Skinny Ray always said that between the suicides and fires, he'd just as soon skip December all together. After reading Ray's obituary, Mike felt a quiet anger growing in his stomach. From the way the obituary was worded, highlighting the fire fighter's distinguished service awards and all the lives he saved, but tiptoeing around the actual cause of death, Mike knew Ray had killed himself. The bastard had finally found a way to skip December, and no one had bothered to let Mike know.
In fact, Mike had missed the funeral altogether. He had only found out about it all by clicking the wrong link on the computer, getting the obituaries instead of the hockey scores. Now Ray's body was on the way to some cemetery in Kansas of all places, and it would be a bugger to find out where the place was. Not that knowing the exact location would help him now, Mike thought, it would probably be a few more days before they put Ray in the ground, so there wasn't anything for him to go visit, now was there?
“Hell with it,” Mike said to a shaggy brown dog resting in the corner, “We're going Christmas shopping.”
Grizzly thumped his tail against the floor, and headed for the foyer. Mike grunted as he got up from his chair, pushing off with his left arm to ease the ache in his leg. The dumb dog didn't know Christmas from Mickey Mouse, otherwise he might have started asking his owner questions. But all the dog knew was that he was going for a ride. Grizzly was already dancing at the door, looking between it and Mike as Mike got his coat on. Damn dog is always ready before me, Mike thought.
“Must be good to be a dog,” Mike said, opening the door,“let's go.”
Mike flipped through the channels on the car stereo. Christmas music, switch. Holiday sale, switch. More Christmas Music, switch. Another Holiday sale – off.
“Damn airwaves are cluttered with crap,” he said to Grizzly, who looked briefly at Mike before going back to stare at the waving kids in the next lane over. Grizzly let out a soft woof.
“Let them be, Griz,” Mike said, “They're probably doped up on candy canes on the way to Grandma's house.”
Grizzly didn't seem to care. His tail twapped the seat and dashboard, making a sound like a boxer pummeling a canvas bag.
“Ai!” Mike said, slapping the dog's haunch. Grizzly slid down the seat and looked back at Mike.
“You're better off, Grizzly,” Mike muttered, “in their condition they're as liable to try riding you like a reindeer as blast your ears out with off-key caroling.”
Grizzly thumped his tail twice, and settled down for a rest.
The Fleet Farm parking lot was full. The store smelled like perfumed cinnamon sticks, and you couldn't escape it even if you were in the middle of the tire racks. He had to maneuver around carts three abreast in aisles only wide enough for two. He and an woman wearing a Santa hat exchanged four letter words over a box of silver bell ornaments. Mike had to wait twenty minutes while some guy who had only been hired on last week went to the loading dock to try and find more. There were no more.
He went to three Christmas tree lots and scowled at the Douglas Firs, Norway Spruces, Blue Spruces, and White pines. He finally found an eight-foot Noble Fir, and grudgingly paid seventy dollars for it. The tree was the only one he saw that actually looked the part of a proper Christmas tree: tall, symmetrical, good stiff branches, and actually smelling like it came from the woods. Grizzly gave his approval by trying to lick the pitch oozing from the trunk.
“Ai!” Mike said, pulling at the leash, “I don't want pine-scented dog puke in the car. Let's go home.”
Mike surveyed his tree. Fifty dollars of LED lights in blue, red, and green slowly winked. Thirty dollars of glass bulbs in silver, gold, and red hung secure in the tree's stiff branches. Mike decided the silver bells wouldn't have added much. Tinsel garland crisscrossed the tree like a princess's bodice. And at the top, a stained glass angel blew a golden trumpet.
“Look okay to you, Grizzly?” Mike said.
Grizzly looked up and wagged his tail. Mike reached down and mussed the shaggy fur on the dog's head.
He owed something to Skinny Ray. While hunting, the man had showed Mike where his femoral artery was by way of plunging his thumb in the hole left by some jackass's stray round. The thumb had hurt worse than the bullet, but it had kept enough blood inside him to make it to the hospital. Two weeks in the hospital, Christmas laid up on the couch in a cast, and six months in rehab to start the new year. And every day since then, an ache to remind him what had happened. Still, Mike thought, better than bleeding out in a backwoods swamp.
Starting around each Thanksgiving, the dreams would come. The bullet taking him in the in the upper thigh. The impact throwing him onto his back. A pale sky, bare branches, and a fountain of red spraying up from somewhere below him. Twigs cracking and popping behind him. Skinny Ray, pulling a knife and cutting away at his pant leg. The gaping red hole, blood pulsing out as if through a garden hose. Skinny Ray jamming his thumb into the wound, sending fire through Mike's body. Waking up in bed, clutching at his leg.
Skinny Ray had told Mike to forget about it when Ray tried thanking him. Ray acted like he was embarrassed about the whole thing, mumbling something about how he could now write off the paramedic training on his taxes that year. After that, they hung out less often, eventually reaching the point where they only nodded at each other in passing.
“Ready, Grizzly?” Mike said. He pointed at the ground. “Stay.”
Normal Rockwell himself couldn't have improve his tree. The lights reflected off the tinsel and ornaments perfectly, sending small sparkles of light into the snow. The angel at the top glowed with a kind of warm light that reminded Mike of candlelight services his grandmother's church used to have every Christmas Eve. The glow lit up the whole back yard like a beacon, blotting out the smaller stars in the cold night sky. He stared at it and raised a glass of egg nog.
"To you, Ray."
The nog tempered the whiskey well. He closed his eyes until the warmth of the liquor seeped its way to his fingertips. He set the glass down and picked up a red jug sitting next to him in the snow. As he walked to the tree, Mike hummed a song to himself, a song that just today had been passed over on the radio. He anointed the tree's branches with gasoline, some of the excess melting the snow revealing old ash and coals at the fire pit's bottom. Mike took in a deep breath, savoring the petrochemical fumes mixed with sharp herbal pine.
He hummed louder in the back of his throat as he brought out the lighter and lit the kindling. He leapt back as it went up with a foosh and a crack, and hobbled back to the patio where Grizzly and the whiskey bottle awaited. Thick black smoke rose in the air, and brought with it a stench of plastic, noxious pine resin, and sharp tang of metal. Tiny pops and sighs filled the air as the fire breached lights and ornaments. Sparks flew out like fireworks, reminding Mike to unplug the extension cord.
The loss of the electricity didn't matter. The whole tree seemed lit from within, yellows, greens, and oranges limned the dark branches. A few moments later, the fire spread to the outer branches, and the tree seemed taller as a wind came up to whip the flames. Heat washed over his face. Mike dumped more of the whiskey into his half-full nog glass. The angel's glass cracked, then shattered. Its wings blackened. The angel tipped back like a jazz trumpeter taking a solo. The music in the back of Mike's throat burst out.
"Noel, Noel!" Mike sang at the top of his lungs, thrusting his glass into the air, "Noel, No-el-el!"
Grizzly barked and ran around in circles. While they sang, Mike's leg didn't bother him a bit.