The Peppermint Martini Miraclebydatedsoul©
This is my entry for the 2012 Winter Holiday Story Contest. Enjoy!
Christmas editing love to SlySubmissive.
I eyed the khaki-colored concoction in the cocktail glass, complete with cranberries, with concern, and a little consternation.
"You better taste good, you bastard," I warned it. I took a sip, swished the liquid around my teeth, and then swallowed. "God damn it!" I roared, hurling the glass, and the foul sludge within it, into the sink, where it shattered. I picked up the bottle of Wild Turkey on the kitchen counter and crunched across the broken glass that now littered my kitchen floor, heading to my bedroom.
I momentarily wondered if the Turkey was the reason for my most recent failure. "Make a turkey-flavored drink, and use Wild Turkey. It'll be a hoot," I said to no one, mocking myself. The Turkey wasn't to blame. The finest bourbon wouldn't have saved that mixological monstrosity. Even without a myriad of spices and other flavored liquids, though, it would still serve its purpose tonight. I hoped. And, after all, turkey IS the tradition on Thanksgiving.
I stripped down to my boxers and sat on my bed, flipping on the TV. I liked infomercials. The people on them, and the people watching them, felt like kindred spirits -- lost, and looking for something to relieve a problem they didn't really have, instead of facing the ones they really did. Who the hell is so bad at flipping an egg they need a combination spatula-tong? Who needs a cloth that can absorb five gallons of liquid?
I spent the next hour or so nursing the bottle of bourbon. Not nursing as in drinking it slowly. You can't drink half a fifth in an hour and call it slowly. More of nursing like an infant at its mother's breast -- sucking greedily.
As bleary-eyed consciousness gave way to chemically-induced unconsciousness, I begged whatever higher power might be listening to grant the one wish I had every night. "Not tonight, please." They never listen.
Gunshots woke me a few hours later. It wasn't gang bangers, or an angry spouse. We weren't being invaded by some overly aggressive East Asian country. They were gunshots no one else heard. I always thought that sightless dreams were strange. Just an angry, startling sound, heard (if what one experiences in a dream can truly be described using the standard sensory input terms) three times in quick succession. Those were the good dreams.
The bad ones had a droning, monotone audio, clinical and cold. "Thirty-five year old white male. Three gunshot wounds to the torso, no rear exit wounds." That uncaring voice would go on to describe every step of dismantling a human body during an autopsy, and I never managed to wake up before it was done. As a pharmaceutical research chemist, I knew enough biology to be unhealthily (for my own sanity) familiar with the process.
The man being so dispassionately disassembled was my father, Steven Morgan, on the night he was shot and killed at the pharmacy where he worked. It was a random robbery by a drug addict, the third place he hit that night. The worst part -- I never found out why. There were no signs of a struggle. The video showed my father calmly and quickly handing over a few bottles of pills. He never made any sudden or aggressive moves. He didn't even say anything, other than, "OK." The druggy took the pills, and then calmly put three bullets in my father's chest.
When the police cornered the robber (and murderer!) outside the gas station he went on to rob after the pharmacy, he opened fire on them. They shot back, and he was dead as soon as he hit the ground.
I was so angry when I found out, angry that my father had been taken for no reason, that the man who had done it couldn't tell me why, that the police had done nothing but ensure that I would never have my answers. I was furious with my mother for allowing him to work extra hours because she had slipped and broken her arm a few weeks earlier, preventing her from working at her assembly line job. I was disgusted with my grandmother for getting old -- paying for her nursing home was the only reason mom had to work.
Mostly I loathed myself, because I would never be able to answer that question.
A digital chirping coming from Stacey's desk interrupted my train of thought. Stacey was a post-grad student, doing research for her doctorate. She was a brilliant young biochemist, far smarter than me. She was one of three post-grad students chosen by my company to do her research in our labs. She was also a mom, and a sister. That kept her phone pretty busy. People generally did whatever they could to avoid talking to me.
"Stacey Stacy," she said, answering the phone without looking at it. The poor girl had a seriously unfortunate married name. Born Stacey Marie Jenkins, she married her college sweetheart John Stacy about five years ago. She joked that she lost an initial, but gained a stutter when they were married. Over the course of six months, I had gotten to know a little about her. When I asked her why she took his last name, she told me she did it, "in deference to tradition, and the groom's pushy parents." Since John was an only child, they desperately wanted their last name perpetuated.
