The Christmas We Get, We Deserve by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I wrote this story as a Christmas gift for my father in 2020. He’s a veteran of several musical Christmas shows at our local coffee house. With his permission, I’m sharing the tale as a 2021 holiday treat for all.

 

The Christmas We Get, We Deserve

by Jeremiah Dylan Cook

I finish tuning my guitar and strum each string to confirm my adjustments. The sound is crisp and true.  Outside the windows, the snow starts to pick up. The inflatable Santa Clause just beyond the door has a thin white layer hiding his ruby red outfit. Passing vehicle traffic slows with every minute.

The middle-aged barista, Mary, deposits a cup of water on a small table next to me. “Doesn’t look like we’ll get many folks tonight.”

“It’s the holiday season. You never know what can happen.” I respond, not really believing my own words. I’d been playing a Christmas show at the Cozy Mug for two decades, and there’d been some good times, but the crowds had gotten thinner each of the last five years. I wasn’t sure if I’d be asked back next December.

“You can start whenever you’re ready,” Mary says.

The seasonal music cuts off, leaving the room in silence. I think of the Cozy Mug as intimate in my head, but in truth, the place is tiny. There are only six small, round tables filling the space in front of me.  One is occupied by an old lady wearing a babushka. She uses her index finger to peck out a response on her phone. Stools line the left wall, with a window looking out at the street. A young couple trades a phone back and forth. The boy, with neon green glasses, makes a shocked face at whatever the girl, whose head is half shaved, has shown him. To the right, Mary stands flanked by tall canisters of coffee and a glass case of pastries at the counter. She passes the time by scrolling through her phone. The door, with snow-covered Santa just outside, is opposite where I’ve set up.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could be here. In honor of this festive time of year, I’ll be playing Christmas tunes tonight. If you know any, feel free to sing along. And if you’ve got any requests, don’t be afraid to shout the titles at me. I might even know some.”

The couple turns to regard me with suspicious expressions. Green glasses guy whispers something to shaved head girl, and they exit. As they pass Santa, they both give him a quick sucker punch. Snow puffs off his rotund form as he rocks back and forth.

Undeterred by their departure, I start “Christmas All Over Again” by Tom Petty. My fingers work their way through the chords as I strum out the tune. I’m surprised at how effortless it feels tonight. I close my eyes and sing, “underneath, the missile toe, we go. We gooo.” I get lost in the music. “It’s Christmasss all overrr, againnn.” I slip into the groove. It’s the only time all my worries, doubts, and fears fall away. As the song comes to its end, I let the last reverberations of the guitar linger in the air.

Someone claps loudly, and I open my eyes. A well-dressed, lanky man, with shoulder-length blonde hair parted in the middle of his forehead, applauds. I’m struck by a strong sense of déjà vu I can’t explain. He collects his coffee from Mary, drops several bills in her tip jar, and sits one table over from the old woman, who is still engaged with sending a text.

“Thanks,” I say.

The man smiles. “No problem. You don’t happen to know “Run Rudolph Run” do you? I love me some Chuck Berry.”

“Sure!” I work my way through the rocking intro to the requested tune. “Out of all the reindeers, you know you’re the mastermind,” I sing.

The newcomer’s foot taps along to the rhythm as I work my way through the song. The old lady glances up as a dapper-looking African American man, wearing a ship captain’s hat, enters the Cozy Mug. The same déjà vu I’d previously experienced rears up again. He orders a coffee from Mary, tips well, and joins the other gentleman. They nod along as I finish the final plucks of the requested ditty. Both men applaud.

The newest arrival speaks up. “Good cover. You don’t know “Thank God It’s Christmas,” do you? I dig Freddie Mercury, and it’s been ages since I heard that one.”

“I do. Let’s see if I can remember how it goes.” I work my way through an acoustic cover, finding the song little by little. It starts to come back to me, and I progress faster. My deeper voice alters the piece, but I make it my own by the time I reach the end.

Applause erupts again, and I notice a new person who’d managed to sneak in while I was playing. At the table closest to me, a man sits with short, cropped hair, a mustache, and a flamboyant yellow jacket. His t-shirt says a single word in bright red font: Flash. He sips a coffee, and I look back to see Mary’s tip jar overflowing. I’m struck again by déjà vu, but instead of focusing on it, I consider my next song.

