The Cold-Blooded Christmas by Mark Gordon Palmer

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Thrillers  |  House: Booksie Classic
Part of my ongoing project to write short stories as and when I feel inspired by the time of year, the time of day, the news of the day or something strange I overheard someone say - on the day! Written in one session, with limited rewrites, I hoped these would become a kind of journo-fiction. The Cold-Blooded Christmas though, was simply inspired by, and written on, Christmas Eve. My Christmas was a lot less murderous than the one had by the narrator of this story though!

Submitted: January 14, 2012

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Submitted: January 14, 2012

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THE COLD-BLOODED CHRISTMAS by MARK GORDON PALMER

I grab the hand that tickles its tiny cold fingers across my palm.
“Dad, I’m freezing.”
"I’m sorry,” I say. “I forgot to bring the gloves.”
"And the hats. Coats. Scarves…”
My son, Michael, just nine years old and already a cynic.
“OK,” I tell him. “I put my hands up.”
“Cold hands.”
I laugh. “Very cold, yeah. Anyway, you should have reminded me.”
"Mum would have reminded us."
Bad thoughts splash across my skull: she’s dead.
“She would have, you’re right. Now hold my hand, we’re going down a steep slope.”
The torch flickers a little. Don’t go out, please don’t go out. It goes out.
“That’s not good,” I say, slipping a little on the remainder of snow from the week before.

Nearby: the crashing of waves against shore and rocks. The coastal path steep and winding, beckoning us down. Almost there. We can make it. I’ve walked this path many times before, since I was a boy, eagerly hurrying down to the small, hidden beach that nobody else seemed to know was there. Except for one day last summer, when Michael and his mother carried the picnic basket down the steps as I took the lead up ahead, carrying a few bags of swimming outfits under one arm and a large Golden Labrador under the other. His name was Nugget, twelve years old and literally on his last legs. He died just a couple of months after …

(…she smashed her skull...)

...after she did.

We said hello to another family, walking up the path that led down to the beach. Our beach. They said hello back. We all smiled. Nobody really wanted to. The secret - ours, theirs - was broken. As broken as my wife's own bones a few hours later.

The cold is seeping into my skin now. I’m going to kill myself and kill my own son too. With hypothermia. I wouldn’t mind so much about myself. But Michael… I’m all he has. Just me and him against the world. Against the elements too now. Christmas Eve, 2011, our first Christmas just us on our own; together.

“We’ve got to get back,” I tell him now. “Can’t see a thing.”
“It’s a path, Dad,” Michael laughs, letting go of my hand, skipping ahead. “Just a path.”
“Michael, come back.”

The sea answers. A swishing, shushing sound as waves tickle across stony shore – who’s that coming down the path? Shush…. Go away. Sheesh… It’s Christmas Eve. Shush… Time for carols. Sheesh … Midnight service. Shush…. Santa’s coming. Someone’s coming to knock on your door.

She climbed up the rocks. I remember. I didn’t know she was so high up. It was my adventure. I wanted to be a boy again, remember the days I played on the rocks with my two best friends – Tommy and Mike. Tommy reached out for my hand, pulled me up the rocks. Higher and higher. A little further and you get to a sheer drop down the other side, it’s not that high up. Once you get to the ledge looking down it’s a jump, not that much higher than a grown-up. Then a walk along a short stretch of sand and into the cave; where the sea monster is supposed to live. The getting down is easy. It’s the going up that’s hard. But a little bit of effort. Me, Tommy and Mike used to do it.

My wife, Jennifer, was scared.
“You can do it,” I tell her. “Me, Tommy and Mike used to do it, no problem. I thought ...”

(I laugh quietly in my head now, remembering) ...I thought, you were a tomboy.

Jennifer looks at me, trusts me. “I can’t go any further. The rocks – are really slippery.”
Michael looks at us from some way below, standing on the stony beach looking up at us. “You can do it Mum.”
She looks at him. ‘Course she can. Jennifer climbs.
Michael shouts “Can I come too?”
“No,” we both yell back at him.
“Stay where you are, we won’t be long,” his mum calls out. “I promise.”
“But you can go, and I can’t,” Michael sulks. “I’m almost ten.”
“Almost nine,” I call back at him, lifting another foot a little bit higher, reaching the moss-covered area of rock now, bye bye limpets, sea, smooth slippery rocks – hello moss, and height and bracken. Not far to go now. I take a break. Look out to sea at a fishing boat returning to shore. Seagulls dotted around the mast like speckles of summer snow.

