Better Off Dead (Part Two) by Susan Andrews

What if the innocent enjoyment of a Christmas candy took a wrong turn?  It could happen, Benny thought.  There would, of course, be the ominous heaving and moaning and drooling of a choking victim.  The hand clutched around the windpipe.  The flailed elbows, the chest convulsing as the lungs looked for their next intake.

No more.  And she would be done.

So would those two innocent little kids.  The older one, helping his kid brother cut out another snowflake, would try to replace his mother with a string of inappropriate women.  The little one would, likewise, be lost in the cycle of death and destruction, as the others tried (and failed) to patch their lives back together.  The happy family, divided forever.

What a pleasant prospect.  “Now you’ve gone and ruined Christmas,” his mother said, once upon a time.  This was so much better.

The Christmas letter would be the first casualty.  She was still drafting it:  We all know the domino effect, where ‘One darn thing leads to another’,  Olivia wrote earlier today.  Benny just got all choked up about that opening line.

Then: This has been a year of changes for our family. We are still living in New York, but in a new – and really old! – house.  Yes, we pay higher taxes here, but we’re muddling through.  We weather the occasional blizzard; deal with trees falling down across our front yard and power outages.  We hope the deer don’t eat all the plants before they bloom.  If someone gets sick, it’s usually a rare disease.

Okay. Rare diseases.  Trees falling.  Money problems.  Benny could work with this kind of material.  It wasn’t as good as the gunshots in the wall he’d endured.  His own mother was long gone, but those bullets stayed.  He considered it a monument to enduring a violent childhood, and they were still in the wall.  Other owners had patched over them.  Benny made sure their work never lasted.

Anything to get those kids to shut up.  They were starting up all over again, even louder than before.  Who said childhood was supposed to be happy?  To be so… so together as a family?

A little toughening up would be an excellent prescription for the little ones.  Everyone has to deal with death at some point.  Might as well get started on their training. In fact, Benny thought, he’d be doing them a favor.

Just thinking of how they could be helped, if only one truly dreadful and inconceivably awful thing happened, made Benny feel quite philanthropic at the prospect.

The sound of Olivia crunching through another candy cane brought Benny back from his reverie.  He watched her sparkly pink fingertips massage the sticky cane, as it broke apart in her mouth.  Her sudden cough and hesitation before beginning to chew again.

Thank you, Charles Dickens.  They would boil in their own pudding and be buried with a stake of holly through their tiny, undeserving hearts.  Benny thought he knew now how to make this Christmas season come to a happily miserable and sudden end.

On second thought, Tennyson would be better.  He could almost see himself acting out the role of in a few years:

     With trembling fingers did we weave

     The holly round the Christmas hearth;

      A rainy cloud possess’d the earth,

      And sadly fell our Christmas-eve.

Oh, how marvelous.  He would inhabit the role of benevolent spirit, their shepherd in the years to come, bringing them out of that Frosty la la la.  They’d be plunked down flat into the misery of Ebenezer Scrooge as he was jilted by his lover.  Eventually, they would move on to Tennyson, with all his Victorian In Memoriam epic poem misery.

     Her deep relations are the same,

     but with long use her tears are dry.

As if.  He nearly cried at the idea.  Just that one tiny bit, he thought, reaching out a hand.  Just one sliver, one sticky crumb:  inhaled, stuck, and sticky.   Poor Olivia – unable to make a sound beyond the gargling end of all this Christmas happiness.  While her babies wailed Frosty in the next room.

It was too much joy to consider.  Without a second thought, his finger reached to create tiny fissures in the red and white twists.

Olivia had returned to the Christmas letter, quiet now.  She’d managed to make the requisite family updates.  Aiden and Mark are still growing, to our delight and dismay.  Aiden, now in 7th grade is the only oboe in the middle school band this year.  He was accepted to the Honors Math program… Mark, in 2nd grade, is fortunate to have a sunny personality to balance his intelligence, stubbornness and disorganized approach to life.  We never, ever cross the threshold to his room without shoes, even at night.

She moved through composing the letter as Benny read over her shoulder.  He could almost feel her ticking off the milestones of her little family.  Sometimes she hesitated, flicking back the pages in her binder of previous holiday letters.  Benny liked the titles she’d give them.  None of that Happy Holidays silliness.  Olivia’s were more creative:  Procrastination.  Hakunana Matata.  Faster! Faster! Faster!

