she cried, throwing her hands in the air like a rollercoaster passenger.
“What 9 o’clock, Mary?! What morning!?” he croaked, waving at the window. “This is the North Pole. In winter. It’s only ever nighttime. I–”
“You got out of bed half an hour ago,” she snapped. “It’s morning. And there’s work to do, you drunken old sack of shit.”
Thumbing away a line of retched-up spittle mired in the whiskers on his chin, he recovered his posture and Mary’s blurry lines came slowly into focus. Arms folded in damning judgment across a keg-shaped torso, her protuberant face was as hard as iron. The kind of face you could break your hand on if you punched it, he thought, perilously almost aloud. Her gunmetal-gray hair was yanked back severely from a narrow, furrowed brow and wound into its usual tight hand grenade of a bun painstakingly bobby pinned to the back of her head.
Was that really the same hair that had once, so long ago in a dream life, been so long and lush and wavy and velvety molasses-black and, rioting down her limber perspiring back, he had coiled up in both hands, like reins, as she shallowly panted and moaned and bit wincing pleasure into a pillow-cleared mattress thudding back and forth against a thin motel room wall making the cheap prints that hung there dance in obedient unison up and down their crooked nails?
A mythical stirring in his groin incited him to meet Mary’s wolverine gaze. “Ever wonder if our marriage has lost a touch of its sheen over the years?”
“God, you’re so dirty,” she hissed as if by some dark magic she too had just borne witness to the conjured memory.
“Wh… what? he stammered, eyes motoring side to side in confusion, as she marched over to him.
“Do you even remember where the tub is?”
Relieved, he gathered his wits and said, “I’m quite certain I do not.”
Scowling, her pupils unnerving vertical slits in orbs of reptilian green, Mary rubbed away a greasy slick from his thickly stubbled cheek and then appraised her hand as if it had just been up something’s ass. Wiping it on the front of his faded flannel shirt, she said “and find a goddamn shave while you’re at it.”
“You know, the kids are under the impression I have a bushy white beard.”
“The kids are also under the impression you’re a good guy.”
“Too bad,” he said, lighting a cigarette and reaching back to pick at the perimeter of his saucer-shaped bald spot.
“Yes, it is,” she said, tugging the cigarette from between his lips and dropping it into his mug where, after a prolonged fizz, it prematurely died in a choked off plume of writhing blue smoke snakes.
“You make me tired Nicolas,” she said and, after some moments rummaging in the folds of her Islamically long and austere dress, brandished his handgun.
“Whoa! Wait! That tired?!”
She pulled down his half-raised hand and slapped the hefty piece into his palm. He looked down and his distorted face, alarmed open mouth a smashed black cave, reflected grotesquely in the gleaming lethality of the nickel-plated barrel. A fresh gun oil redolence, as intoxicating as new car smell, cut through the kitchen’s mustiness and he sniffed at the air like a suddenly curious dog.
“I cleaned it for you,” said Mary. “You’re welcome. Now can you please, please be a man, just this once in your life, and get out there and deal with Blitzen?”
Pursued down the torchlit corridor by a train of elves shouting questions and demanding instructions, Nicolas jammed his fingers in both ears and broke into a trot until he reached his office door. Swinging around, he raised his hands before him and shouted, “Quiet, you little shits!”
The elves fell silent and, from beneath the floppy visors of newsboy caps, looked up at him with hurt 19thcentury British orphan expressions on their sooty, overworked faces. “Okay, sorry for that guys,” said Nicolas with genuine contrition. “It’s just, well, the scabby old battle-axe has lowered the boom and made it abundantly clear that if I don’t take care of Blitzen today, she will take care of me.” This set the elves to huddled murmuring and distressed handwringing. “And so,” continued Nicolas, “just get back to the plants and make the best decisions you can yourselves. I’ll check in with you in a few hours and if you’ve fucked it all up, I promise to recuse myself from judgment.” Fanning them away with backs of his hands, he said, “Go on, now.”
The old iron hinges whined as the heavy oak door swung slowly closed behind him. The office was shrouded in stygian darkness and a faint cat pissy odor nettled the stale air. He kindled a couple of the beeswax tealights littering the tree slice desk, set down the gun on its thickly shellacked surface with a heavy metallic clink, and sank into a black leather chair so battered it might have been hurled from an airplane. He then yanked a half-empty bottle from a side drawer and, recalling he’d abandoned the mug with the drowned cigarette back in the kitchen, put it straight to his lips and held it up-tilted while his Adam’s Apple worked up and down his throat. Wiping his mouth on his sleeve, he lit a cigarette and opened the computer with all the apprehensiveness of a knife thrower’s assistant twirling on a wheel.
