Better Off Dead (Part One) by Susan Andrews

Less to do

Less to enjoy

Who would have thought

to be envious

of them

still struggling in their

busy-ness?

That hard life

hurried, horrid

harried with demands

from perfect strangers

and those who think

believe

in being friends

or BFFs

even when they are dead

wrong.

Damn, but that was good.  Benny bit the not-quite-existent end of his pencil and savored the sensation he remembered, of wood crunching under his teeth and metal on his tongue.  What a great moment, to have written such –

Oh, dear.  Was it the standard prose/verse he’d always cranked out?  Not quite good enough to publish, not bad enough to throw away.   Always the same result, even in death.  Even a dead guy couldn’t escape doubt.

A hand snatched the paper and pencil from under his hand.  “Don’t go anywhere.  I’m making a list before you go buying more candy canes.”

Benny’s head swiveled as his poem disappeared under the pink-tipped fingernails smoothing out the paper.

“I am not doing any girly shopping for you.”  The tall, dark, suspiciously hunkalicious one was too type-A for Benny.  He couldn’t see him too well, but definitely could feel his attitude.  Too macho.  And he was the reason Benny’s poem was being ruined for a grocery list.

“Fine.  No tampons.”  She was scribbling:  red sprinkles, vanilla (not fake!), tin foil.  “I promise.”

“How about we take the kids out after I get back? The lake is frozen.”

“No it’s not.”  Toothpicks, toilet paper.  The pencil hesitated.

She was adorable, her pixie cut slicked back behind her ears, glitter nail polish on her tapered fingers.  Benny bit his lip and reached out to touch the paper with a tentative finger.  Could he do it?

She hesitated as his touch found her.  Peppermints, 2 bags, her hand trembled as it scribbled the addition.  Yes.

“No, no, that’s not right.  I’m not making those this year.”  She turned the pencil around and erased Benny’s wish, turning his brief success into failure.  He missed peppermints.  She looked up at her boyfriend/husband/lover – whoever he was.  “I just need a few things so I can finish baking for the cookie swap.”

Mr. TallDarkandHandsome held the car keys in a fist.  “I’m not promising anything.”

“Whatever.”  She got up and crossed the kitchen to the two kiddles standing by the back door.   Giving her sweetie a look, she removed the skates from their hopeful clutches.  She shelved them on top of the refrigerator, turned and pointed a finger.  “Go play somewhere else.  It will be safe to skate in a day or so.  But for right now, the answer is ‘no.’ No ice.”

Even Benny quailed at her glare.  Mom still equalled God, even in death.  She was gentle, though, in shooing them away from the kitchen.  His attention returned to the list.

“Slave driver.”  TDH turned to watch the kidlets slink away.

She arched an eyebrow at him.  “It’s called parenting.”

His poor poem lay beneath her handwriting, the script curling across his block letters.  “Less to do” was covered with “red sprinkles”.

What a mess.  She was piling one chore on top of the other, and not even trying to stop.  But that was Christmas, right?  Benny tried to remember.  In his time, it was all about the grudges.  And the presents, never quite right.  Always disappointed.

Even the kitchen was layered now in the requisite sparkly decorations of the season.  He’d watched as they fastened holiday lights around the kitchen window, and arranged those tacky clings on the slider.  Snowmen, trees, even a dreidel joined the fun.

But the list.  His poem.  Benny turned back to the paper and wondered if he could manage more.  After all, when did he have a chance to work with living people any more?   Living people weren’t any fun.  Until they were dead.  As the woman said: whatever.

He flicked at her handwriting and saw it crack.  The carefully formed letters hung to the side, a sad line of drunks in need of swift detox.

He wasn’t sure it was enough.  The house had been better before.  Deserted, unwanted, unloved, it was exactly to his taste.  Now…

She picked the list up and cocked her head at the changed handwriting.  “I must be getting tired.”

“You’re allowed to take a break, Olivia.”  TDH held out his hand.  “I can still read it, even if you are too worn out to write straight.”

“Thank you.”  She held her face up for his kiss.

“Take care of yourself while I’m gone, okay?  Don’t get hurt trying to pipe more butter cookies.”

And that was another problem.  They loved each other.  This family, unlike so many others wandering in and out of Benny’s house over the years, seemed to actually enjoy being part of each other’s lives.

They lived in a sort of sweet, never-fail aura of happiness, the kind that had butterflies and rainbows garlanded around it.  Maybe a unicorn or two in the background, for effect.  And an endless supply of pastel-frosted cupcakes.

How was a dead poet ghost supposed to supposed to cope?  They were cramping his style.

And they were singing. Gah!  That song!

Frosty the snowman was a jolly happy –

One of the worst.  A stupid, innocent holiday song, guaranteed to grate on his nerves.  Always had.  Benny was so happy when he died, thinking there was at least one song in the world he wouldn’t be asked to endure ever again.

As long as the house was deserted.

Now they were back Ankle biters.  Rug rats.  Kidlets.  At least they carried germs.  They were walking petri dishes of infection.  Benny sighed in satisfaction.  At least he could use the risk of some dreadful illness as a distraction.  That had certainly worked in the past.

Nowadays, though… they living proof of the miracle of inoculation, and he had no material to work with there, either. Curses!  Absent whooping cough or diphtheria, they sang happy songs about a snowman.  The only appealing feature of Frosty was that he was a spirit living inside a snowman.  That kind of haunting was almost in Benny’s approved list of activities.

There was just one certified good thing about that snowman.  He melted.  On the 26th.  Every year.

One of them was tone deaf. And loud. It was as bad as John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.  Almost as a bad as Freebird, the emotional funk Benny preferred to reserve for other (quieter) days.  Maybe when Spring began to peek around the corner.  In several months.

Even in the midst of the horrible (awful!) caterwauling, Olivia was able to work on her Christmas letter.

Another horrible revelation Benny had to deal with:  her workaholic drive to produce the best ever Christmas letter.  The cards were stacked on the dining room table, happy and joyful little depictions of (again, ew) snowmen.  They frolicked across the heavy white paper, frosted with glitter, happy to be out and about on this frosty and dreadfully cheerful season.  The best he could say, yet again, was that they would melt.

Benny felt better just thinking about it.  He flicked a tad of movement at the Virgin and Child postage stamps and sent them skittering across the table.

His not-real-anymore nerves jangled to see Olivia crunching down on yet another candy cane.  Didn’t she know the proper way to enjoy those things?  Candy canes were meant to be sucked.  They were meant to be whittled down to a sharp, threatening point.  Then they could be used in creative acts of destruction.

But, no.  She chewed them.  If only she would choke on it.  Or any of the sweets baked over the last week.  She might be too eager with a lemon square.  Maybe one of the mints she’d piped out onto waxed paper would slide down the wrong pipe.

He watched her crunch down on the candy and a horrible, wonderful, wicked thought took root.

Come back tomorrow for the conclusion of Better Off Dead by Susan Andrews.