Now she hesitated over the keyboard, her fingers moving more slowly.  A new candy cane was in her mouth.  The lipstick she’d put on that morning was gone, a smear of red sugar at the corner of her mouth the only decoration.  She brought her hands up to brace them against her eyes.

Could it be?  Were those tears welling up?  In all this fast-paced rush to Christmas, did Olivia step off the fast track to cry?

Yuppers, those were truly really salt-brine tears winding their ways down her cheeks.  It was a gorgeous sight for Benny:  a genuinely miserable moment in a woman whose mood was usually upbeat, generous and unselfish.  She was everything Benny was not, and he admired her for making it so obvious, even to his jaded heart.

She pushed the tears back, dampening the hair at her temples.  He wished he had the means to smooth them away himself, and forced himself to stiffen his resolve.   She’d never cracked before, and he had the sense of the angels hovering near as she grieved.   For the first time, he wished for the white wings, if only to crowd close and ease her pain.

Get a grip, man.  This was not about calming some manic housewife.  He was a ghost!  The chosen profession of an immortal being who didn’t exactly hold with the idea of white wings and eternal choir residency.  Frankly, the whole idea of wings just pissed him off.  Meddling in people lives was a lot more fun.

Her hands were on the keyboard again… Sadly, we also mourned the loss of Olivia’s father.

Benny almost caught his breath.  He would have, if there were lungs left.  Diagnosed with heart failure in May, he worsened steadily, yet never lost hope that he would manage to conquer his illness.  In him we have lost both a friend as well as a father.  We miss him, and find it hard to go on.

And yet, just a week after the funeral, we plunged into Thanksgiving and beyond that to this joyous season.  The wreath goes on the door, ornaments are unpacked, the tree goes up, plans are made.  Mark has made a “good deeds” bowl to stand beside the Advent wreath – you do a good deed, write your name on a holly leaf and drop it in the bowl.  So far, the bowl is empty!  Let’s just hope Santa doesn’t check it on Christmas Eve.

So brave, in the face of such unhappiness.  The house was quiet for a moment, seeming to breathe with her pain.  Then the youngsters broke out in the umpteenth verse of Frosty.  Benny was sure he could jigger one measly crumb to break at just the right moment.  And no more Christmas cards.  No more baking, no more scented candles chasing the beloved stuffy, moldy odors from the old house.   The kids would go to the lake after all, drawn to the unfamiliar frozen surface.  They would wander out, break through the ice, and drown. He was pretty sure she would thank him, once she understood how much trouble he’d saved her.

Victory often came at the most inopportune moment for spirits like Benny.  She would die.  He knew, as sure as he’d known when his own death approached all those years ago.

But now?  Was this the right fix?  He scanned the letter again, speed-reading the happy news – band camp, and Boy Scouts, family vacations and lazy summer afternoons.  They were happy.  These frolicking, snowman-loving, cookie-baking people had managed for find more happiness in one afternoon than Benny had ever known.

For the first time, he wasn’t sure.  Perhaps this wasn’t the best time to be meddling with a family’s life.  She’d lost her father.  A fine man, a friend to all.  Did Benny really wish for the loss to be multiplied with the loss of a mother?  Were the yodeling children really such awful mongrels, that he couldn’t handle them for a few years?  Was this was how he wanted their Christmas to remain?  Forever?

He’d set the trap.  He could disable it, if he felt it would make a difference.  Benny was pretty sure he could change everything, if he cared enough.  He was almost sure he could undo the damage.  Just this once, he could show the mercy he’d never received.  Certainly, it was a very simple task.  Maybe he could call it back.  Maybe he would.

The candy cane crunched in Olivia’s mouth as she bit down, red and white spiral breaking into a cloud of deliciously crisp, sharp, sticky morsels.

Were those tears

of relief

knowing you’d been released

just before

Or were they just after?

These eyes can’t quite

see.

Did you miss that train and jump

for

joy

Or were you left standing on the platform,

with endless time

to wonder

what

comes next.

You might quail in grief

or sorrow

at the understanding

(which we never do)

Better to grasp at this,

take what you can and

sing, angel.

Weave the wreath.

Go on.

  Want to read this story in one post? Visit the Waterworld Mermaids Free Read page and click on the story title. Come back tomorrow for another installment in Ghosts of Mermaid Lagoon with a story by Loni Lynne.