By A.A. Medina
Originally published on Kendall Reviews December 2018.
“What about that one?”
“Okay,” I said. “And that one?”
“Too tall,” Rebecca said, without so much as looking at the damn thing.
I squeezed the axe handle tight and pursed my lips. This meant a lot to Rebecca, so I fought the urge to voice my impatience.
We were going on the third hour of our search. The day had turned to twilight as Rebecca led us away from the trail. The snow was halfway up my shin, and my toes, fingers, and nose had begun to lose feeling. A big, warm, mug of spiked eggnog never sounded so appealing.
She didn’t answer.
“Rebecca?” I barked.
“What?” She stopped and turned to face me.
I worked my way toward her. “Honey,” I smiled against my better judgment, “we’re wandering pretty far from the cabin and—“
“I know, I know,” I eased her. “But if we’re out here too much longer, I can’t promise you I’ll have the strength to drag it back.”
“Not much longer,” She said. “I have a feeling about this area.”
I readjusted the rope slung over my shoulder, tugging at the empty sled I dragged behind me.
For years, Rebecca pestered me about spending Christmas at her family’s cabin up north. She wanted to instill the tradition of cutting down our own Christmas tree, sitting around the fire, and have that cliché “White Christmas” that wasn’t possible in the city.
For years, I made last-minute excuses for why we couldn’t. I’d come home to my wife, Rebecca, and our two daughters, Lauren and Emma, and every year their bags would be packed as they anxiously awaited my arrival home, so we can load the car and head to the cabin for Christmas. For over two decades, my selfishness crushed their hopes and caused many tears.
Rebecca was constantly disappointed, but always took my side. “Daddy has to work,” she’d explain to the girls. “We’ll go for sure next year.”
I was sorry they never got to experience their mother’s idea of a perfect Christmas.
But being sorry wasn’t going to bring those years—those opportunities—or my children back. Tonight, however, I was going to give Rebecca the Christmas Eve she has always wanted.
“This one,” Rebecca said. She stood before the tree.
The greenness of it was particularly vibrant compared to its neighbors, even with the lack of light. It wasn’t too big; it wasn’t too small. It was just perfect. Rebecca had a good eye for these types of things.
I slid the coil of rope off my shoulder and handed it to Rebecca.
“Good choice,” I said. “Step back, let’s get this done.” Gripping the axe with both hands, I shuffled to the tree and got to chopping.
A few heavy swings in, I straightened my back and took a few moments to catch my breath. “This tree is gonna look amazing, Beck.”
I complimented her more than ever these days. After a quarter-century of marriage, it’s good to reassure your partner of their importance to you—at least that’s what the therapist said.
“Totally worth the trek!” I said over my shoulder.
Rebecca didn’t respond.
I glanced back at her.
Her eyes were glossed over; the trail of tears glistened on her cheeks.
She cried a lot more than ever these days, too.
I was never sure how to respond to a crying woman, not then, not ever. I flashed a forced smile at her that she didn’t return and got back to chopping.
It was completely dark by the time we got back to the cabin.
It was a quaint, little place. The interior walls were exposed, dark wood that matched the exterior. A decent-sized stone fireplace graced the decent-size living room and dining area. There was a hallway that led to a master bedroom, a guest bedroom, and a small bathroom at the very end which was obviously added on far after the place was initially constructed. Thank god for indoor plumbing.
Across the hallway was a set of tall, swinging, saloon-style doors that led into a galley kitchen that made our closet back home seem spacious.
I dragged the tree inside and stripped off a layer of clothing.
Rebecca followed. Stepping over the peak of the downed tree, she walked straight toward the kitchen.
“Hey, where you going?”
She ignored me.
“Beck?” I asked sternly. “Can we not do this tonight?”
She stopped at the swinging doors and turned to face me.
“Please. It’s Christmas Eve,” I beckoned.
“I’m starting dinner. Please get a fire built and the tree stood up.” Stone-faced, she glared into my eyes from across the room; the tension was so thick, it was almost suffocating.
“Of course, love,” I finally uttered before Rebecca continued into the kitchen. “Can you bring me a glass of nog?” I shouted in a not authentically cheerful tone. “Maybe put a little something special in it, if you catch my drift?”
The therapist told me to ease tension by asking simple, easily accomplishable favors of each other. Like something small that would bring just a sliver of happiness to them. I trekked who knows how far to cut down a tree, a specific tree, in a forest of trees that, give or take, look all the fucking same.
And I drug the thing back.
The least she could do is bring me a glass of eggnog, right?
She didn’t answer and it didn’t surprise me.
Cursing under my breath, I kneeled down at the fireplace and got to work.
The tree was set.
The fire was burning.
