"How could you!" Jenny's arms waved like they were broken at the elbows.
I'd passed out in my recliner and jumped up when she yelled. "What'd I do now?" As I said it I tasted blood in my mouth.
"You grabbed Peggy Swinden's breast."
"Oh shit, I'll go apologize."
"No, you won't. I can see that you're still too drunk. And after George cold cocked you he took Peggy home."
I touched my cheek and winced. The loud party chatter in the other rooms had died off into murmurs and Bing Crosby dreaming of a white Christmas.
"Sounds quiet out there."
"No wonder, Steve. I apologized to everyone, but they're leaving. Just keep hiding in here until they're gone."
Through my squinty fog I saw that she'd been crying. "It's just a glass of Christmas cheer, Jenny"
"More like a bottle." She stared at me. Not angry. Sad. "George, you won't remember this, but I want out. Out from you. Tomorrow, before you've reboozed your hangover, I'll tell you when I'm leaving. You'll be able to write without a wife to distract you."
"Aw, Jenny…" But she turned and left, pulling the door shut behind her. I sat back down and stared at the muted flat screen where two football teams I didn't care about were pounding each other. I sloshed whiskey over loose teeth, and fell back asleep.
I roused again around two a.m. and weaved off to piss. When I got back to the den there was a man sitting in the chair across from mine.
"Hello, Steve," he said. "Season's greetings." I staggered back two steps and put my hand on the door jamb. He looked big, maybe seven feet tall and solid, wearing s black ascot atop red velvet jacket and pants. He had a slightly pointed beard, white tinged with red.
"The house is full of overnight guests," I said, "and if I yell there'll be a bunch of cell phone calls to 911."
"I'm not here to steal things, and you're not good at lying. Sit down. We need to have a little visit."
His smile was, not menacing exactly, but so self assured that it seemed drunkenly logical to sit down and listen to what he had to say. So I did.
"Steve, you've been—"
"You know, in a perverse way you look like Santa Claus. Or maybe a 1980's pimp."
He smiled. His teeth were spaced apart. "Okay, let's begin with that. I am Santa Claus."
I snorted a scared laugh. "And I'm the tooth fairy."
"Yeah, I'm her too, but Santa is my best trademark. An almost perfect vehicle for encouraging greed, sloth and gluttony."
"But Christmas is a religious holiday."
He frowned. "And I can't screw with the real Christmas. But the partying, presents, Santa, elf, reindeer thing is all mine."
"So—do I call you Santa?"
"Call me Santan, close enough." His smile widened. It wasn't pleasant. "I work the edges of religious events, all religions of course, but I'm especially fond of subverting Christian holidays. Halloween candy the night before All Souls Day, the Easter bunny sugar high first thing Sunday morning, the New Year's Eve baby conceived in lust the night before Christ is circumcised—you get the idea."
I was starting to defog. "You're crazy. Get out of my house!"
As his smile stretched into a death rictus, I screamed. The back of my right hand spouted fire, the skin charring and cracking open, the fluids underneath bubbling. I screamed again.
"No one can hear you. I've arranged for a little privacy. Do I have your attention now?"
The odor of burnt flesh filled the room. I moaned and grabbed my right hand with my left. The booze I'd drunk helped numb the pain, but not nearly enough.
His smile had returned. "Humor me, Steve, while I explain things. I usually just stage manage, because most people are willing to go the hell on their own. Like flushing themselves away. But on the high holy days I like to give myself a little present or two, persons who seem morally constipated. You won, you lucky sinner to be."
I'd backed up in my chair so far my feet almost didn't touch the carpet. My hand was seeping blood and fluid, my eyes dripping pain tears. "Please, I don't know what's going on, but I'm not interested."
"You should be. Imagine with me that your 200,000 word novel gets picked up by a major publisher, and hits number one on the New York Times best seller list…" As Santan spoke I rode his words and lived that success; money, adulation, willing women all along the book tour…
Santan yanked me onto another path." And let's say you reconcile with Jenny, that she understands that your drinking is part of your genius…"
Jenny and I in a cabin, happily sharing a twin bed, doing little things for each other. Then a baby, the carrier of my essence into the future…
"And at thirty five you should have twenty, maybe even twenty five good years before your liver gives out. Think what you could do, could enjoy."
