Last Christmas on Earth
You live on the outskirts of the city, your hair long and brown and pulled into a tight bun. Slowly, certainly, with the engraved knife you took off a dead man, you pull your bun tight and slice into it. The hair breaks off, already thin from the swill you've eaten to stay alive. Beside you, your lover lays, his eyes closed and his face turned grey. Yesterday, he was slain, shot six times in the belly by a marauder with a red-painted face. The marauder wore a Santa hat. You made him eat it.
With lips trembling, you place a kiss on your lover's brow, your hand grasping his cheek as if he might kiss you back. He is still. He is beginning to stink. You place your cut hair gingerly on his chest, an offering to his ghost. "I love you," you say, and you pour the lighter fluid around him, and you burn him into nothing.
It's been a year of this, a year of running and dying and crying and fighting. You're heavy with the weight of it, but you keep going, because you know it’s just a few more weeks until the end. The president crossed his allies, and they crossed him back. A bomb ticks beneath DC, and when it goes off, you'll be dead. They already are.
You think of the man with the painted face in the Santa hat, and you spit into the ash that falls from your lover’s burial. This will be the last Christmas, you think. And I don’t have a heart left to give.
Last year, after the bombs went off on December 25, after New York City had turned to dust and rubble and blood and bone, people called it The War on Christmas. Back then, there had still been internet and electricity and snarky newscasters who, in the midst of tragedy, still took the opportunity for a bad pun.
Those days were done, but the pagan symbols of Christmastime had remained—had, in fact, grown stronger and more sinister. Factions emerged from the chaos. The Sleighers: Men with dead eyes and cruel hearts and reindeers’ horns strung up against their shaved heads. Santa’s Little Helpers, (one of which you had slain the day before), agents of chaos in red and white suits who lived to smash their foes into nothing more than bowls full of jelly.
You move stealthily through the cold streets, the scent of your lover’s singed flesh still clinging to your coat. In the old days, they called these “puffer coats.” Now, you just called it survival.
You come to a burnt out doorway marked with a single sprig of mistletoe—a beautiful symbol of love, and a deadly poison. The symbol has been poked into your wrist with needle and ink—two green, pointed leaves and a cluster of berries, red as blood. You knock three times and are greeted with a muffled voice from the other side of the door.
“A face on a lover with a fire in his heart,” someone says, and you respond with the phrase you know all too well:
“A man undercover but you tore him apart.”
For the first time, you feel the resonance of the words. Your lover’s gentle eyes; his burnt corpse. The old Christmas songs, now evolved to codes and passwords. As the door opens, white powder begins to fall from the sky.
“Snow!” says a voice from inside the dim room, but you know better. There have been no snowflakes since the bombs. You stick out your tongue, and a white flake melts bitter on your tongue. Ash. You glance over your shoulder and can see the red glow of fire flickering in the sky, miles away in the heart of the city. May the yuletide be bright, you think grimly as you step into the dark room. Tomorrow is Christmas.
Their hideout was once a Little Debbie factory, but the metal lines that used to carry cookies and sweets are now lined with guns and ammunition. In the center of it all is a man, his blonde hair tumbling down his shoulders, his eyes bright but his smile anything but. His crew calls him Frosty, but before the war, before all of this, he was George. You were to be married once, but his brazen leadership turned you away from him, and you left with a new lover in the night.
You think of the brooch Frosty gave you when the world was still whole, the brooch you still wear. Suddenly the shape of it feels hot on the skin beneath your coat. Does he notice your quick glance to your breast? Does he realize you still wear the token of his love?
He’s surrounded by his friends, their sweaters and blouses covered by body armor and gun straps. They turn and look at you, the buzz from their quiet conversation suddenly cut. Looks from you to him and back again, but no one says anything. They were your friends once, too. But when you left the base in fear and frustration, they took Frosty’s side.
He smiles, tilting his pointed face down to get a better look at you. “Kathy,” he says. “You’ve returned.”
You never were the kind for pleasantries. You fold your arms and say, “I need your help.”
The tension lies thick in the vast room, with people gathering now to see who’s come in. There’s silence, and then another flash of perfect, white teeth. “What is it you want? What is it that you’ve come back to me for?”
“I want to kill Saint Nick.”
There’s an explosion of protest as Frosty’s friends plead with him. “She’s already bitten you once,” they say. “Keep your distance.” But your eyes don’t leave his. You swim in the coldness of them, feeling a chill run down your spine. It was just hours ago that you buried your lover, but now you’re around George again, and that familiarity burns in your belly like a goddamn Yule Log. They talk and screech and stomp, but it’s just you and him. Him and you, the way it should be.
“I’ll help you,” he says. It’s just above a whisper, but there is silence again as they listen to their leader. “And your soul of ice.”
He spits at the ground, but you know it was to hide the smile that played on his face. You cough to do the same, your hand covering lips that long to find his. Maybe, if you survive all of this, you could try again.
You are given a bunk and the uniform of new recruits: a fleece onesie striped red and white. For dinner there is a stew with limp carrots and stinking grey meat. On the side, a steaming mug of cocoa. “We’re down in our rations,” Frosty explains. “Hot chocolate is our only source of calcium.”
You take a sip and feel it burn down to your stomach. Hazlenut. “It could use whiskey,” you mutter. He nods and glances around the mess hall. People are eating and chatting, but you can feel their attention pinned on you. It’s a relief when Frosty stands and offers you his hand.
“We can make that happen,” he mutters as you stand to follow him. You refuse his hands. The people in the mess hall aren’t even pretending to talk any more. They all turn silently to watch you leave. Their hate burns into the back of your skull.
Halfway down a long hallway, Frosty ducks into what looks like a broom closet. You follow. The door shuts, and you’re enclosed in a small, dusty space. “No whiskey, but…” He pulls a bottle out from behind a mop bucket and turns the label towards you: Peppermint Kahlua.
You nod grimly. “That’ll do.”
You pass the bottle back and forth, taking long drinks of the holiday liqueur. It tastes sour. You have to choke it down. Frosty’s hand brushes yours whenever he passes the bottle; your lips fall where his have just been. As he watches you, his eyebrows knit together.
“Last year, I thought you were someone special,” he says. “I was wrong.”
The Kahlua churns in your stomach.
“Kathy, you’re never going to get Saint Nick,” he says.
You open your mouth to protest, but he lifts a single finger to your lips to shush you. It’s very annoying. “You’re never going to get Saint Nick, because the bomb goes off… tomorrow. The big one.” You stare at him in horror, your eyes widening slowly.
“Tonight is Christmas Eve,” you whisper.
“We’ll all be dead in 24 hours,” he says.