The man in the yellow jacket stretches his legs out. “That was good. I liked your version quite a bit. Know any John Lennon? “Happy Xmas” seems an appropriate choice.”

“Certainly.” I launch into the old familiar tune without much effort. This is one of the most oft-requested songs I play for this time of year. While I’d thought I’d lost my taste for the number after repeated performances, I find myself enjoying the process of playing it again. It helps that the entire audience, the old lady included, seems to be loving the song as they nod and sway.

The group joins in for the finale, singing, “war is overrr, if you want ittt.”

Another applause follows. It’s the loudest yet. I now count six people in the establishment. A new person somehow joined our fun mid-song. I’m not sure how I could’ve missed him coming in, but he sits at the table in front of the duo who arrived first. While all the others have been familiar, I’m shocked by this guy’s recognizability. He must be a huge Beatles fan because he’s obviously modeled his appearance after the late, great John Lennon. The circular glasses, white suit, and long hair are uncanny. Before I can comment on his look, he stands up.

In a British accent, he says, “Not bad. But what about a true classic like “Peace on Earth?” The one Bowie and Bing Crosby did together.”

I nod my accordance and begin as the Lennon imitator grabs a coffee. The song is an old favorite of mine, but I’m not sure the traditional duet works as well with only my voice performing. If the group’s bothered, they don’t show it in their enthralled expressions. When I’m done, the room claps again, and a pair of men walk out of the snow into the Cozy Mug and join in the adulation. The new arrivals are both older men. One wears a blue sweater vest over a white dress shirt, his thin hair is combed back. He sits by the old lady. The other man has his silver hair gelled up in a fashionable look that makes him appear decades younger than he is. At a glance, his eyes appear mismatched, and when I focus on him, I realize his left pupil is larger than his right.

“Didn’t your mother ever teach you it wasn’t nice to stare?” The man asks playfully.

I’m shocked to hear another British accent in my small, Pennsylvanian town.

“I’m sorry,” I apologize. “But you look, well, you all look remarkably familiar. Mary, is this a prank?” I look over at the barista.

She shakes her head. “I don’t know who any of these folks are, but they tip well.”

“I’ve got another big tip for you if you can give me a double macchiato.” The man with the strange eyes sits next to the gentleman in the yellow coat. “Hello there, Freddie. It’s been a while.” He looks back at me after greeting his friend. “I’ll forgive the rude gazing if you can play my favorite holiday song.”

“If I know it, I’ll play it.”

“It’s called “I believe in Father Christmas,” and it’s by Greg Lake.”

“Of course, I know that. It’s one of my favorites too.” My fingers work through the intricate opening tabs, and I lose myself in yet another Christmas classic. The tune passes in a blur as I realize it’s almost over already. “I wish you a brave New Year,” I sing as the song reaches its final crescendo.

Yet another visitor enters the Cozy Mug, leaving the storm. He sings, “the Christmas we get, we deserve.”

I let the song end, having been beaten to the final line. This time there’s no doubt in my mind. I’m staring at a young Greg Lake. I survey the room again. Tom Petty sits with Chuck Berry just over from Bing Crosby and an old lady who has no clue who she’s with. Freddie Mercury and David Bowie are seated directly in front of me, and John Lennon sprawls out by himself, enjoying the fact that no one else is at his table.

Greg Lake walks toward me, smiling. “Now, I’ve got a request. I want to hear a Magic Marvin original. Don’t you have a Christmas song?”

A shiver runs through me. I’d written a Christmas song eight years prior, just after nearly ending my life in a fit of despair over a hard breakup with the woman I’d thought was my soulmate. I’d never told anyone about the song, and I’d certainly never played it live before.

“We’ll join you for the chorus,” Greg Lake adds, standing next to me at the front of the Cozy Mug.

The other musicians all get to their feet and make their way to us.

“Mary,” Bowie calls. “Won’t you be a sport and record this for Marvin?”

The barista smiles and pulls out her phone. She angles the camera toward us and backs up to capture everyone. When her device is ready, Mary gives us a thumbs up.

For the first time ever, I play my Christmas song out loud.

