By Seana Graham
Charlie detected what he thought were footsteps on the roof not too long after midnight. This was earlier than he thought it would be, but still within normal parameters. He took another swig from the glass of whiskey and slowly unfastened the safety catch on the gun, then slid it back cautiously under the blanket on his lap. This would be the night—he felt it.
Maggie and the kids were probably down in Florida with her folks by now, their usual Christmas tradition these days. He had complained about the lack of holiday visitation rights, but not too stridently. Christmas was a busy time and he had plans to make and promises to keep. Well, one promise, anyway.
Everyone spoke of the season as such a magical time, but he had never found it to be so—not since one long ago Christmas morning. His sisters had beat him to the Christmas stockings, finding oranges and chocolate in theirs. But when he’d turned his out, he’d found only a single lump of coal. The whole family was there that morning and the uncles had all laughed until they cried. He’d stood there facing them, his eyes two small black stones as he suppressed both tears and fury.
“Well, Charlie?” his old man had asked, not smiling at all.
“Man, I heard about Santa bringing coal before,” Uncle Frank had said, winking at his dad before Charlie had a chance to say anything. “Never seen it actually done, though.”
“Well, Santa doesn’t bring much chocolate to boys who don’t behave,” his father said, looking at Charlie pointedly.
“All right, Martin,” Charlie’s mom had said, coming in from the kitchen. “You’ve all had your joke, now that’s enough. Come on over to the tree, Charlie. Plenty of presents for you here.”
But none, he’d noticed, from Santa Claus.
Still it hadn’t been a bad haul. But later in the afternoon, when the stockings were forgotten and the others had all gathered around the table for Christmas dinner, Charlie had lingered to level his new air gun at the chimney.
“Santa,” he’d whispered, “you’re a dead man.” He’d pulled the trigger.
The years had gone by and perhaps the memory should have faded. No one else believed in Santa Claus by the time they were twelve, let alone thirty-five. But Charlie knew the old devil was real, all right. Just like that lump of coal.
Old Saint Nick, or just Old Nick, as Charlie liked to call him, had probably broken up his marriage too. He and Maggie had been all right, but the holidays were a big bone of contention between them. She loved them, but Charlie hated every minute. When Sheila and Patrick were born, Maggie apparently thought that was supposed to change. It hadn’t.
“No child of mine will ever get a lump of coal, that’s for sure!” he said. Just the thought of it sent him nearly apoplectic.
“Charlie, no one’s going to put coal in their stockings unless it’s you or me,” Maggie had said. “I’m sorry about what happened to you. Someone had a lousy sense of humor, that’s all.”
“It’s time someone put a stop it!” he’d fumed.
He’d insisted on sitting up every Christmas Eve ‘standing watch’. But he always fell asleep in his armchair and woke to find that the sniveling coward had come and gone while he slumbered.
Finally, it was too much. After Thanksgiving two years ago, Charlie found a note from Maggie saying she’d had enough. She was going to her parents’ and taking the children with her. When he finally got her to answer her phone she said she just wanted the kids to have a normal Christmas.
“Normal Christmas!” Charlie snarled, and hung up. “I’ll give her normal.” He had immediately begun divorce proceedings.
So tonight he was all alone. He had a tiny Christmas tree, figuring you needed at least a token one as bait. He had put some cheap ornaments on it and hung his solitary stocking on the mantle. He had a bottle of whiskey and his .38. What else did any man need?
An eerie wind raced down the chimney and blew in a few dead leaves. There was movement in the flue. A scuttling sound. Charlie tensed, but he wasn’t afraid.
“Come to Papa, Kris Kringle,” he said, leaning forward. That was when the lights went out.
The police arrived just as the paramedics were putting Charlie in the ambulance.
“We’re here because there was a report of a gunshot. Was that the victim?”
“You could say that. He was also the shooter.”
“Ah, self-inflicted,” the cop said sadly. “Well, it happens this time of year.”
“He’ll live,” the paramedic said, unmoved.
The cop gave him a look.
“He wasn’t suicidal, Officer. Not unless he tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the foot.”
“How’d it happen, then?” the cop asked, peering in at Charlie.
“Revolver and a bottle of Jim Beam. Need I say more? Claims he heard someone coming down the chimney.” The paramedic chuckled. “On this night of all nights, you know? Jesus, it was probably only rats. Anyway, there was some kind of power outage. Apparently shot himself in the dark.”
“I didn’t hear about any power outage,” the cop said, puzzled.
“No, probably just a fuse.”
They laughed, and to Charlie lying in the ambulance, it was just another Christmas morning of mirth at his expense. Might as well hand him another big fat lump of coal while they were at it.
Never mind, he thought, as the sedative took over. Wait till next year. Guns were out, obviously. But there was always poison. Arsenic in the traditional plate of cookies might work.
“Arsenic for Old Nick,” he said aloud, liking the sound of it. Hard to get, though, maybe.
Hell--it was only December 25th , he remembered.
That meant he had a whole year to find some.
Seana Graham works at an indie bookstore in Santa Cruz, California, and writes a couple of blogs in the off hours. In between, she occasionally writes fiction, some of which has been published. This is her first attempt at noir, and she's not sure how far she's actually succeeded. At least its downbeat...