The Silence of the Night

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There were worse things that could happen to you on Christmas Eve than to be sitting locked in a tiny closet. And when the sicko who had abducted him got back from his trip to the liquor store little Mikey Ellsworth was going to find out what those things were. Alone in the dark he prayed that he might be rescued somehow, calling out to God, to Jesus, his guardian angel, to anyone out there who might hear and help him. Knowing that only a miracle could save him now...
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The Silence of the Night
by Laika Pupkino
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TRIGGER WARNING: ALTHOUGH THIS NIGHTMARE TALE EVENTUALLY PROVES TO HAVE A POINT TO IT BEYOND SOME DUBIOUS NOTION OF ENTERTAINMENT, AND ALTHOUGH PHYSICAL RAPE IS NEVER PORTRAYED IN ANY DETAIL; THE LONG SEQUENCE IN WHICH MIKEY/MICHELLE IS LURED INTO A PERVERT’S CAR AND IS ABDUCTED, THREATENED, MOCKED AND TERRORIZED MIGHT HIT TOO CLOSE TO HOME FOR SOME READERS. IF YOU'RE CONCERNED OVER HOW YOU'D REACT TO READING ABOUT SUCH THINGS IT'S PROBABLY BEST TO SKIP THIS ONE.

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~~~///=====( Old Saint So-and-So… )=====\~~~
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His name was Mikey. That's what his parents called him---(unless he was in trouble, then it was: “Michael James Ellsworth!”)---and his teacher at school, and all the kids there too. Mikey had never dared to tell anyone about his real name, his girl name. "Michelle" at this point was only a distant dream to him, one that made his spirit ache with its seeming impossibility.

Dreams. Mikey's dreams at night were often a pleasant refuge for him but they died with the dawn, thrusting him back into a reality that only he could see was just plain wrong. The ways a boy was supposed to act, the things he was supposed to want, it was like being in some play where they'd neglected to give him his lines and he was forced to fake it, doing his best to hide his confusion. Although he wasn't usually quite this confused.

'Where am I?', Mikey wondered. There was snow everywhere but it wasn’t cold. If anything it was too warm here, a musky dry heat blowing down from the bull’s-eye shaped vents in those big industrial tube things way up near the skylight ceiling.

Oh, this snow is fake, he realized. Hard.

He saw now that he was standing in line at the Bayview Mall’s central atrium with the other kids who were waiting to sit on Santa's lap and have their picture taken, and so obviously it was within a week or so of Christmas. Which was an odd thing to have to infer from your surroundings, to not just know, but the truth was he wasn’t even sure how he’d got here.

The kid who stood in front of him in line, wearing a white and purple rugby shirt that hugged his chunky form like a sausage skin, was talking to a scrawny lank-haired girl who must have been his sister. Complaining loudly, making sure that everyone heard him- "Goddamn it! I can't believe Mom is making us sit on that stupid faker’s lap again! Like we ain’t got better things to do."

Mikey didn't care for this kid at all. His self important attitude, his swearing, the way he threw his arms around when he talked. Mikey muttered something. But that's Santa.

His own voice had sounded so faint and unreal to him that Mikey wasn't even sure that he'd actually spoken out loud until the fat kid snorted, "Are you for real? Santa Claus is for babies. Are you a baby?”

“No, I’m-” Mikey started to say when he realized he wasn’t sure how old he was. Eight, maybe nine, but he knew he was at an age when a lot of children stopped believing in Santa Claus.

Striped Shirt’s kid sister smirked in agreement as he said, "Man, that's just some stinky ol' wino they found down at the homeless shelter."

But to Mikey things like this were a matter of faith. Enchanted stuff was real until you no longer believed in it, and then it faded out from reality, leaving the world all practical and gray. That’s what his mommy had said, and she herself claimed to still believe in stuff like fairies and dolphins and unicorns; like the pewter ones and crystal ones she had sitting on shelves and tabletops all over the house; or that one that was this whole little tableau in colored glass- Alice standing there amid the giant flowers, arguing with the caterpillar as he peered distainfully down at her from his crazy-colored mushroom. Things like this are just too beautiful not to believe in, she had reasoned; What would be gained?

So Mikey stood his ground with these two jaded sophisticates, saying that the man holding court there on his fiberglass gingerbread throne wasn’t no bum!

"Uh-huh? And have you smelled him? We did. Our mom didn't like the way our pictures came out and she’s making us go again. Definitely a wino. And I'm gonna tell him what a fuckin' loser he is to have a shit job like this."

Santa’s not a loser, insisted Mikey.

"Yeah, whatever. And I suppose you believe in the Easter Bunny too."

Mikey considered this. His parents made no secret of the fact that they were the ones who stocked his Easter basket with candy each year, and he supposed that a talking rabbit in a bow tie was actually a bit of a stretch, reality-wise. Well I don’t know about him, he said, but-

"You don’t know much, do you?” asked the big kid, and he was about to launch into another cynical lecture when the teenage elf girl who was working crowd control at the head of the line tapped his shoulder, and pointed at where Santa’s lap was being vacated by a girl so tiny she needed to be helped down by a reindeer. The boy swaggered off in a way he apparently thought was clever, his head tossed back, "See ya ..... I wouldn’t wanna be ya!"

