Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Fiction: Double Feature

By: Erin L. Snyder

Luis’s legs felt like they were on fire. Worse, his toes felt like nothing at all. The rest of him was ice, like raw meat in the freezer, and his chintzy felt coat and hat were about as effective as plastic wrap. For what little it was worth, he pulled his fake beard tight to his neck and looked out at the water.

Despite the pain, he took some pleasure in the scene. In the moonlight across the river. In the hum of cars driving over the bridge just to his right. Even at the cracking the frozen ground made beneath his boots. It wouldn't be long before the water was a sheet of ice covered in snow.

Mostly he took pleasure in a job well done. He’d dreamed about it for so long, and now that he’d finally worked up the courage, he felt relief and joy. Even the ache in his legs from wading into the bitterly cold river felt right. Musicians and painters suffered for their art: why should he be different?

His teeth chattered as he breathed in the air and grinned beneath the fluffy white beard tied to his face. “You did good,” he whispered to himself. “First of many.”

Then something caught his eye. It looked like a bubble bursting on the surface of the water, but that would be impossible. But then there was another and a third. And then, like a rising submarine, the dead body breached the surface of the river and bobbed up and down.

“No,” Luis said. “No! It’s not fair!” He clasped a hand over his mouth, suddenly conscious of how close he was to the road. He looked up at the bridge in case there was someone there. But he was safe. Besides a truck speeding by, he was alone. And there was no way the driver could have seen him or the body from that far away. Was there?

Of course not. It was more than sixty feet to the bridge, and it was dark out. The moonlight wouldn’t be enough to…. He shook, suddenly aware of the cold and the night and the unfairness of it all. He stepped along the bank, following the body as it began drifting with the tide. He’d weighed down the body with rocks. He’d laid them against the corpse’s chest and zipped up his coat over them. Then, when he realized he wouldn’t be able to throw the body far enough, he’d waded into the water until he reached the drop off and gave him a send off. His toes felt like they were about to snap off for the trouble, and now this son of a bitch had just shaken the weights loose and was floating downstream like he had somewhere to go.

Luis stared at the body, realizing what he had to do. “Luis,” he whispered to himself. “You got to swim after him. Get him back, cut him open, and fill him with rocks. Then sew him up and toss him back in.” Luis stepped towards the edge, but the muscle memory of the icy water stopped him. Instead, he stood on the bank, shivering, just watching the body drift towards the bridge. A car pulled across the bridge, and Luis could have sworn it slowed down as it did. He’d have sworn it on the Bible.

He swallowed and hurried towards his car. He fumbled in his pockets for his keys, but they weren’t there. He began to turn in terror towards the river before remembering he’d left them in the ignition. He opened the door, slipped in, and started the engine. Cool air spilled out of the vent, and he had to bite his lip to keep from screaming. He bit his lip so hard he tasted blood.

He wanted to wait until the car warmed up, but he didn't dare. Even with his headlights off, his rear lights could attract attention. So he shifted into drive and started up the dirt road. He didn't turn his headlights on until he reached pavement, and then only after reminding himself it wouldn't attract attention to have them on. “People drive with their lights on all the time,” he whispered.

It wasn't right that he should feel so scared. The guy in the river… that had been a good thing. It had been the right thing to do. As much a present to the world as to himself.

The vents finally started to warm up, and Luis turned on the radio. “...to make sure your doors are locked. We are still waiting for details, but the police believe a man dressed like a mall Santa Claus may be armed and should be considered dangerous….” Luis hit the brakes, and his small car slid to a halt on the unlit back road. “It’s not possible,” he said, shaking. They couldn't have found the body so soon. Not unless… those lights driving across the bridge came back to him. Someone had seen him and the body.

And he was sitting in an unmoving car in the middle of nowhere less than two miles from the scene. He pressed the gas and was going forty in an instant. The station had shifted to Christmas music, so he started cycling through channels. Nothing but commercials and Christmas music. Country, jazz, used cars, rock and roll, classical, the best place to hawk gold and jewelry in town… no news. No information on what the police knew or how they knew it.