I even had time to trudge to the car and retrieve the box of decorations we brought from home.
Time elapsed as I untangled the string lights and wrapped them around the tree… And Rebecca was still in the kitchen.
Just as I finished hanging the stockings above the fireplace, she finally exited with a glass in hand. As she approached me, her eyes were locked on the stockings with disgust.
“What the fuck is this?”
“Uh…” I took the glass from her. “Stockings?”
She scanned the row of four matching, red stockings with our names stitched with gold-colored thread across the top—Dad, Mom, Lauren, and Emma. Rebecca took a deep breath, closed her eyes, and in one swift motion, she reached out, grabbed each one of the girls’ stockings and ripped them down, tossing them to the floor.
“What the hell, Beck?”
“What’s the fucking point?”
“What are you talking about?”
“They’re not here!”
“What does that matter?” I asked. “Whether they are or not, we hang them every year.”
“Not this year!”
“So much for tradition…” I shouldn’t have said that.
She slapped me across the face. Her pale skin turned burning red with fury.
“Don’t you fucking talk to me about tradition.” She stomped toward the front door.
“Where are you going now?”
“To get the tree ornaments.”
“They’re right here.” I pointed at the box I brought in earlier.
As she swung open the door, she cocked her head over her shoulder to look at me. “We have a set in the shed. A traditional set. Something this family never got to use.”
That stung worse than the slap to my face.
“Do you need any—” The door slammed behind her. “Help?” I sighed.
When she sees what I got her for Christmas, she’ll forgive me for everything, I reassured myself.
I took a seat on the heavy, hardwood chair next to the fire. The first sip of my eggnog set my throat ablaze. I winced and coughed.
“Jesus Christ, Beck,” I said to myself. Whatever she spiked it with, it was strong. Maybe that was a good thing. If the night continued to play out the way it had been, I don’t think there was a drink stiff enough to alleviate the overbearingly stressful situation I had found myself in.
Sipping on my drink, I gazed into the fire. The crackles and the pops of the burning logs paired with the flames that danced atop them was more than hypnotizing. My limbs fell sluggish, and it got to the point where lifting the glass to my lips was an endeavor in itself. My eyelids grew heavy and I struggled to keep focus.
The world became fuzzy.
The fuzziness became a blur.
The blur became blackness.
The last thing I remembered was the sound of my glass shattering on the floor—it wasn’t just alcohol Rebecca spike my eggnog with.
My eyes crept open…
The world gradually came into focus.
Christmas tunes hummed softly in the background.
Rebecca stood with her back to me as she admired the lights on the tree.
It wasn’t until I tried to call out to her that I realized a gag was shoved into my mouth and reinforced with a few layers of duct tape. Looking down, my wrists were taped to the arms of the chair, as were my ankles to the legs. My torso was wrapped tight to the back of the chair with the same rope I used to drag the tree in from the wild.
Frantic, I jerked my body and grunted. The chair barely wiggled.
“It’s pointless, Richard.” Rebecca turned to face me. “It’s all so pointless.”
She held a cast-iron fire poker in her hand as she sauntered to the fireplace just to the right of me and dug the pokey-end into the embers, leaving the handle safely outside the heat and resting it on the stone base.
She stood in front of me.
My eyes darted around the room, I tried to grasp what was happening. There were some changes. A tackle box sat on the floor halfway between the tree and me. An old, single-barreled shotgun leaned against the wall next to the fireplace. The coffee table had been dragged from the center of the room and placed to my left; an array of utensils was laid out like a dentist’s tray.
“Look at me.”
Rebecca leaned over, her face a few inches from mine. I finally noticed how the years had weighed on her. Every wrinkle and the bags under her dead eyes represented every disappointment in our marriage.
They may as well have been scars.
Strands of her auburn hair, now fraught with streaks of gray, fell in front of her face, and swayed like vines as she looked me up and down.
“We need to have a talk.”
She reached over to the hodgepodge of kitchen utensils and retrieved a serrated bread knife. She inspected it for a moment before pointing it at my chest.
“You’re going to listen this time. You’re going to listen very, very carefully.”
The gag in my mouth made it impossible to scream, but I tried anyway. I closed my eyes and, with all my strength, tried to break my constraints. It was no use.
“No fucking surprise there, Richard,” Rebecca said. Her tone was stern and deep and something I’ve never heard before. “Literally, the only thing you are capable of doing right now is listening, and you still found a way to fuck that up.”
My pleas translated to nothing more than a series of muffled grunts.
Rebecca grabbed the top of my ear, stretched it away from my skull, and sawed at it with the bread knife.
Back and forth.
