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chris grabenstein


Hell for the Holidays Christopher Miller's daughter still had the nightmares.

She wouldn't wake up screaming. She'd sleepwalk down the hall, drift into her parents' room, and stand frozen at the foot of their bed while her eyes went wide with terror.

In her dark dreams, the seven-year-old could still see the bad man dressed like Santa Claus. She could feel the gun muzzle pressed hard against her head and hear him laugh and tell her all the horrible things he was going to do to her.

She remembered the gun most of all.

Remembered how it felt—a cold circle tight against her skin.

"It's okay, Angel," her mother would wake and tell her. "The bad man can't hurt you anymore. The bad man is gone."

Christopher Miller would rouse himself and remember: Yeah. The bad man's gone. All gone. Daddy shot him. He'd rest his big hand on her tiny shoulder and lead his sleepwalking daughter back toward the door.

"How about an official FBI escort up the hall?" he'd whisper. "You're safe, Angel. Daddy's on duty. Nobody can hurt us ever again. I promise."

He'd say it even though he knew it wasn't true.

No place is safe.

Not this country.

Not this house.

Not this family.

Chapter One

"I'm not a gypsy, Mrs. Melo," Angela said politely. "I'm Princess Jasmine. From the movie!"

Halloween night.

Christopher Miller had escorted his daughter across the street to trick-or-treat at their neighbor's house—a brick split level just like his, just like all the homes up and down the block in this part of Jersey City. Natalie, his wife, was handing out miniature Baby Ruths to all the trick-or-treaters back at their house, no doubt pretending not to recognize all the neighborhood kids in their costumes.

His daughter wasn't into scary outfits, no Vampira or crazy chainsaw killer. Angela wanted to be pretty Princess Jasmine from Disney's Aladdin.

Miller, of course, had suggested she be a Motown singer, like she'd been last year. He even promised he'd be her back-up singer, her very own Pip. But his daughter wanted to be a princess, so Natalie found the Jasmine costume at the Party Store out near the mall. Deciding that the two-piece outfit was far too gauzy for a crisp autumn night, she'd insisted Angela drape her winter coat over it.

So now, as they stood on Mrs. Melo's stoop, Miller couldn't help but smile at his beautiful little girl. She had a very serious, very regal expression on her face but, truth be told, she looked kind of comical: an African-American harem girl in a sparkling tiara and puffy white cape, her North Face parka draped across her shoulders.

"Have you seen Aladdin?" Angela asked the grandmotherly Mrs. Melo.

"Si', si', si'! Princesa Jasmine!" Mrs. Melo was holding a plastic jack-o-lantern filled with miniature candy bars. "Such royalty deserves a special treat." Looking as if she'd been waiting for this just this moment, Mrs. Melo headed off to her kitchen.

"That's very kind of you!" Miller called after her, switching off his toy flashlight. It was molded to look like Dracula. Or maybe that Count Chocula guy from the cereal box. He was fifty-one years old and he remembered when Halloween meant going door-to-door in this same Jersey City neighborhood with a pillowcase your mother let you have because it was ready for the rag bag. Now you could get official trick-or-treat sacks at McDonald's or in the morning paper—basically a showy plastic billboard for this year's holiday blockbuster, usually another computerized cartoon.

Mrs. Melo now returned to the front door.

"Here we go!"

She held a cellophane bag tied with orange and black curling ribbon, stuffed with what looked like two pounds of Halloween candy. In her other hand, she held a foil-wrapped loaf. Miller sniffed. Fresh-baked banana bread.

"Hey, you don't have to...."

"Si', I do! Is Halloween. If I do not give to you the treat, you give to me the trick, no?"

"That's right," said Angela. "Those are the rules."

Two years back, close to Christmas, Christopher Miller had done a favor for Mrs. Melo and the widowed Dominican grandmother had been baking him banana bread ever since. He'd also wound up in a little trouble with his bosses at the FBI for doing that favor.