He had to get away. The guy in the river was supposed to be the first, not the last. One a year, always on Christmas Eve, always in a different town forty miles or more from Luis’s house, where he wouldn't be recognized. He’d invested so much time to make sure this would be perfect. Why was this happening?

He drove on, wishing he were home. But he was more than an hour from his apartment. He could cut the time in half if he took the freeway, but the roads were probably crowded. He should stick with his original plan, stay on back roads and avoid any interaction. He’d memorized a route that would get him home and minimize crowded areas.

He drove on, taking the turns he’d memorized in advance. Until he heard the siren.

It came out of nowhere, and he almost drove off the road checking his rear view mirror. But it wasn't behind him. Then, out of the corner of his eye, he saw flashes of light that seemed to come out of the woods. There were other lights, as well: some kind of housing complex to his left. Without thinking, he put on his right blinker and turned away from the sound.

He immediately regretted it. He passed an open convenience store, a sign for a private college he’d never heard of, and numerous houses. And all along the road were lines of streetlights, glaring down at him. He could see the blood stains on his sleeves and gloves. He’d thought they’d be invisible against the red fabric, but there was no mistaking it. He was exposed here, caught in a web of light from the lampposts, the Christmas decorations, and the moon above. Behind him, he thought he heard the siren grow louder.

They couldn’t be closing in on him. It was impossible. Utterly impossible. But they might be searching, trying to root him out. And if they found him dressed like this, covered in blood, he’d have no escape. Just the choice between a blaze of glory and a lifetime in prison. Luis wasn’t afraid of dying, but he didn’t want to go yet. Not when he’d just figured everything out.

But he couldn’t run. Someone would see through a window or he’d be pulled over by a cop searching for Santa Claus. If he wanted a chance, he needed to get cleaned up and change his clothes. He needed to warm up, so he looked like something other than a crazed serial killer who’d dressed up in a costume to stalk and kill a real-life Scrooge on Christmas Eve as a warning to all the rest.

He stopped his car before he understood why. If he needed a place to hideout, he was in luck. All he needed to do was find an abandoned house and break in before the cops drove by. Then he could take a shower, steal a change of clothes, and make a pot of coffee. Turn himself back into a cleancut retail clerk out for a drive to see the lights on the 24th.

He jumped out of his car and shut the door as quietly as he could. Then he ran for the nearest house that was pitch black. He knew he’d probably have to circle around back and break a window, but he tried the front door, just in case.

The knob turned, and he slipped inside. He closed the door behind him and looked around. It was silent and dark, but warm. Then he realized it wasn’t completely silent or dark. There was a dim light spilling out from the bottom of a door at the far end of a hallway to the left of the entrance. The room was in back, which is why he hadn’t seen it from outside. He almost dashed out to seek shelter in another building, but the siren was right behind him. Red and blue lights flashed in through the living room window, and Luis ducked to make sure he was out of sight.

Luis crawled toward the back room. He could hear a sizzling sound now and smell cooking eggs - it was the kitchen, he realized. He reached to his belt and pulled out the long knife that had been his tool. He couldn’t leave, and whoever was in the kitchen would draw attention. That left two options. He could tie the house’s owner up or he could add a second victim. It would depend on the owner’s disposition, Luis decided. He wasn’t interested in killing people who didn’t deserve it, unless there was no other choice. But he knew his work was important. He knew it in his soul.

Luis held the knife up and slowly pushed the door ajar. He’d hoped to be able to survey the scene before being noticed, but the door squeaked as it opened. Luis stepped in, just as the man cooking turned to look at him.

Before Luis could process the scene, the man on the opposite side of the kitchen grabbed a massive object from the counter beside him and pointed it at Luis. “Who the hell are you supposed to be?” the man demanded in a deep, slightly slurred voice.

Luis froze and stuttered. The object pointed at him was a three foot long ax. And the man pointing it was dressed like Santa Claus. The white fur lining on his coat was spattered with brownish blood, and the head of the ax was discolored, as well. His eyes were bloodshot, and he had a short gash on his left cheek.

“Wait,” this new Santa Claus said, squinting. “Do you live here?” He seemed confused, probably strung out.

