'Tis the season, ain't it? Some of us get what we want. Some of us get what we deserve.
Christmas in Hell by R. Daniel Lester
Darla “Happy Hour” Jones answered the door off-balance, a dirty Christmas elf hat perched on her head, beer spilling over the rim of a red plastic cup. A career drinker, she’d pickled herself. And it showed. Greasy hair, gray skin, nose like Rudolph, bad teeth. And that was just above the neck.
“Hi,” he said. “Remember me?”
Darla’s booze-addled brain did some calculating, ran his features past facial recognition. When that didn’t work, she shut one eye to get a better view. When that didn’t work either, she opened the closed eye and closed the previously open one. Then she moved her head forward as if the problem was one of distance. “Johnny?”
He grinned. “That’s right. Long time no see. You look…good.”
She smiled a crooked smile back at him and ran her hand over her sizable belly. “A girl likes to stay in shape. How you been, Johnny?”
“I’ve been okay. Thirsty though.”
“Say no more,” said Darla, motioning him inside. She stopped him in the short hallway, just at the threshold of the living room. “Nuh uh,” she said, pointing up to the mistletoe hanging over their heads. “Jeez, remember when you couldn’t get enough of me? Bathroom stalls, movie theatres, your grandmother’s bed and her in the next room watching Matlock on TV. Those were the days.”
“Indeed.” He gulped, leaned in, smelled death and decay, and planted one on her beached fish lips.
“Mmm,” she said. “That hits the spot.” She swayed over to a barca-lounger and plopped herself down in the chair, arm length away from a full-size keg. She leaned over and filled up her cup. The beer looked warm and foamy. “Beer?”
“Sounds good,” he said. As she filled up a plastic cup for him, he looked around. The interior of the tiny apartment was what it would be like in Hell if (a) there was a Hell and (b) Satan himself, oddly enough, loved Christmas. Like really loved it. Absolutely went ape-shit over the whole damn holiday season and blew his salary plus Asshole Bonus on all matter of decoration and winter-themed gunk.
Darla held out his beer. He took the cup from her and took a sip. Yup, warm and foamy.
“Ronnie around by any chance?” he asked.
“Ronnie…? Oh. Uh, he’s not here. Tis the season, you know. Busy. Busy.”
“Sure,” he said. “Mind if I take a look around?”
A brief look of concern washed over Darla’s face and her eyes darted to the corner of the room then back. “Okay, Johnny.”
He looked around the apartment but there wasn’t anything to see--except a total freakin’ mess. Mountains of dirty clothes, stacked, greasy pizza boxes, piles of old, yellowed newspapers. The kitchen was the worst. Liquor bottles and beer cans strewn everywhere. Geological formations. There’s the Miller age. And that’s the Jack Daniels’ era. And, once upon a time, the Corona layer. Only now all the limes were shriveled up in the bottom of the bottles and covered in fruit flies. The room was thick with them. He waved away a swarm as he poured the beer out in the sink. Finally let his breath out when he was back in the living room.
“So, yeah,” he said, “thanks for the drink, baby, but I gotta get--“
He turned. The muffled coughing had come from the corner of the room, from the silver coffin-looking thing with the Christmas blanket draped over it. He looked at Darla. She was passed out in her chair, mouth hanging open, drool dripping down her chin.
He removed the blanket and lifted up the lid towards the wall. Inside, lying flat, prone position, was Santa Claus. Well, Ronnie’s dirty-beard-perpetually-hung-over version.
“This a tanning bed?”
“I want to know why you have a tanning bed in your living room but both you and your old lady look like Casper?”
“Maybe. It’s a funny story.”
“I see. Want to come out?”
“Sure, thanks, Chuck.” Ronnie climbed out and stood up, nervous and fidgety.
“I guess you know why I’m here.”
Ronnie’s eyes strayed to the keg. “It was only half-full.”
“Think I’m here about a lousy keg? No, you know why I’m here.”
Ronnie nodded again.
“You put me in a tight spot, man,” said Chuck. “The boss’s kid gives me a call. Havin’ a big Christmas party at his fraternity. Asks do I know anybody who can dress up like Santa Claus for a generous appearance fee. So I ask myself: who can pull off a decent Santa and could use some quick cash? Answer: Ronnie. He just did a stretch so he could probably use a few bucks to get back on his feet. For me, the kid makes a donation to my retirement fund because he knows I’m putting my neck out. If his old man got wind of this I’d still have legs but they wouldn’t be very good for walking. So I set things up and figure it’ll run itself. But the kid phones me this morning. There’s a problem. I can hear his girlfriend crying in the background. Rich bitch she may be but it’s still tough to hear a girl cry, right, Ronnie?”
Ronnie was staring at the ground. “There was a jewelry box full of them. Didn’t think she’d miss it.”
“Well, she did. It was her grandmother’s.”
“I give it back, it’s over, Chuck?”
“You know I can’t promise that. But I can promise it will be forgotten.”
Ronnie reached in his Santa suit and took out a gold necklace. He dropped it into Chuck’s outstretched hand. Chuck placed the necklace in a small velvet bag and tucked the bag away in the pocket of his leather jacket. As he did so, he slipped on the brass knuckles.
“Now you know there’s more, Ronnie. Rotten apples don’t fall that far from the tree either.”
“Come on, Chuck, can’t we work somethin’ out?”
“What do you think we’re doing here? The kid’s vicious. Wanted a trophy. But I talked him out of it ‘cause I don’t think the punishment would fit the crime. How’s a Santa Claus supposed to get work with only one ear or nine fingers?”
Chuck continued: “But I don’t give you a few bruises and the kid says he’ll fess up to daddy. And he’ll get, what, a slap on the wrist? But us, we get a visit from The Frog. And nobody wants that guy knocking on the door. Believe you me.”
Ronnie gulped, Adam’s apple quivering. “The Frog?”
“So how’s it gonna go?”
“Face,” said Chuck. “The kid wants face.”
Ronnie braced himself. “Okay.”
Chuck punched Ronnie in the stomach with the brass knuckles. Ronnie doubled-over, sucked air, went down to his knees.
“I. Thought. You. Said. Face,” he said, barely audible.
“No, I said the kid wanted face. That was for making me look like an asshole.” Chuck slipped the brass knuckles off his right hand. “Ready? I’ll pull ‘em, don’t worry.”
Ronnie lifted his head. Chuck drove his bare knuckles down across the other man’s face once, twice. Two solid shots, but neither punch powerful enough to do major damage to either of them. Later, Chuck would dip his right hand in a bowl of ice while his left cradled a glass of 12-year-old Glenlivet. And Ronnie would look like he walked into a door, which would be the exact story he’d tell people. And Darla would regret waking up when she did, if she remembered it all.
Darla screamed and launched herself at Chuck. But she came up short and got his shins. “No, Johnny, no,” she said, pleading, clawing at Chuck’s legs. “If you ever loved me you won’t do this. Please don’t hurt my Ronnie anymore.”
Ronnie, bleeding from the nose, his lip already swelling, pulled Darla off and held her wrists until she quieted down. Then he slapped her face.
Shit falls down, Chuck thought. Chuck hits Ronnie. Ronnie hits Darla. Darla hits the bottle.
“What part of ‘don’t let anybody in the apartment’ didn’t you understand?”
“But it’s Johnny. We used to be a thing, baby. Old times’ sake, you know.”
“Wake up, it’s not Johnny, you fuckin’ stupid drunk. It’s Chuck.”
She looked up. “Chuck?”
“Merry Christmas,” said Chuck, waving.