And then a cry. I look down. A scream now. Jennifer is sliding back down, like she's on a water chute. Her hands stretch out frantically, trying to grab a plant; moss, bracken - nothing. Then back, going back down, her body bends in mid-air, her legs clacking against the rock, breaking. Her head hits the rock. She lies there in the sun as if she is sunbathing. Seagulls swarm above us. Like those around the fishing boat.

Michael looks at her. “Mum?” he says, quietly, as a trail of blood leaks into the sea. The screams: “Mum… Mum… Mum...”

“Michael.” I call. “Michael,” Not knowing what to say.

“Mum... Mum …”

He keeps calling, but there’s no reply. No life. The lady has left the building, I remember thinking – madly. When I get back to the shore. But that was exactly it – the body was there. But the eyes were empty.

I realise I’ve been lost in memories, and that it’s dark and cold now, and I’m on my own. I can’t hear Michael’s breathing in the dark or the sound of his footsteps. “Michael?” I call out. No answer. Then a hand grabs hold of mine, and I breathe a sigh of relief. In the nearby town, the Church bells ring. Midnight carols begin. “Michael, I think we should go back, I’m cold.” But he doesn’t answer, His hand feels all wet and slippery. I reach around with my other hand and feel for him, but just air.

Shush… says the sea. Sheesh …

I shout: “Oh my God. Oh My God.” I smell her. I smell the perfume she used to wear.
“Jennifer?” But the spell is broken. The illusion shattered. My hand is alone. Michael comes running up the path, I hear him, but barely see him. There’s no moon above us. Just cold. And the occasional flutter of fresh snow. Here we are, walking in the dark, in the bitter cold, with just our jumpers to keep us warm. Like Michael said: No gloves. No jackets. No scarves.
You shouldn’t be out tonight, I think I can hear Jennifer telling us. It’s too cold. You could slip and fall. Hurt yourself.

And then she says out loud: “Like you hurt me."

Micheal is in front of me now. I grab hold of him, run my hands over his face. “What did you say?”
Michael shrugs me away from him. “Get the fuck off me,” he shouts. He never used to swear. Not until …
I repeat: “What did you say?”
“Nothing. What are you going on about?”
Time to calm down. Sorry. So sorry. Cracking up again. Perhaps we should go home.
“I thought I heard something.”
Michael’s not stupid: “You mean Mum?”
I nod my head. He can’t see me.
“You mean Mum?”
“Yeah,” I tell him. “Sorry.”
“No need to be sorry Dad. I hear her all the time.”
In the corner of my eye, in the bracken beside me, I hear a rustling.
“You do?”
“Yeah. At night, when I go to bed. She talks to me.”
“What does she tell you?”
“That’s it’s going to be alright.” He says, and walks away.
“Michael, where are you going?”
“To the shore Dad. We’re nearly there. The steps are just down here.”
I know that, I feel like telling him. I used to live here. Before you. Stupid you. Came along.

Do you remember – I ask myself – a few months back? You were sitting out in the garden and Michael was inside the house, playing with a friend, and the friend starts shouting, and Michael shouts back – an argument about who is better than the other at some computer game, something like that. Michael punches the other boy in the arm. I lose control. Race inside and grab Michael by the collar, slam him against the wall. The other boy watches me; bright big blue eyes open wide. He’s scared. So is Michael. I press my hand on my son’s throat and wrap my hand around: I’m squeezing as hard as I can. “No,” gags Michael, in a reedy, stupid voice. “No.” But all I can think of is Jennifer and how she dies because I wanted to impress my son, and how he kept on calling out to us as we climbed the rocks, distracting us, making her fall.

“Come on Dad,” Michael calls out to me from the darkness. The singers at the local church are a few verses into O Come All Ye Faithful now. “Coming,” I shout back. Have to do this now. Have to prove to him that I’m a better person. That I won’t ever hurt anyone again.

The steps down to the beach are steep and crooked. The National Trust repaired them a few years back. As I climb down backwards, Michael already on the shingle of the shore below, I feel terrified. I can hear exaggerated sounds all around me. Animals scurrying in the bracken. Crabs scuttling on the beach below. Bats swooping in the night sky. My stomach rumbling with hunger. Breathing all around me. Not just my own. Pitch black. No moon. No warmth. Alone. In the distance a slight glow from the town, and the lighthouse beacon once every three seconds.