Luis’s mouth hung open. “I just… I just came in to get cleaned up,” he said.

“Then what the hell’s that for,” he pointed his ax at the knife in Luis’s hand.

“Same thing that’s for,” Luis replied, pointing back. “I… I think I’m like you.”

“No, man. You ain’t like me. Look at you. You’re a damned disgrace. You get that whole suit at a drugstore?”

“No. Just the… just the beard.”

“Christ, man. Should have gone to a better drug store.” He shook his head. Behind him, an egg sizzled in the pan. “Ah, man. It’s… see, you’re making me burn it. Just… put the knife down and sit for a minute.”

Luis sat at the table and set the knife in front of him.

“No. No way, man. Knife’s on the floor, where you can’t… is that, like, a kitchen knife? You brought a kitchen knife?”

“I’m keeping this where I can get it,” Luis said.

“Man. You are trying me.” He flicked his wrist, reminding Luis there weren’t a lot of places to run. “On the floor.”

Luis set it beside his chair. “You happy?”

“Don’t know,” the Santa said. “I’m alright, I guess.” He set his ax down beside him and tended to his egg. Every few seconds, he looked over his shoulder to make sure Luis wasn’t trying anything.

Luis eyed the ax. “Who are you, anyway? You don’t own this place, either.”

“Who am I? I’m Santa Claus, man. I mean, look at me.”

“Well, I’m Santa, too. Give me something I can call you. Like, you can call me Will.”

“No way, Will. I ain’t telling you my secret identity.” He flipped the egg. “But. I don’t know. I guess you can call me Joey or something.”

“Right. And the owner of this house. Do I have to worry about him?”

Joey glanced at the closed basement door. “No, man. He’s not going to be bothering us.”

“So that just leaves the cops,” Luis said.

“Yeah. Thanks a lot for that.” Joey worked his spatula under the eggs and moved them to a plate. Then he rummaged through cupboards until he found a fork. He grabbed his ax with his left hand and held it just beneath the head. Then, holding his plate and fork with his right hand, he turned and sat down at the table. “That couple on Pine has them spooked. I had, like, eight other places on my list tonight. Now, I got to cut it short, go right to the sorority.”

“What place on Pine? What’s Pine?”

“What do you mean, what’s Pine. That couple on Pine Street. It was all over the radio. I had plans. What were you thinking?”

“I don’t even know where Pine is. I didn’t kill anyone!”

Joey gave him a sarcastic look and motioned at the bloodstains on Luis’s coat and fake beard.

“Alright. No, okay. I did kill a guy. But he wasn’t from around here. And it was just one guy, not a couple.”

“Whatever, man. Police are looking for a killer dressed like Santa. And no one knows about me yet.”

“You sure of that?” Luis asked.

“Yeah, I’m sure. Already told you, this was house number one. I really wanted to get to that one by the lake. I mean, come on, that’s just….” He shook his head.

“Okay. How about the guy in the basement. You know him?”
"No, I don’t think so. I mean, he had one of those faces, right? You’re trying to place him, cause he looks familiar, but it’s probably nothing. Maybe someone I met at the hardware store. I wish I hadn’t gotten him in the head, cause now you wouldn’t know him from your brother.”

“Then why’d you do it?” Luis asked, trying to keep his voice level and focused. Random killings made him sick. There was supposed to be order to the world, purpose.

“What do you mean, why? Isn’t it obvious? I’m doing the Lord’s work tonight,” Joey explained. “You saw the place, didn’t you?”

“What’s wrong with the place?” Luis asked.

Joey tilted his head. “It’s Christmas Eve. And there’s not one goddamn light outside or in. Not one.” He sliced through a section of eggs, speared it on his fork, and shoved it into his mouth.

“You killed him because he’s Jewish?”

“What? No. No, I mean… he wasn’t Jewish. I’m not like that.”

“How do you know he wasn’t Jewish?”

“What kind of bullshit question is that? You can tell. Besides, what the hell did you do that couple for?”