Actually, a lot of trouble.

"Thank you."

"You're welcome, King Christopher."

"He's not a king," Angela corrected her.

"No? But he is the princesa's father, si'?"

"He's supposed to be a football player."

For his costume, Miller had put on his old Notre Dame football jersey. Number 45. The one he wore in the U.S.C. game when he'd made that open-field run some people still remembered. Some people. Thirty-some years later, it still fit. More or less. Miller was 6'2", weighed in at 205 pounds, most of it solid muscle except for a slight paunch—what his wife called his banana-bread basket.

"Happy Halloween, Mrs. Melo," he said. "I'll come over on Saturday and fix that gutter."

He had seen the dangling downspout when they first climbed her stoop to ring the doorbell. Most weekends, he hauled his ladder or toolbox or caulk gun across the street, fixed whatever needed fixing.

"Thank you, my friend. Bless you. Happy Halloween."

"You, too. C'mon, Angela."

"Thank you! Thank you!" Angela chanted as she tottered down the short set of steps.

Miller was pleased. His daughter never forgot to say thank you. She was a good kid. Too good to be knocked off track by one monster, even a bad guy dressed up like Santa. Of course, the therapy helped. Natalie Miller, his wife, was a forensic psychologist. Used to work at the Field Office in Newark with him. Natalie had friends. Good people. Smart professionals who knew how to listen to children talk about their nightmares.

"Where to next?" he asked when they reached the sidewalk.

Angela stopped. Stood for a second. Swung her head up and down the street. Studied the houses. Considered her options.

"The haunted house," she whispered.

"You sure?"

Angela nodded.

The haunted house wasn't really haunted—it just looked extremely spooky every Halloween, decorated that way by an imaginative Italian family that went all out for every holiday. Glowing nativity scene at Christmas. Twelve-foot-tall inflatable bunny for Easter. Tonight, cobwebs were draped across the living room windows, skeleton hands dangled out of the mailbox, and scary moans echoed out of a boom box hidden somewhere in the shrubs.

The total effect was pretty terrifying, especially if you were seven years old.

Especially if you'd spent time with a real monster and were prone to nightmares.

"You're sure, Angel?"

"You asked me where I wanted to go next."

"I know, but...."

"Besides, that house isn't really haunted. It's only make-believe."

"Why don't we work our way up the block?" Miller suggested. "Make it our last stop."

Princess Angela put her hands on her hips. "Daddy—I am not afraid."

He reached for her hand.

"Okay. Come on. But let's just go see what the Fosters are giving out. Remember last year? They had those Snickers bars. The big ones."

Angela flung her bag down to the ground.

"I am not scared!"

To prove it, she bolted up the sidewalk.


She raced toward the haunted house—arms flailing, legs whirling. Miller took off after her. He still ran three or four miles most mornings. Still had his legs, his wind.

But, man, his daughter could fly—puffy jacket and all. Plus, she had a head start.


He'd never catch her.

"Angela! Stop running! You stop this instant!"

She wouldn't listen.

She dashed into the street. Didn't look both ways. Didn't slow down.

Didn't see the car.

Chapter Two

Alexander Schmitz sat slumped on the couch at his father's house, thumbing the remote.

He surfed through the cable channels, hundreds of them, pausing only for a flash before moving on to the next half-second clip of garbage. Buffalo, New York had lousy cable. Alexander blamed the government. The FCC. They were the ones who forced the television networks to run this pabulum. Garbage about gay men decorating normal men's apartments, pawing through their underwear drawers, making fun of their cowboy boots.

He was twenty-seven years old and had been living at his father's home in Eggertsville, a suburb of Buffalo, for two years—ever since he left the army. These days he worked part time at Loblaws. The grocery store. Stocking shelves was okay. The cans didn't talk back. Didn't ride his ass all day long like those bastards in the army.