This left Mikey and the little sister looking at each other. He said hello but she just rolled her eyes and turned away.

The pretty elf girl smiled down at him: What a couple of horrible brats, huh?

He smiled back---their shared assessment of the siblings a fun little secret---and wished that he could be an elf girl like her. What a perfect life that would be! To be a girl, with cute pointy ears like hers, who lived with all her elf cousins in that cozy little snow shrouded elf-mansion next to the glossy six story tall barber pole with a fancy ironwork letter N on top; who made her living helping Santa Claus build toys and bring them to kids all over the world; who had milk and cookies for breakfast lunch and dinner; and was a girl.

Mikey had a good reason to believe there could be magic in the world, being convinced that nothing short of magic would be able to help him with his secret problem. Either that or a miracle from God, in which his nightly prayers for transformation would finally be answered. But since God was being slower than the Post Office about this, and because it seemed rude to yell “Hey, hurry it up in there!” at God, Mikey was going to take the first solution that came along. Which hopefully would be in another minute or so.

After the brother made Santa very cross with whatever he said to him, and the sister rattled off her own long list of demands, it was Mikey's turn. As he climbed onto Santa’s lap he noticed the man did smell kind of alcoholly, but maybe it was just some sort of medical goo, like these old people liked to rub on themselves.

Looking down over his little square wire glasses at him, Santa’s smile seemed a bit forced, with the hint of something less than jolly behind it. But Mikey supposed even Santa could have a bad day. Like maybe all these kids hurt his knees, and that goo he used on them wasn’t working. And his big booming voice sure seemed merry enough as he barked, "Ho! Ho! Ho! And what's your name, little boy?"

"Um, Mikey. Mikey Ellsworth."

"Have you been a good boy, Mikey?"

"I don't know. I try to be, but-"

"That's goooood!" Santa interrupted. The same exact exchange as with all the other kids. "And so what does Mikey want for Christmas?"

Mikey looked around for his Mommy and Daddy. He didn't see them in the crowd of parents waiting over there behind the partition of velvet ropes slung between candy cane poles, so there was no way they could overhear what he said, even if some total stranger did. He told Santa that what he wanted wasn’t like toys or presents or anything, as okay as it was to get stuff like that; But really, what he just wanted to know, was…

“Yes?” prompted Saint Nick.

He took a deep breath---Believe!---and asked in an embarrassed whisper if, well, was there some way that Santa could, like, make him a girl?

Santa's grin went all cockeyed and he roared, "Now there's a wish! No, old Santa can't make girls for people. But if I could- HO! HO! HO!! I know there’s an elf or two I’d like to make."

Which seemed to Mikey like one of those jokes adults will make at a kid's expense, when they're not taking you serious. No, he nervously clarified for the man, make him a girl. Because ever since he could remember, he’d always felt like…

Things got echoey and strange for him as he confessed to Santa these secrets that he’d never dared to tell anyone, the words rushing out of his mouth and a tear or two sliding down each cheek.

Which wasn’t too bad. Not like he sometimes cried about this when he was alone. Or the way his thoughts would begin to run in circles as he lie in bed at night, despairing at this seemingly unbridgeable gulf in his life, between the "What Is" and the "Why, Oh Why Not?!"

And suddenly Santa was looking sad, or maybe just uncomfortable. Out of his depth with little Mikey/Michelle. He said in a quiet voice, "About that, I- Well I wouldn't get your hopes up kid. That's something I ........ I really don't know much about, and I don't know if I'm who you’d want to talk to for this. I mean there's doctors, aren't there? Psychiatrists and like that, when people have this kind of-"

The teenage elf gave Santa a stern look and made a slicing gesture across her throat with one hot pink fingernail. The line of kids wasn't moving and was growing longer. Santa nodded, sighing, and then suddenly boomed, "WELL HEY, HOW ABOUT A BICYCLE? EVERYBODY LOVES BICYCLES! Now smile for the picture...”

Mikey did his best not to cry as he wandered out through the gap in the candy cane barricade, trying to not make eye contact with anyone but instead focusing on the stiff paper rectangle that one of the elves had handed him, watching the Polaroid image emerge from what had started as a uniform square of cocoa brown. The Santa who filled most of the square beaming grandly, that well-practiced twinkle in his eye on second glance not saying anything in particular, and the small boy in his lap looking shell-shocked, that this thousand-year-old saint had been unwilling to help him, or maybe had not even believed that any child could want this thing that Mikey had begged him for with such urgency.

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~~~///=====( Voices in the Sky )=====\~~~
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Mikey’s Mom and Dad still weren't with the other waiting parents, so he went looking for them. He looked by the fountain where they often sat, then at the Nasty Joe's Coffee Company stand. He peered in through the windows of the McDonalds, where none of the customers were them either. This was weird, but the whole day had been off kilter and disorienting and he wasn't about to start panicking. Not yet anyway.

