Better Off Dead 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 –

Or was it the standard prose/verse he’d always cranked out?  Not quite good enough to publish, not bad enough to throw away.  Le sigh, he thought.  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 need to make a list before you go buying more candy canes for us.”

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

“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 didn’t like the 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.  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 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.  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.  “Yeah, buddy.  Just the way you like it.”

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.  “Huh.  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 with their Prozac-enhanced lives.

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 miniature, 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.

In the meantime, here they were, living proof of the miracle of inoculation.  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.

And the best thing about Frosty?  He melted.  On the 26th.  Every year.

Miserable twits.  It was as bad as This is a song that never ends or John Jacob Jingleheimer Schmidt.  Almost as a bad as Freebird, but that was an emotional funk Benny preferred to reserve for another day.  Maybe when Spring began to peek around the corner.  In several months.

Even in the midst of this 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 non-existent heart went pitty-pat to see Olivia crunching down on yet another candy cane.  If only she would choke on it.  Or any of the sweets baked over the last week.  She might be too eager with the Russian Tea Cakes.  Maybe one of the mints she’d piped out onto waxed paper would slide down the wrong pipe.

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 happy, dappy little kids.  The older one, helping his kid brother cut out another snowflake, would suffer.  The little one would be lost in the cycle of death and destruction, as the others tried to patch their lives back together.  The happy family, divided forever.
And no Christmas letters.  She was still drafting it:  We all know the domino effect, where ‘One darn thing leads to another.  Olivia wrote that 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’re still paying high taxes, still 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 into the wall he’d endured.  They were still there, those bullets.  Other owners had patched over them.  Benny made sure it 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 teeny-tinies.  They all would 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.

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

He could almost see himself acting out the role of Tennyson 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.   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.  Still, Benny was sure he could jigger that one measly crumb to break at just the right moment.  And it would be over.  No more Christmas cards.  No more baking more scented candles chasing the beloved stuffy, moldy odors from the old house.   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 decade or so?  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 thought.  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.

 

 

 

 

 

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