In the glow of the monitor, the news of the day played over Nicolas’s haggard face and the falling bombs in the swirling smoke seemed to deepen the old acne craters blasted from his cheeks during a tortured youth mercifully long forgotten. Storms of notification banners darted from the narrow blackness of the bezel and retreated again, quick as lizard tongues:
…we need 50,000 units of…
…the THIRD REMINDER outstanding account for…
…people are asking where…
…their attorneys are saying that…
…just trying to help find the…
…if you’re sober enough to…
…an investigation pending the outcome of…
…thinks your bookie knows about…
From some ghost icon in the dock, Mary’s face loomed into view until it occupied the whole screen. All Basquiat teeth and squinting fury, she mimed a neck-wringing and tapped emphatically at her wristwatch before receding back into the ether. With what witchcraft she had deployed to so tamper with his computer, Nicolas had never been able to ascertain. Cradling his head in his hands, he massaged his temples with his fingertips and stared blankly at the keyboard as if its arrangement of letters and numbers had been replaced with indecipherable ancient runes. A long tube of ash fell from his cigarette and crumbled over the ‘control’ key. His eyes began to self-irrigate and he whispered hoarsely, “What variety of man must I have been in a past life to have deserved such a fate as this?”
As if in answer to the question, the computer emitted a gong-like ding customized to indicate an email had been delivered to the “Still too young to be evil or dying” folder, the only one he remotely cared about. He looked up wearily, saw that HELP was the lone word in the subject line, and clicked open the message.
My name is Katie and I am 9 years old. My little brother is called Jimmy. We don’t need anything for Christmas. We just want this to go away: click here.
A tall man, Nicolas strode towards the stable with unusual speed and resolve, the parched snow squeaking rhythmically beneath his boots like a squeezed balloon. In the east, where the sun used to rise, garish winking lights traced the jumbled outlines of sprawling interconnected factory complexes. A sickly pall of smoke lazily weaved through their chimneystacks and short angry bursts of flame from gas flares, like soundless artillery fire, consumed the stars in the night sky.
“One day soon it will all be at the bottom of the sea”, muttered Nicolas with grim satisfaction, the prospect of apocalyptic global warming, to which his operations were a significant contributor, a rare source of pleasure in his life.
The long stable door rumbled and crunched down its ice-encrusted guide track. Nicolas stepped inside and the air, laced with the strangely sweet scent of manure and feed, was humid and warm in the flickering torchlight. The spacious pens were doorless and the reindeer roamed about freely in what was more a recreation center than a barn. They looked up with a cheerful “Hi Nick!” except for Cupid and Prancer, who were lost to mid-coitus oblivion in a darkened corner, and Rudolph who was slumped over the bar, cocaine-flecked nostrils flaring as he snored.
Nicolas shook his head and walked over to Blitzen who stood quietly in her pen drawing a circle in the straw with her hoof. He patted the coarse hair upholstering her neck above the dewlap fringe, thick as a bull’s and supporting a massive array of arching bone branches exploding from the top of her head. “How you doing, old girl?”
“Never better, Nick,” she said softly as Nicolas cocked his ear to the faint rattle echoing up from deep within her vaulted chest. Her winter blue eyes burned into his defiantly, daring him to contradict that assessment.
“How’d you like to go for a ride? If you’re up to it, I could really use your help with something I got to do.”
“Ah… uh… okay…” she stuttered, pleasantly taken aback by this unexpected request. “You don’t want to take one of the others?”
“You’re still the fastest, Blitzen,” he said loud enough for the rest to hear, even Rudolph who grunted in his sleep. “And besides,” he said with a whisper in her twitching her, “I’ve always loved you the best.”
With a raspy coo, Blitzen sank to her knees in a camel crouch and, grasping a shard of antler in each hand, Nicolas hoisted himself up onto her sinewy back and lit a cigarette. “Where to?”, she said, rising and ambling from the stable under quizzical gazes.
“Set us down just there!” shouted Nicolas over the roaring wind as Blitzen wheeled out of the star-pocked sky in a steep dive and skidded to a shuddering halt through the icy snow drifts sculpted across the front lawn. The midsize house was a pre-fab identical to all the others ringing the horseshoe cul-de-sac, a half-gutted pickup stranded upon cinder blocks in the driveway. A string of multi-colored Christmas lights twinkled around the large ground floor window. The rest were in darkness. It was witching hour quiet except for an intermittent buzz broadcast from a dying sodium lamp caged behind thick glass atop the lone streetlight. Blitzen, sweat steaming off her back and gulping air, looked up at it with big eyes as if her soul were trapped in there with it.