I asked her once if she ever went by her middle name, or had a nickname. She blushed a deep rose pink, and pressed her lips shut.
"Hey, it's none of my business. Forget I asked," I told her.
"No, I want to, it's ... not a nickname I like, and telling the story helps."
"My sister calls me ... 'Pinky'."
"Why? I don't think I've ever seen you wear pink. Is there something wrong with your hand?" I peered curiously at her fingers.
She chortled. "No." Then, she pointed at her cheeks, which were still flushed. "When I was a kid, I was painfully shy. Anytime someone talked to me, I would blush and be totally unable to speak. The more they tried, the worse it got. When I got home from my first day of kindergarten, my entire face was bright pink. Jamie, my sister, has called me that ever since."
"I can see how that kind of thing just feeds back into itself."
She blushed, but smiled. "Yeah."
This phone call triggered the opposite reaction. Her normal peaches and cream complexion faded to a deathly white. Her eyes widened, and filled with tears. "Oh no. No no no. Oh God!" she moaned into the phone. I knew that expression. I'd seen it on my mother's face many years ago. She listened for a moment, whispered, "OK," and the hung up the phone.
She moved mechanically about the lab, gathering her things.
"That was my sister," she answered hollowly. "John has been using her car for a few days. They fished it out of the river this morning. They think he hit a patch of ice. He didn't have any ID on him, so they called her to ... to ..." She broke down, sobbing.
'To identify the body,' I finished mentally. I started to move toward her, but I had no idea what to do or say. Before I could figure it out, she fled the lab.
"Thirty-five year old white male. Three gunshot wounds to the torso, no rear exit wounds." I thrashed in my sleep as the voice droned on about Y-incisions, organ weights, and other morbid facts about the body on the stainless steel table. "Cause of death appears to be a gunshot wound to the heart, puncturing the left ventricle..." With the sound of a metal freezer door slamming shut, I shot upright in bed. Then, I reached for the bottle on the table beside it. Now that I had reached the age dad was when he died, the nightmares had gotten more frequent, as had the guilt that I had lived longer than him, and still had no idea why he was taken.
I saw Stacey three days later, at her husband's funeral. I had planned just to offer my condolences and make a quick exit.
"Oh, Tom!" Stacey wailed, flinging her arms around me as soon as she saw me. I tentatively hugged her while she sobbed. After a moment, I felt a tug at my pants.
"You work with mommy," said a voice at my knee. I looked down into the upturned jade green eyes of Stacey's daughter, Megan.
"That's right. My name is Tom. You must be Megan."
"My daddy is with Jesus now," she informed me.
I wish I could say the same thing, kid. Maybe I could sleep at night.
Stacey's eyes caught mine for a second, her face miserable with heart-wrenching grief, and something else I couldn't identify. She tore her gaze away, and rotated to another mourner, who sobbed along with her, and Megan was scooped up by Stacey's sister.
"Thank you for coming," she told me. I nodded. Then, I made a surreptitious exit as soon as they were both distracted.
I picked up a bottle of Jack Daniels on the way home and tried to drink away mine and Stacey's pain. About a third of the way through the bottle, the sensation of Stacey's breasts against me when she hugged me dominated my thoughts. I hadn't so much as touched a woman for close to two years. I drunkenly, guiltily masturbated to thoughts of Stacey greeting me wearing nothing but her lab coat. The next morning, I accepted the nightmares as punishment for those thoughts.
When I arrived at work the following Monday, Stacey was already there. I rarely sleep late, thanks to the nightmares, so I'm always one of the first people to the lab in the morning.
"Hi, Tom. Thanks again for coming to John's funeral."
"Of course. I just wanted you to know that, well, I'm here if you need anything."
She smiled. "Thank you."
She wasn't the distracted zombie I expected from someone who had just lost their spouse. She certainly wasn't her chipper self, but she appeared to be coming to terms with his death.
That turned out to be a complete façade. An hour into the day, barely aware of what she was doing, she burned herself badly with a strong basic solution. The caustic substance rapidly demolished the soft tissue of her hand, actually converting any fatty tissue with which it came in contact into, well, soap. I heard the tinkle of glassware one never wants to hear in a lab, and I looked over to see Stacey staring blankly at her hand. She sucked in a sudden deep breath, and started to scream before running to a water faucet.