I feel very bloody angry with you: I think about Michael down on the beach, calling out for me to hurry up. I want to go home. I don’t want to come here. This is where it happened. He asked me earlier in the day, as we finished writing our Christmas cards. No cards to Jennifer’s family of course. They still haven’t forgiven me for what happened on the beach that day. On this beach. No, Michael made me come here tonight - it wasn't my idea.

I step down onto the beach. The shingle beneath my feet crunches. Dried seaweed around my feet and a few empty cartons and cans. There’s a little more light on the beach than we had on the headland. The slight faraway glow from the ten or so ships out at sea perhaps. Something.

I feel very bloody angry with you

I catch up with Michael. He holds my hand without me asking him to. I know he is feeling as bad as I am. Remembering the day when Jennifer fell. And thinking of all the blood that leaked into the sea near to where we are standing right now.

“This is it,” Michael says. “Where …”
I grip his hand tighter.
No need to tell me.
“Let’s climb,” Michael says to me.
“Don’t be stupid.”
“No, come on, we have to.”
“Michael, it’s cold, it’s dark, We can’t. I wouldn’t anyway. Never again. After…”
“That’s why we have to. For Mum. To finish what she couldn’t - we have to get to the top.”
You - you - have to get to the top, a sweet voice whispers in my ear. It’s her. I feel her - here with us.
“I don’t know," I say. "I don't know if we should."

The choir in the town are on Silent Night now. It’s so clear. Do they have the doors of the church open? Are they mad?
“OK,” I say. Because Michael’s right – it could be an end to something that was never finished. Could be a new beginning. For both of us. For all three of us.

A loud bark at my feet. Really loud. I jump up in the air. “Oh God, what is it?” I say. "What was that?"
“Huh?” - is Michael’s reply.
“That sound. That bark. Dog.”
“Yeah Dad, I know a dog barks.”
“I heard it, I did. Didn’t you?”
“No,” Michael sighs. “Perhaps you heard the sea monster in the cave.”
“The - ?” I laugh. “Yeah, maybe. I thought it was Nugget though. Thought he’d come back.”
Michael says; “You’re not trying to get of the climb are you?”
“No,” I tell him. “But you’re not coming with me.”
Michael complains at this, but I tell him it’s too dangerous.
“Dad, it has to be us. Me and you. Together.”
“No it doesn’t,” I tell him. “It has to be how it was.” And I know, in that moment, that he knows too. There is no reply. Silence. I place one foot on the first rock. Up. Second foot. Up. Reach out a hand on cold, achingly cold rock.

There are no more carols drifting across the headland now, but lots of chattering. Muffled voices, the church emptying - occasional laughter, some loud. I keep climbing, shivering hands fumbling for a hold. I’m so cold, my back hurts as I bend it. My feet are numb too. The sea has stopped moving. Even the voices from nearby have stopped and no longer remain to keep me company. Now, I suddenly feel afraid of the dark. I want to call out to Michael as I get to the ledge looking down into the cave. But there’s no point. I remember his eyes turning blood red suddenly, as if someone had squeezed the rubber-handles of two pipettes of red dye into his eyes. One moment his eyes big and brown as his friend watches on, terrified. The next red and dead. No pure-black pupils looking back at me. No pleading for me to stop. Pink foam, like the fluffy foam on top of breaking waves on the sea shore, streaming out of his mouth. I break my grip, but I know it’s too late. The other boy – the witness – tries to run. I drop Michael’s limp and lifeless body to the royal blue carpet below, and grab the other boy by the shirt pasted with summer sweat to his back. He falls to the floor, almost at the back door, and freedom. Sunlight shines in his eyes, he winces. I grab the kettle. Pull it so the power cord breaks free then I’m slamming the kettle down on the boys screaming face, over and over again. Just-boiled water splashing all over my arm. And over the boy’s red sticky hair. Then, I go into the garage through the side door, place both bodies in the boot of the car, twisting them a little to make them fit. Then drive away. I guess I should have wrapped the bodies in something like they do in the movies, but I didn’t. I take them to a place in the woods I used to play in as a boy. I had to park in a lonely stretch of the road, then pull both kids through the dense undergrowth by the hair, twisting around a big clump on each skull to cling to. It holds. There’s a dip in the ground where there’s a blanket of corrugated iron sheets. Just a big ditch underneath. Nobody ever knew what it was for. The woods in that place are deep and overgrown and nobody goes there except boys on an adventure, and even that’s pretty rare. I lift the rusted sheets of metal. Rolled both bodies inside. One of top of the other. Grab some branches and lay them gently over the two friends. Tomb them up with the sheets of corrugated iron, and go back to the car. Drive home, buy seven bottles of bleach and empty them all over the boot and the floor where I killed them and dragged them across the carpet and lino.