Back and forth, she ripped through my flesh. I could hear the blood rushing through my head and the metal grinding through the cartilage. And then a constant, piercing ring is all I heard from my left side.
Rebecca held up my dismembered ear, my blood-stained her hand and trickled down her forearm.
“Hello?” She spoke into it. “Can you hear me now?”
Her eyes remained locked onto mine. She didn’t laugh. Not even a giggle in response to her little joke. She stepped backward to the tackle box, descended to her knees, and placed my ear on the floor next to it. She opened the rusty thing and searched for something inside.
“You know…” Rebecca said. Her eyes fixated to the contents of the tackle box, “That wouldn’t have been so bad if you actually got me that new knife set you promised me a few years ago.” That made her chuckle. “That thing was pretty dull.”
She picked up the ear and sauntered toward the tree. With her back facing me, she took a moment fidgeting with something in her hands.
“Well, why don’t you look at that,” She stepped to the side and presented her work like Vanna White from Wheel of Fortune.
The lobe of my dismembered ear was pierced and threaded with a loop of fishing wire connected to a hook. She hung it upside-down on one of the tree branches.
“A new ornament. First of many.”
The next hour was a haze of blacking out and returning to my hellish reality.
First, it was my ear for never listening. Second, was my left ring finger. Rebecca chopped it off at the base of my wedding band. Punishment for the time I cheated on her with my secretary roughly ten years ago. She hung it up on the tree.
I’m surprised she didn’t remove my member instead.
Piece by piece, she took me apart and I couldn’t keep up with the reasons why. Toes, fingers, sections of my scalp—all crimson and decorative, nestled in the tree branches, illuminated between the rows of red, white, and green string lights.
After each amputation, she’d use the molten hot fire poker to cauterize the wound.
“I don’t want you bleeding out,” she’d say. “You’re not getting off that easy.”
If I were just able to tell her about my surprise gift, what I had in store for the night, this would not be happening.
A perpetual cycle of tears blurred my vision, partly from pain, but mostly from shock and confusion. My body burned and stung and ached, but the worst of it all was watching my wife, the sweet and caring mother of my children, become more and more comfortable with being a deranged, vindictive, bloodthirsty psychopath.
She approached me for the first time in a while without an instrument of pain in her hand. In a strange way, that was more frightening. With the sleeve of her sweater, she wiped the tears from my eyes.
“I know you’re not perfect, Richard.” Her voice returned to the gentleness I’ve always known. A gentleness that stemmed from a deep-seated sadness, something I just now noticed. “But your biggest problem…”
She retrieved the shotgun leaning against the fireplace.
“You’re biggest problem is that you didn’t try.”
That was only half-true. I can admit that I used to not, but over the last year, I’ve sought out therapy. I’ve realized what I had taken for granted. The epiphany that my negligence, my selfishness, my shitty way of life, tore this family apart and systematically destroyed Rebecca.
I wanted to tell her about the therapy I’ve been attending in secret.
But, I couldn’t.
I wanted to tell her about her Christmas gift.
But, I couldn’t.
I wanted to tell her how we could figure out a way to put our marriage back together, even though she had just cut me apart.
“Everything, even the infidelity, I could have forgiven, if you had just tried. All you had to do was try, Richard.”
Rebecca stood before me. She placed the buttstock of the shotgun against my sternum and lifted the end of the barrel to her head.
“I tried. For over twenty years, I tried.” She took a deep breath and let the tears roll down her cheeks as she stared straight through me. “I’m done trying.”
Rebecca placed the muzzle in her mouth.
With one hand, she held the barrel of the shotgun and leaned into it. With the other hand, she reached down and pushed the trigger.
The kick of the shotgun blast knocked the wind out of me and I felt a cracking sensation in my ribs.
Rebecca fell backward, the top of her head gaping open like a busted piñata.
Blood outlined the Christmas tree on the wall behind it; brain matter clung to its branches like crimson and pink tinsel.
A pair of headlights beamed through the window from the outside—Rebecca’s present had arrived. I never got the chance to tell her I made amends with the girls; that Lauren and Emma were coming home for Christmas. I never got to see her face when she realized she’d have that ideal Christmas after all.
My eyes reluctantly watched the doorknob turn ever so slightly.
“Surprise!!!” Lauren and Emma said in unison as they swung open the door before they excitedly stormed inside.
So much for traditions.
A. A. Medina is an author, editor, and musician from Phoenix, Arizona. He is the co-owner and editor of Aphotic Realm Magazine, and his works can be found in other various publications. His debut novella, Siphon, was published by Hindered Souls Press early 2018.
You can find out more about A.A. Medina by visiting his official website www.uglyandhorrible.com
Follow A.A. Medina on Twitter @UglyByProxy
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