 

Christmas Future

I finish tuning my guitar and strum the strings to confirm I’ve got what I want. The sound is pitch-perfect. Outside, it’s a clear, cold night. I smile at the thought of trudging through the blizzard to get home last year.

Mary deposits a tip cup next to my water on the table in front of me. “Packed tonight, isn’t it?”

I scan the room. Each table is overcrowded with strangers looking eager for my show. The stools are just as packed. More people file in through the doors. Mary’s new assistant works the counter.

“They’re just here to see if any ghosts show up,” I reply. “But I’ll give them my best show.”

“Ready when you are.” Mary pats my arm and turns around.

The seasonal music cuts off.

I tap the microphone in front of me. “Hey, everybody. My name is Magic Marvin, and I’m so glad you could join me tonight. Most of you are probably here because of a video I posted last Christmas. I know everyone and their mother told you that I must be a genius with deep fakes and computer forgeries, but I’ve never even been able to do basic HTML on my own website.”

The crowd chuckles.

I take a quick sip of water and continue. “Last year, I was visited by some friends whose Christmas tunes I’ve played for years. Maybe they were only great impersonators? I don’t know what the truth is, but what I do know is that after that video was uploaded, my Christmas song shot up to number one in the country for a week, and now you’re all here because of it. And if that isn’t a Christmas Miracle, I don’t know what is. So, how about I play that tune for you?”

The crowd erupts into cheers, and I start my guitar intro. My fingers work their way up the neck of the guitar as I progress from chord to chord. In the back, just outside the doors, I spot the faintest wisps of seven smiling musicians from holiday’s past standing by the inflatable Santa.

End

Happy Holidays

The Blood-Inked Comic Book

The link below contains a free PDF copy of Jeremiah Dylan Cook’s short story “The Blood-Inked Comic Book” for Bram Stoker Award consideration in the Short Fiction category for 2021.

PDF Copy of The Blood-Inked Comic Book for Stoker Award Short Fiction Consideration

“The Blood-Inked Comic Book” was published on June 8th, 2021 by Castle Bridge Media in Castle of Horror Anthology Volume 5: Thinly Veiled: The ’70s. The synopsis for “The Blood-Inked Comic Book” is as follows: While in police custody, Thomas Roy, a comic book writer, details how the band Smooch collaborated with Astonishing Comics to produce a blood-inked comic book that warped his nephew into a demonic creature. This story is also currently available for free on Kindle Unlimited at https://www.amazon.com/Castle-Horror-Anthology-Thinly-Veiled/dp/173647264X. For any additional information, you can follow Jeremiah on Twitter @JeremiahCook1, or you can contact him at Jdcook1991@gmail.com.

Choose Your Own Ending – Shower Scenario

Hi Everyone,

I’d like you to write an ending for the flash fiction below in three sentences or less. Drop your conclusion in the comments. Feel free to do anything you can imagine in those three sentences.

I was inspired to create this post because I recently finished Paul Tremblay’s Growing Things and Other Stories. In that collection, he has a choose your own adventure narrative called A Haunted House is a Wheel Upon Which Some Are Broken. I’ve also been itching to try writing a tale in the second person, and this seemed like a good opportunity to give it a go.

The Story So Far…

Work was hell. Heaven is returning to an empty apartment to dwell in solitude for the evening. You shower to remove the filth of the day. There were too many mistakes to count. You shower to enjoy the heat and steam. A little pleasure makes the day’s missteps easier to accept. You shower to forget. Not that anyone else will. The water pressure doubles as a massage. It’s one of the few good things about your apartment complex. As you close your eyes and lather up your face with liquid soap, you hear the squeak of the bathroom door opening. No one else has a key to the apartment. A footstep echoes off the tile floor outside the shower. Your heart pounds so hard you worry it might burst from your chest. Leaning forward, you let the stream of water rinse your eyes of soap. You open them to see your black shower curtain blocking your view of the potential intruder. There’s only one option left. You…

Black Shower Curtain

Here are two awesome responses I got on Twitter.