I knew she had been working with the auto-titrator. That meant that whatever she'd gotten on her, water would just make it worse. "Stacey, no!" I yelled, charging across the lab. I managed to intercept her just before she turned on the water.
"It hurts!" she screamed, panic and pain lighting up her face.
"I know," I said, dragging her back toward where she was working. When I saw what she had spilled on herself, I knew what neutralizing solution I needed. We keep them beside the titrator for that reason. I poured a copious amount on her hand, sloshing some on both of our lab coats, while she fought to escape my grasp, screaming, "It hurts! It hurts!"
Finally, the weak acid broke down the powerful base, and the damage stopped spreading, but Stacey went into shock. A three-inch swath of skin spanning the entire back of her hand was a blistered, bleeding, weeping mess. She took a few ragged breaths. Then, her eyes rolled up in her head, and I barely managed to steer her away from the spilled chemicals before her dead weight dragged us to the floor.
I called the on-site nurse's station, and they called an ambulance. She was conscious when it arrived, but delirious. Between moans of pain, she railed at John for leaving her, begged the powers that be to return him, and apologized to Megan for being forced to grow up without a dad.
That night, after most of a bottle of rum, with my cock in my hand, I fantasized that a kiss from my lips took away the burn on Stacey's hand.
"If that's what those lips can do there, what else can they do?" she asked me shyly.
I kissed my way up her arm to her neck. "Only one way to find out," became the newest item on my list of atrocities.
The thing that made me hate myself the most? That night, I slept peacefully.
Stacey was kept overnight at the hospital. She was somewhat dehydrated and malnourished. I found out she'd eaten very little since John's death. Being the holiday season, they also wanted to ensure she wasn't suffering from the extreme depression that can set in from losing someone at that time of year. They released her after twenty-four hours. She spent the rest of the week away from the lab.
When Monday rolled around, she was, sadly, more like the distant automaton I expected. To prevent any additional accidents, I made her spend most of her time compiling and sifting through her already amassed data. She spent a week clicking listlessly through spreadsheets, setting up formulas, deciding what other research she needed to complete, and occasionally staring out the window at the falling snow.
To me, Christmas just meant a day of Chinese food, movies on TV that I had seen a dozen times, and a phone call from my sister, Madeline. Mom had died a few years ago. Heart disease ran rampant in her family, and a heart attack took her suddenly at age sixty-five.
The rest of the staff here knew not to ask me about the Secret Santa gift exchange. After I got drunk at the first Christmas party and glowered at everyone there, I resolved not to attend anymore, much to everyone else's relief.
I thought about my first Christmas after dad was killed. It was like living in a black and white movie. The tree was gray, the lights were a harsh, glaring white, and the sound was tinny and muffled. But black and white Christmas movies have happy endings. Mine was joyless and numb.
The chirping of Stacey's phone saved me from my depressed recollections. "This is Stacey," she said. After a long pause, she followed that with, "I understand. Thank you." She dropped the phone on her desk, and then buried her face in her arms, sobbing.
"Stacey, what is it?" I asked.
Between sobs, she told me that the police had considered John's death suspicious. Traffic camera footage showed that he had driven back and forth through that area several times. Then, it appeared that he had deliberately driven off the bridge. The official police report had ruled his death a suicide. As a result, his life insurance policy was void, and no payment would be issued.
Her eyes locked onto mine. "They're right," she told me. "He left me a note." I went to her and held her as she sobbed.
That night, I wondered if maybe John had the right idea.
"Is Megan excited about Christmas?" I asked Stacey on the last day the lab would be open before the holidays.
"Yeah, she's...oh, no. No no no. No, it can't be that close. Tell me today isn't the 23rd!"
"Um, yeah, that's right. Tomorrow is Christmas Eve."
"No no no! Oh God! I haven't done ANY shopping. I can't let her down! She knows things have been crazy. There's nothing under the tree, but she keeps saying, 'Santa will take care of everything,' and telling me not to worry, but with the cost of the funeral, I'm tapped out. His parents don't have much, so they couldn't help with the expenses. At least I'm considered an employee here and not an intern, but research assistant doesn't pay that much. I don't want to let her down, but I don't think I can handle the crowds and the madness. I can barely drive lately. I ... I have to go." She grabbed her coat and purse, and left.