“I didn’t kill the…. The guy I killed, he was a banker. I overheard him--”

“--Oh, banker,” Joey cut him off. “Yeah. I guess that makes sense.” He looked Luis over again. “I still don’t get the outfit.”

“What’s not to get? It’s a statement. A reminder that the holidays aren’t supposed to be about money.”

“Yeah, yeah. I get that part. But, dude, you look like shit. I mean, your beard’s not even on right, your pants and boots are coated in mud, and your coat, man. Your coat. What’d you do, string up the sonofabitch and bleed him out over you?” Joey chuckled and took another bite of his eggs.

“What do you care?” Luis asked.

Joey got silent and slid his chair back. Luis shifted, as well, putting a foot over his knife, in case he had to get at it quickly. “I care cause it’s Christmas. If you’re going to dress up like Santa, you got take that shit seriously. I mean, what if some kid sees you? You ever think about that?”

Luis had not, in fact, given that idea much thought.

“Man, I don’t know.” Joey gestured wildly. “It’s like you’re not taking any of this seriously. These boots ran me two hundred dollars. For boots! Nevermind what I spent on the coat. And the beard, man. Wanna give it a tug?”

“No. No, I can see it’s real.”

“Damn right it’s real. And you can wipe that look off your face. You’re not better than me.”

“I never said I was. Never even thought it!” Of course, Luis had been thinking it. He was answering a calling, while this lunatic was just knocking off random strangers. No dyed beard or expensive suit could give Joey - or whatever this junkie’s real name was - a cause. This was all random to him. That couple he kept rambling about… did Joey kill them then forget about it? There’s no telling how many civilians he’d taken out.

Maybe even the guy in the river. Luis’s head started spinning. There were only two ways things would end for Joey: a cell or a morgue. And either way, they’d pin the banker on him in a heartbeat, as long as he was the only Santa they found.

He turned the situation over in his head a few times. He still needed to get cleaned up and changed into different clothes. Only he couldn’t do that here, not with Joey watching him. Hell, if he turned his back on the maniac, he was pretty sure he’d find the head of that ax buried there.

“I’m just saying. You got to take this stuff seriously. Otherwise, you’re as bad as….” He trailed off without finishing his sentence and glanced at the ax handle.

Luis didn’t like the look in his eyes. He cleared his throat to get Joey’s attention and forced himself to smile. “Look, I respect the work you’ve done here. And I like your suit. Maybe you could give me some pointers.”

Joey looked up. Then he shook his head and squeezed the bridge of his nose. “Hold on,” he said, fishing a handkerchief out of his back pocket. He blew his nose loudly and tossed the handkerchief onto the floor. “Sorry, what?”

“The suit. You were going to tell me where you got your suit.”

“Oh, right. I had to send away for it. There’s this company in Ohio. They’re not just throwing together crap for department stores. They do costumes. Man, that’s the key, right there. You want to go through people who do professional costumes. And you have to be willing to spend money on this. You got to look at it as an investment.”

Luis nodded. “I get that. That’s what I’ll do. I’ll order a better suit for next year.”

Joey half laughed and half snorted. “Next year?” He shook his head. “You’re worrying about next year?”

“Aren’t you?” Luis asked, as sincerely as he could. “You said yourself we’re doing good work here. Shouldn’t we keep--”

“I said I was doing good work,” Joey interrupted. “That business on Pine Street… I don’t know what that was supposed to be about.”
“That wasn’t… no, remember? I did the banker. I don’t know anything about the place on Pine.”

“Right,” Joey said, eyeing him suspiciously.

“Listen. I don’t want to argue with you,” Luis said. “And I don’t want to keep you from what you have to do.”

“What?”

“Your work. You said you weren’t finished tonight, that you still had plans. Well, maybe I could help you. Maybe we could team up, make up for lost time.” Luis smiled. He needed Joey to trust him. Because he didn’t have much chance against him if Joey was ready, not if he had the ax. But if he could get him to turn his back… the ax wouldn’t matter if Joey had a twelve inch carving knife sticking out of him.

Joey scratched his head. “I don’t know, man. There’s only supposed to be one Santa Claus.”