"I don't know if or what a soul is, but I don't think I want you carrying a contract back in the empty present bag to the North Pole."
Santan looked relieved. "Well Ho, Ho, No. That signed contract nonsense is just a theatrical gimmick you people use. Your solemn word is more than enough."
"And what if I change my mind later on and work hard at redemption?"
He picked a piece of lint off his suit and held it between thumb and forefinger. A wisp of smoke rose from his fingers. "Afraid not.
Once you agree you won't remember our little chat. It's for your benefit. You won't be having second thoughts or trying to break our agreement. You won't know it exists. You'll think everything is happening quite naturally."
"And when I tell you no?"
"You won't. You don't know how to believe in souls, nobody really does. And I assure you that otherwise your life from tomorrow on gets unbearably worse. I'll make sure of it."
I wanted to run, but at the same time wanted to know more. 'Father of lies,' I told myself blearily. 'Even in a drunk dream I can't believe him.' The pain from my burnt hand tore into my thoughts. "What…would I change?"
"Well, the back of your hand will heal into an almost unnoticeable stigma. I do so like to mark my own. But otherwise you'll stay exactly the same person on your road to hell."
"Would I make wishes now?"
Santan shifted in his seat, and embers of burnt fabric dropped onto the floor and smoldered. "Don't be a stupid drunk. Everything I do has to have a natural cause. You'd have no explanation for a bag full of gold coins or jewels, and we can't have folks questioning their comfortable world view. They might reform."
I felt a belly surge of greed that almost choked me. "I work really hard at editing and research, could you take over some of that?"
Santan's face reddened. He waved his hand brusquely and heat waves eddied between his fingers. "You ape offal!" Spittle sprayed from between his teeth and vaporized. "Even bad writing is creative. It's on you. I'll get your verbiage sold, but don't begin to think that I'm your enabling muse."
He waved his hand again, more gently. "Sorry, I get irritated at your anthropoidal presumptions. So, let's conclude this before those damned church bells start clanking."
Santan shifted in his seat. More embers fell, and smoke began rising from the armrests. "Just say yes, Steve, and it's all yours-money, fame, privilege, women. I'll throw in restoring your hair. If you're still bothered, just think of this as a satisfying wet dream that you won't feel guilty about when you wake up."
I sat for a few seconds without saying anything, yanked in one direction by greed, lust and vanity, and in the other by fear and…what? Something else. Something important. I shook my head, trying to get the alcoholic snot to break loose in my brain.
Why did his offer seem wrong?
"You know," I said, thinking aloud. "I'm a writer, maybe a bad one, maybe a hack, but writing is what I really want to do. I even sober up a little so I can write. And the tool, the mechanism I use is my unhappiness with myself and my situation. Without that core of dissatisfaction and worry, I couldn't write, not fiction anyway—"
"So stay anxious."
"I wouldn't, not with all that fame and well being. And worse, I'd never know if my success was based on my talent or your intervention. So I have to say no. Sorry."
Santan snapped off the right arm of the chair and it burst into flame as he held it. He heaved out of the chair, his hair almost touching the ceiling. "Very well. Here are my presents for you. You get to keep the scar, no charge. Jenny will cheat on you before the divorce papers are filed. Without her income you'll have to mooch from strangers to get by. And your alcoholic death will be sooner and more painful. Season's Greetings."
He spun sideways and seemed to narrow and shrink. But then he turned back his head leered and said, "Caveat cacoethes scribendi, causa mortis.'" Then he spun again, shriveled and vanished.
I swallowed a few serious slugs of whiskey and passed out. When I came to my right hand burst with pain at every pulse beat. The chair where Santan had been sitting was burnt and broken. And I remembered what had happened. Jenny would be downstairs soon and that drama would begin, but I got up and shambled over to the computer. I typed in a few guesses at the expression he'd used. It was Latin. The translation seemed to be "Beware of an insatiable urge to write, it's fatal."
Longtime Friend of the Macabre Ed Ahern resumed writing after forty odd years in foreign intelligence and international sales. He's had over a hundred thirty stories and poems published so far, including at Bete Noire, and two books.