“Alright,” Nicolas said, batting away ice pellets clinging to the fur of his bearskin parka and taking a long swig from a dented hip flask that had materialized during the process. “You stay here and keep your eyes good and peeled.”
“Why? Aren’t you going to be invisible in there, as usual?”
“Got to be a regular old break-and-enter tonight, Blitzen. That magic shit only works on Christmas Eve.” Ruefully rubbing a long slender chin that had once made women look twice, he added bitterly, “And then condemned to do the opposite of looting, goddamn it.”
“Back in a few… I hope,” he said, turning and tiptoeing around the back of the house from where Blitzen could hear the muffled tinkling of breaking glass. She watched as the narrow beam from Nicolas’s flashlight swept to and fro inside, dimly illuminating one window of the house after another. When it arrived at the last and largest of the three windows on the upper floor it froze in a hover and then went out. Blitzen held her breath and jumped when the window flashed brilliant incandescent white twice in quick succession, the second backlighting a black hydroplaning spatter drummed across the pane, and went dark again.
Moments later, Nicolas came trotting out from the back unscrewing the silencer and stuffing the gun down the back of his jeans. “Let’s get out of here,” he said breathlessly, his face lightly speckled in iridescent red. “Cops are on their way.”
“I know someplace nice where the sun should be coming up right about now.”
“…so there’s an end to the horror of Katie and Jimmy,” Nicolas concluded as he and Blitzen meandered slowly along the bank of the lake, frozen solid and bejeweled in myriads of golden ice crystals hexagonally sparkling under a cold white disk of sun just launched skyward from the black treeline of tall steepled pines garrisoned on the opposite shore. “Even so, I doubt those kids have half a chance of growing up all there.”
“And the mother really filmed it?”
“Egged him on, even. No words.” He shook a bent cigarette out of his crushed pack and, hands trembling, struggled to light it. Hunched over in the effort, he struck Blitzen as more weighed down than the firtree branches bowed earthwards penitently under fat woolly mantles of sound-drowning snow. In that moment she saw all the sorrow of the world in him. “Fuck it,” he growled flinging the cigarette into a snow bank and spitting an obscene slug of brown phlegm after it for good measure.
“Why are we here, Nick?”
“I just wanted you to see it. I grew up in a village not far from here. Fished this lake in summer. I swear, you could reel in trout the size of firelogs back in those days. They’re pretty much gone now though I think…” His voice trailed off as Blitzen suppressed a series of coughs attempting to escape her lips pressed tight together in a twisted grimace.
He patted the rising and falling mound of her shoulder until she recovered and said, “I wish I could’ve grown up here.”
“There’s a valley just behind those hills over there which is a very popular playground for reindeer.”
“Oh, yes. Especially in winter. The snow is less deep there and underneath is a ton of that lichen, you know, that reindeer moss shit you guys can’t get enough of. And it’s premium grade. You want to take a gander?”
“I’m not really hungry right now, Nick. But thanks for choosing this place. I know what you have to do.”
Nicolas nodded and extended the hip flask to her. “Belt?”
“I don’t think so. Bit of a stereotype isn’t it?”
“Works for me,” he said, releasing the captive lid with a pop, sealing his mouth fellatically around the stout top, and throwing back his head. He tossed the drained flask aside and said in a sodden voice, “you might want to turn around now, old girl,” the cloud of condensed vapor billowing from his mouth distillery like. With a doleful glance Blitzen complied, muscle tremors rippling down her flanks as she stamped up puffs of diamond dust with her hooves. She lifted her head, the dazzling blue globes of her eyes gazing out over the silent lake, stoic and proud. Nicolas marveled anew at the sheer magnitude of her antlers, twice the size of the males, skewering the rising sun in a ragged eclipse.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” she said, somehow reading his thoughts.
“A more magnificent creature never lived,” he said, cocking the gun.
The crack splintered the frozen air and lifted a storm of startled black birds into the air from the treetops, the sound of their furiously beating wings receding quickly. Blitzen wondered if the residual echo stretching out over the ice was the sound of her life departing, when she realized she was still standing. Turning, she saw Nicolas lying in a heap, as though he had fallen out of the sky, dark arterial vermillion unhurriedly blooming out over the snow from behind his head. Embedded within their shadowy grottos, his bloodshot eyes stared intently up into the broad blue as if he had seen something intriguing there just as the bullet was traveling through his skull.
Blitzen lay at his side for a time and then, rising, wandered slowly in the direction of the valley over the hills.
© Andrew Bowers and Requiem for the Damned (Last Ride), 2018. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this site’s author and owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Andrew Alexander Bowers and Requiem for the Damned, 2018 with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.