“But… I could be your helper or something. Look, let me make it up to you. It’s Christmas, right?” He nodded, trying to sound like every character in every made-for-TV movie he’d ever seen.

Joey considered this for a minute. “Maybe,” he said. “But you got to do what I say. And first… man, you got to fix that beard.”

“Of course,” Luis said, tightening the strings binding the false beard to his face. He maintained eye contact while he worked.

“All right.” Joey stood up, taking his ax with him. He moved towards the back door, slowly, keeping Luis is sight.

“I’m going to need my knife,” Luis said, bending down slowly. He saw Joey about to object, so he added, “I’ll keep it tucked into my belt until we need it. I wouldn’t be much use without it.” When he stood up, he saw Joey squinting at him. He didn’t trust him yet. Of course he didn’t. Even a strung-out ax-murdering junkie has some sense. It was just a question of how much and whether Luis could turn the tables. And, of course, he had to do it without attracting attention. The police were still nearby, after all.

He swallowed and approached casually while Joey maintained some distance. As soon as he was outside, he felt the ground turn slippery beneath his boots. His toes were still numb from the river earlier, and he wondered if he might lose a few. All things considered, it seemed a small price right now. The icy ground could work to his advantage. If Joey fell, this would be over quickly. Cleanly.

Joey moved away. “Close enough, man,” he said when Luis was just four feet from him. Luis stopped and waited, looking as casual as he could manage. He kept his hand away from his belt and knife. “You go first,” Joey added, stepping back and motioning to the left.

The flaw in Luis’s plan came crashing down at him. What possible reason did he have for thinking that Joey wasn’t planning the same thing he was? If he went first, Joey could take him out with ease. Luis wasn’t even sure he’d hear him coming. But if he refused, it would just prove he couldn’t be trusted. It’d mean a fight without the element of surprise, and Joey’s ax gave him a hell of an advantage.

Luis smiled and started walking. It was faith now, that Joey really thought they’d be able to work together. That he wouldn’t take two steps and embed the head of that ax in the back of his skull. He hurried and listened to the rhythm of Joey’s footsteps as they broke the surface of the shallow snow or rested on the icy path. He tried to estimate how far back he was and keep him at a distance.

“Take a left by that hedge there,” Joey said. “We’ll walk along the treeline, should keep us out of view.”

Luis eyed the trees which ran closer than he’d have liked to the row of houses, a few of which had porch lights on. He wasn’t sure they’d get much cover at all. But he wasn’t the one with the ax, so he did as told.

“Keep going till you’re almost to the end of the block,” Joey muttered from behind him. “Then turn into the woods when you see it.”

“See what? Where are we going?”

“Man. You got to learn to pay attention,” Joey said. “The big one. The sorority house.”

Luis swallowed. He knew he couldn’t let Joey get that far. A place like that… someone was guaranteed to get out and call for help. Then it would just be a matter of time. The roads here were wound too tight, and there were too many houses. If the police descended, it would be a fox hunt. Nowhere to run and nowhere to hide.

“Sounds good,” he said, trying not to sound scared. He continued on until he saw the place, just on the other side of a thin patch of trees. He started in and heard Joey behind him. Then, when they were about halfway through, he ran to a tree, as if he were hiding and motioned for Joey to get down.

“What is it?”

Luis motioned for quiet. He tore off a glove and held up two fingers. Then he mouthed, “Cops.”

“Where?” Joey wasn’t even speaking softly. “I don’t see no one.”

“Just by the… they’re going to see us.”

“Man, I don’t see a soul.” Joey looked more annoyed than anything else. Then he simply stared at Luis, as if making up his mind.

“You gotta trust me,” Luis whispered. “They’re by the house. We have to hang low until they leave.”

Joey sighed. “You’re skittish, too? I just don’t… I don’t think this is going to work, man.” He swung the ax at Luis’s body, and Luis dove out of the way. A thick mist of snow and pine needles fell on them as Joey’s ax struck the tree.

“Just stop! Think!” Luis said, clamoring to his feet and pulling his knife free. “If we do this, someone will hear, call the police.”