Feels Tasty

The sound of a drip awoke me, but my eyes only opened slightly. I could move them around, but the rest of my body remained inert. I hated these episodes. I’d dealt with sleep paralysis intermittently for as long as I could remember. It felt like being trapped somewhere between a dream and the waking world. At the edge of my vision, illuminated in bright red light on my bedside table, I could just make out the time as one forty-three. I didn’t have to be up until seven, but I’d happily get up now if I could move.

There were three more drips, in rapid succession, but when I surveyed the room, I couldn’t determine their source. The television on my dresser was off, I wasn’t aware of any leaky areas in my apartment, and my fiancée was out of town for the weekend, visiting her parents. There was another drip, and this time the direction seemed more definite. I turned my eyes to the window. The Venetian blinds almost completely obscured the view outside. We tried to keep them closed because we lived in a first-floor apartment next to the complex’s parking lot. No one wants to deal with nosey neighbors. Before heading to bed, I’d left the blinds up a tiny bit to see what the weather would be doing in the morning. The forecast said a big spring snowstorm had a fifty percent chance of burying the area. There was the drip again, but now it sounded more like a peck. Maybe a bird was perching on the windowsill? I looked at the gap, exposed by the open blinds.

A shadowy figure leered in at me with bright yellow eyes. It tapped on the glass with a freakishly long, ink-colored finger.

I screamed, but my enfeebled body only produced a low whimper. My heart rate tripled. I tried to close my eyes, but I couldn’t make them shut in my current state. All I wanted to do was dash out of bed and lock myself in the windowless bathroom, where it wouldn’t see me. I could hear my own breath coming out faster. There was another tap on the glass. I tried to ignore it by looking at my clock and focusing on the familiarity of it, but my heart maintained it’s jarring pace. If only I could get a deep breath, I might be able to calm down and make sense of the thing outside my window. I’m probably just hallucinating. I’d heard stories from other people who saw shadow figures when they went through sleep paralysis. I hadn’t ever seen one before, but there was a first time for everything. It must be a product of my dream addled mind. I took my eyes off the clock and looked back at the window.

The figure remained. Its yellow eyes contained a murky ring of red inside them. It’s not there. I’m just trapped in a half dream. As if in response to my realization, the thing stopped tapping. Its eyes seemed to lock onto mine. I started to look away, but it revealed a smile filled with skeletal fingers where teeth should have been. The fingers emerged from the mouth and began opening and closing, like someone demonstrating an explosion with their hands. Each movement of the fingers resulted in a horrendous cracking sound as the joints moved. It began to leave, and its midnight black body vanished from view. How long until my heart’s palpitations sent me into cardiac arrest? It had to be a dream, a fucked-up piece of my subconscious given form. Another sound made me pause mid-thought. Was that my front door rattling?

I shot up in bed, freed from my nightmare at last. Gasps came to me rapidly as my body finally enabled me to physically manifest the panic I’d been feeling. My hands shook as I raised them to my sweat-drenched hair.

“Just a dream,” I said.

A loud creek filled my apartment. It was the sound of my bedroom door slowly opening. A burst of frigid air rushed at me. I heard cracking joints and looked up to see the thing from my dream staring at me. It stood on the threshold. Behind it, I could see my front entrance smashed to pieces. Inky sludge trailed where it had walked in.

It flew forward, like a gust of smoke, and the fingers of its mouth were on my face before I could react. I struggled to pull it off, but its slimy skin burned my hands. I screamed into the thing’s mouth but felt my cry muffled by a gritty tasting appendage. My body instinctively tried to puke it out, and I leaped off the bed, but the skeletal fingers only dug deeper into my flesh. I tried to breathe through my nose, but I felt myself starting to grow faint. Was this how I died? I fought back up to my feet. All at once the fingers released their grip on my face, and the thing removed itself from my throat. It flew backward, to the doorway, as fast as it had assaulted me. A coal colored arm stuck out of its mouth, surrounded by bony digits. In the arm’s hand, I saw a bloody red pulp. My mind struggled to make sense of it. Then I saw the grotesque crimson heap pulse, squirting out gore, and my brain filled in the sound of its beat. I felt blood welling up in my mouth as a terrible pain emanated from my chest. The thing’s hand began squishing the organ in its grip, and then the entire arm retracted inside the body.

From somewhere deep in the thing’s mouth, I heard a gurgling voice say, “feels tasty.”

End