He didn't miss the army. It had been only a stepping-stone. A vocational-technical school. Other than that, it basically sucked. It was no longer an armed militia of true patriots. They let anybody in.

His father worked at the nearby State University of New York at Buffalo. He was a janitor—a floor mopper when he should have been something better, maybe even a professor, but the government had their quotas and handed out all the good jobs to the worst people they could find. Lazy people. People of color. People who called in sick or went home early.

Alexander didn't know where his mother worked or if she even had a job. Probably not. Twenty-six years ago, when he was a baby, she'd left home and never come back.

He clicked the remote.

Nothing. Garbage.

The doorbell rang.

His father wasn't home. He had gone to a meeting. That meant Alexander was in charge of dishing out candy to any little beggars who appeared at their doorstep—even though he had a very low opinion of Halloween. Teaching children to beg. To expect something for nothing.

But Alexander was a good soldier. He would do as his father and Dr. John Tilley commanded. He would blend in. Play along. Wait.

The doorbell rang again.

He rose from the couch and found the bag of lollipops. Cheap ones with ropey loop handles instead of a single hard stick.

Now the doorbell rang in double time: da-dong, da-dong. Somebody was rocking the button, in and out, in and out.

"Hang on."

Da-dong, da-dong.

Jesus. Greedy little creeps.

"Trick or treat!" The voices on the other side of the door sounded male, older. Too old to be out trick or treating.

Alexander peered through the peephole.

College kids. Five of them. All boys. None in costumes. Just hooded sweatshirts. He couldn't make out their faces because the porch light wasn't illuminated. He had purposely left it off.

Even in the shadows, however, he could see that each boy held a lumpy pillowcase stuffed with candy.

"Come on, man!" hollered one of them. A frat boy type. "We know you're in there!"

Another kid kept jabbing at the doorbell.

"Trick or treat, smell my feet, give us something good to eat!"

One of them was about to pound his fist on the front door when Alexander swung it open.

"May I help you?"

"Yeah. Trick or treat, dude!"

Alexander touched the double bar bridge of his aviator frames with his right forefinger, slid the sunglasses up his nose about a quarter inch. It was dark out, but he always wore protection. The tinted lenses hid his eyes as he sized up his visitors.

"Aren't you fellows a little old to be out tonight?" he asked.

"Damn is that all you got?" Another of the youths, who up to this point had remained hidden behind his cohorts, stepped forward.

A black boy.

"Little baby lollipops? Damn, son. That's lame."

His friends laughed.

Ah. So this one was the class clown. SUNY Buffalo's very own Cedric The Entertainer.

Smart-mouthed. Uppity. Just like all the coloreds on television.

Exercise restraint. Sublimate your natural instincts. You're a soldier. Use your training, your discipline.

Alexander pulled lollipops out of the plastic bag. One for each boy.

"Here you are," he said.

The black boy made a grab for the entire thing.

"This shit's so lame, you gotta give us all of them!"

Alexander smiled. Touched the bridge of his sunglasses again.

"Fine," he said pleasantly. "Enjoy."

"You blind or something?" the black boy asked sarcastically.


"That your costume?"

"Enjoy the rest of your evening, gentlemen."

"Who you supposed to be?" The black boy rocked his head from side to side, twinkling keys on an imaginary piano. "Stevie Wonder?"

His friends whooped a keg-party laugh and bounded off the porch, tossing the lollipop sack back and forth, littering the lawn with candy that shook free. Alexander heard the boys laughing about what a loser he was.

Then they were gone. Up the street. Out of range.

Too bad.

There were weapons in the house. Several, in fact. The army had taught him how to use them all. They'd even given him medals. Gold stars and colorful ribbons for being such a fast learner, such an excellent shot.

However, there would be no retaliatory strike against smart-mouthed college kids tonight.

Dr. Tilley was saving Alexander Schmitz for bigger things. More important things.

Much more important.

© Chris Grabenstein, 2007