“No, man. I’ll be quiet.” He swung again, and Luis moved back.

“I won’t. I’ll scream for help.”

Joey stopped for a moment and gave Luis a disgusted look. “You’d do that? After everything, you’d just.... Man. You really don’t have a once of the Christmas spirit in you, do you?” He clenched the ax. “I mean, the suit was bad enough. But… you said you understood. This is about Christmas.”

“No. What I do is about Christmas. You’re just some psycho in a costume.” He edged forward to test Joey’s reflexes, but Joey shifted position immediately.

“No, man. You’re just like the rest of them. You say you care about Christmas, but do you even have a tree?”

Luis was speechless, not because he didn’t have a tree (though it was true he hadn’t bothered this year), but because of the utter inanity of the question.

“That’s what I thought. You’re too busy thinking about yourself to care about anyone. You’re not taking any of this seriously. Just trying to get through to next year.” Joey started to move forward. He had the same look in his eye that Luis had had in his own earlier that night when he killed the banker.

Luis turned and ran, as fast as he could. He heard Joey charging after him. Luis tripped over a bush and rolled out of the way just as Joey’s ax crashed into the snow beside him. He swung his knife, mostly just hoping to keep Joey away, but the blade bit into the meat of his arm.

Joey cried out and leapt back, dragging the ax in his left hand. “Shit! That hurts!”
Luis stood up. “Just wait till I get started. I’ll cut you open like a… like a Christmas present.”

He hoped to scare off Joey, but it backfired. Joey charged forward, gripping the ax with both hands. Blood spilt out of his wounded arm and splattered across the ax handle, his expensive Santa suit, and the snow. Luis didn’t make it more than five steps before he felt the corner of the axe swipe against the back of his left shoulder. It was more a glancing blow than a crushing one, but it still threw him off balance and sent him tumbling into the snow. He rolled over and tried to protect his face as Joey swung the ax overhead and yelled.

Luis screamed and shut his eyes.

Then there was a whistling. And the scream stopped. Luis’s shoulder ached where it had been hit. He opened his eyes. Joey was still standing over him, but his expression was changed. No, not changed: his expression was gone. The ax fell behind him with a thud. Then Joey collapsed to the ground. In the center of his back, a long, thin shaft was sticking out.

“Jesus, this thing’s good. Better than my old one.”

“What about the other one?”

“I’m going to be sick.”

“As long as it’s out here. We just cleaned the carpet.”

There were four girls in all. One held a bow which still had a silver ribbon attached to one end. Another held a quiver of arrows. She drew one out, offered it to the one with the bow, and said, “Gracie, you should probably look away.”

The girl with the bow strung the arrow and pulled back the string.

“No. No, wait. I can--” Luis raised his hands, forgetting he was still holding the knife. There were a thumping sound and the sensation someone had punched him in the chest. He rolled back into the snow. He drew in a breath and felt something burning inside of him. He started to shake.

“Seriously, Grace. You should go lay down on the couch. Keep Liz company. She hates dealing with this sort of thing, too.”

“I… should I… call the police? I really think we should tell them.”

“Fuck no. We went through that my first year, and they woke up the whole neighborhood. We’ll just dump these two in the shed with the other and figure out what do with them in the morning.”

“I can’t believe we got three this year. Last Christmas was bad enough. That one guy who got his beard caught in his chainsaw. Egh.”

“Hey. Alicia. The second one is still moving.”

It was getting hard for Luis to make out shapes, but he saw one of the girls step over him. Slowly she came into focus.

“Huh. I guess I’m not used to this thing yet. Every bow’s a little different, you know. It takes a while to get--”

“Quit yammering,” the girl with arrows said, handing one over. “It’s cold out here. Oh, Christ. Look at his outfit. That’s got to be the worst Santa suit I’ve ever seen! At least his friend had some taste.”

The one with the bow drew the string back. “The one in the shed's pretty nice, too. Reminds me of the guy in Macy's in that old movie.” She was looking him right in the eye, aiming down the shaft of the arrow. But Luis’s attention was drawn away to the silver ribbon fluttering in the breeze like tinsel hanging from a tree.

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