After she left, I couldn't stop thinking about Megan. I remembered those innocent eyes, so sure that her dad was in a safe, happy place. I heard Stacey's voice, telling me about Megan's unflappable belief that Santa would make sure Christmas was perfect for her and her mother.
Then, I heard my own voice, just a little older than Megan is now, telling my mother I wanted to be like daddy, and give people medicines that made them better, that I wanted to help people.
I wanted to help people.
I grabbed my phone, and called one of the few numbers stored in it.
"Maddy, it's Tom...Yeah, I know Christmas isn't for two days... No, I'm not sick. I need some help..."
If there's one time of year that a man doesn't get strange looks walking around in a Santa suit, it's Christmas Eve. With a sack over my shoulder, and sleigh bells in my hand, I stood in front of the door to Stacey's small house. I shook the stick of sleigh bells a few times, and then hid them in a row of bushes lining the front of the house.
"HO HO HO!" I bellowed. I heard a shriek of glee from inside the house.
"Mommy mommy! Santa's here!"
"Megan, wait!" Stacey yelled, but she was too late.
Megan tore the front door open, rushed out in her Rudolph footie pajamas, and wrapped herself around my leg. "I told mommy you would be here. I told her!"
Stacey slid to a halt just inside the door, staring gape-mouthed at the red and white apparition on her porch. I reached down and patted Megan on the head, but my eyes never left Stacey's.
"Well, well, it seems we have two very good girls here who need some holiday cheer," I said.
"Come inside, Santa," Megan offered, pulling on my hand.
"I would love to, Megan, if it's OK with your mommy. Stacey, may I?"
"See, he is Santa! He knows our names!" Megan assured her mother.
Stacey stood frozen, still not sure what she was seeing. I was sure she had recognized me immediately, but if you had polled people at our lab asking who was the most likely to show up dressed in a Santa suit on Christmas Eve, I would have been a one vote write-in, and that only as a joke.
Eyes wide and paralyzed with emotion, Stacey eventually managed to nod her head slightly. Megan squealed with delight and almost dislocated my shoulder dragging me into the house, where she proceeded to give me a quick tour.
Stacey's home was decorated for the holidays, subdued, but elegant. It was a winter wonderland, not a shopper's paradise, or a simulation North Pole. Pine boughs and white candles on silver candlesticks lined a fireplace mantle. "That's our Christmas tree," Megan informed me, pointing to a six foot real tree in the corner, covered with strands of popcorn and white lights. "I helped pop the popcorn. That's our kitchen. Mommy and I were going to make cookies for you later. What kind of cookies do you like?"
"Santa likes ALL kinds of cookies," I replied.
"Are you sure? You're pretty skinny."
"Well, Mrs. Clause has Santa doing Yoga and Pilates, but I get to eat all the cookies I want tonight, so don't you worry." I looked at Stacey, who was still completely flabbergasted, and winked. She relinquished a quick smile, but the effort almost cost her all control of the emotions I could see bubbling behind her eyes, and she had to reign it in, lest she break down.
"OK. Come see my bedroom," Megan directed, steering me down a hallway by my hand.
I managed to deposit my sack near the tree and mouth, "No peeking," at Stacey before I was led away.
Megan's bedroom was painted a breezy green, and adorned with appliques of sea creatures. Her small wooden bed was carved like a sandcastle, covered with a bedspread patterned with crashing waves and seashells.
"Santa, how come you're here now?" Megan asked me.
"Haven't you been a good girl? I could double-check my list if you want," I teased.
"Santa!" she yelled, affronted at my misdirection. "I meeaann, how come you didn't wait 'till I was asleep?"
"Well, the world has gotten bigger, so Santa has to start a little earlier now, and I let the elves take the sleigh sometimes. Plus, sometimes Santa likes to see little girls faces when they get their presents."
"Because they smile so pretty when they're happy."
"OK. I'll be sure to smile lots," she assured me, flashing me a test run of her grin.
"Good. I'm glad to hear it. Speaking of presents..."
"Yay, presents!" Megan squealed, clapping her hands.
"I need you to stay here for just a few minutes. Santa can't give away ALL his secrets, you know. Your mom will come get you when I'm ready for you, OK?"