Of course, here I am two weeks later, knowing that my time is up. That there’s no way the bodies will go undiscovered in reality. Not long before grandparents or school come knocking: you took Michael and his best friend down to Devon for a two week break, so where are they? Why aren’t they home yet?

They went off for a walk and never came back. They must have fallen, off a cliff edge. Oh don’t be so fucking stupid – who are you trying to kid? Your time is up – this is it. Payback.

“Are you up the top yet Dad?” a voice calls out from below me.

Shush… cries the sea. Sheesh…against the shore.

“Yes, I’m here,” I shout back, even though I know the boy’s dead, he’s not really down there.

A hand wraps itself around my back. A cold, slippery hand, like frozen ice cream. Something drips down me when the cold hand touches under my shirt, against my skin, melts, dripping something down my clothing that I know, if I had a torch to show me, would be blood.

“I loved you,” the voice whispers. Sweet and lovely. Like a Christmas carol.

And I know that once – she did. Now she hates me. The breath turns foul and fetid, like rotting cabbage. I giggle: yeah, or maybe like rotting bloody Brussels Sprouts. Happy Christmas Jennifer.

The spirit spits in my face, again and again. The spit is like acid. Or ice. I can’t tell which. From up here you can see the beam of the lighthouse cutting through the freezing mist. It’s beautiful. And then the hand pushes me and I fall, and feel the rock as it hits parts of my body. I compile a kind of list in my head: arm, back, head, leg, neck.

Lying on the beach now, looking up into the night sky, and some cloud has parted to show up the stars. But I’m not dead. My body is broken. But I’m not dead. My son stands above me, crouches down, places a hand around my throat, and I see his eyes clearly, burning with revenge as he squeezes the last bit of life out of me. But it’s not enough. His grip is too weak. I'm still alive.

I spend the night on the beach; my son, wife and family dog sitting around nearby and watching me. Every now and then they try to kill me off for good. But it seems that ghosts can only push you in the right direction. The fall should have killed me, but it didn’t. And they can’t do anything about it. I spend the night with them screaming abuse at me. Spitting ghostly phlegm in my face – ectoplasm? And mocking me.

The sun rises, I manage to struggle up when I awake. My entire body is numb, but I reach inside my coat pocket and take out a flask full of whisky. I take a sip. Lots of sips, and struggle across the shore, up the steps, onto the path. It hurts so bad. I feel like giving up, and sometimes want to die. But I’m too scared. Just up ahead I spot a man out walking his dog. I shuffle into the bracken beside me and lie down. He walks past, doesn’t know I’m there, although his dog bounds towards me, until the man calls him back.

I took them down to the beach on Christmas Eve. Michael wanted to climb up the rocks to remember his mother. I told him no. That it was too dangerous. But he climbed up anyway. His friend followed behind. I shouted at them to come back down, started to follow them, to help them. But they fell. And took me with them. Luckily – I survived.

It took me the rest of the morning to recover the two bodies of the boys from the corrugated iron grave in the woods, drag them to the cliff edge above the beach and push them over. Twice dead. Then I shuffled down to the beach again, slowly and painfully; the cold so bad my whole body was no longer able to be felt at all. I was like a floating wispy mist; but I still found the strength to do what I had to do. I didn’t need to do anything to myself; make myself badly injured or anything. I was already that - my body covered in huge crystalline smears of frozen blood. I think the blood that had frozen had blocked up the deep wounds, like a natural Band-Aid. I reckon I would have died if it hadn't been for the freezing temperatures encasing broken bones and bits of gristle that were peeking through skin, in a kind of solidified red jelly.

I mashed up the bodies a bit more on the beach, just to remove any traces of my strangling hand. I thought about waiting on the beach, but the insults from my dead family and the incessant barking of Nugget the dog were getting on my nerves. I climbed up the steps and path back up to the holiday homes at the top of the hill and knocked feebly on my neighbour’s front door.

"Help me," I whispered, and just managed to get out the vital words: "Help my boy", too, as the world smeared black.

Copyright: Mark Gordon Palmer/ 2011
Contact: markgordonpalmer@aol.com


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