The mall that had been bustling with last minute Christmas shoppers just a short while ago was a lot emptier. That ambient sea shell roar of activity common to malls and airports now sounded oddly hushed, so that suddenly he noticed the Christmas muzak that had been jouncing and jingling along in the background. But it had mutated into something barely recognizable, as if it was being played back at the wrong speed, slow and dirgelike and full of regret.

He wandered past an empty Victorian bandstand painted in a half dozen pastel shades, then through the middle of these large mysterious things wrapped in thick plastic, which turned out to be a herd of life-size copper giraffes all lying on their sides and staring at him vacantly, awaiting installation in the landscaped planter boxes.

Mikey decided that the best thing he could do would be to wait out by the car. This way his folks would be sure to find him. He wandered down a hallway that was completely uninhabited, the stores on either side of him all dark inside, the gates across their fronts closed and locked, the only sound now that of his footsteps, ringing out way too loudly. He was anxious to get out of this place, and was momentarily alarmed as he rounded the corner and saw that this hall didn't lead to a main exit, just a cul-de-sac with a stand of pay phones in it. All four telephones had been horribly vandalised, as if something with tusks had torn into them. But there was a nondescript steel door with an EXIT sign above it, that he pushed through and went down a blank beige corridor to a second door, which let him outside.

The mass of wet clouds a thousand feet above him hid the sun, the only trace of it being a yellow glow coming through them off to the West, by which he guessed it was around four in the afternoon. The parking lot was packed with cars, but oddly there was no one heading out to them with bags full of stuff, nor the usual demolition derby of last minute gift buyers practically running you over as they circled the lanes in competition for that one empty space.

Though he couldn’t remember it he felt sure that he’d come here with his parents, and their shiny teal XTerra should have been easy to spot, but a long search failed to reveal it. The whole world seemed so quiet, with this funny yellow light giving everything an unearthly tint, even his own hands and wrists looking oddly artificial to him. And it was just bizarre that he hadn't seen another living soul out here.

Or was he dead, he wondered. Consigned to this lonesome purgatory that only looked like the parking lot of the Bayview Mall?!

He shook his head. Of course not. What a messed up thing to think!

But he had no doubt that something weird was going on here. The way the parking lot seemed to stretch off for miles and miles to the foot of that unnamed mountain range was not normal at all. And neither were these voices coming from the sky…

From somewhere up above the clouds he heard a woman’s voice that was so muffled he could only make out the words I’m here-’, and then ‘Uncle’ spoken as part of a question.

“Yep. Who else? Just another exciting episode of The Trials of Mikey,” someone else said, and laughed bitterly. This woman’s voice was a bit deeper, and came through much clearer, like she was in the same room with Mikey instead of behind a couple of walls. Her breathing sounded like she had been running recently, half-gasping as she struggled to explain something she didn’t seem sure about: “Or, well …….. it was but it wasn’t. Like I didn’t know, didn’t put it together, that this was about him. So it all seemed okay at first. I mean Christmas at the mall, for a kid that’s pretty exciting. Although everything about it was just a little bit off-”

Muffle Muffle Muffle? asked the first voice.

“No, the old one. Downtown.”

Buffle Mub?

“Right. Or maybe some composite of the two. And kind of nice, the way they had it decorated. And they had a Santa there, but Santa-” her sudden pause made him wonder if the voices had stopped, but then she made a noise like someone had stepped on her hand, and you could tell she was crying, “Oh God, I’m so sorry!”

Wadda wudda wah?

“That you have to put up with this! Dragging you through all this, right into the damn mine field. You don’t deserve-”

Noooooo, Honey! he heard the other voice croon, and then more mumble-bumble.

Mikey knew that the voices were angels. Angels being another thing his mother had all over the house, that she had chosen to believe in (while his daddy had just shrugged when he’d cornered him on the topic, and said something about Arkham’s Razors…). She’d told Mikey when he was real little how he had this guardian angel, who God had assigned to do nothing but look after him and keep him safe, because Our Heavenly Father loved him that much. And there were times when he thought he could see her, by way of something other than regular vision- a pretty lady with beautiful snow white wings that matched her shimmering long nightgown, peering down through a gap in the clouds at him and smiling.

So it didn’t seem impossible that through some fluke of atmospherics---especially on a weird yellowy day like this---he might be able to hear his guardian angel up there in Heaven. He should have found comfort in this, finally having real evidence that she existed, but it was not comforting at all to hear how shook up she was, the despair in her voice: “But still, there’s just too many nights like this. It’s happening more now than it ever did! I mean FUCK! When is this shit going to be over with, Angel? When?!”

It surprised him that an angel would be swearing, but he figured they didn’t know that he was listening in. Like the way his dad cussed when he was on the phone with someone down in his basement ‘man cave’ and was unaware that Mikey had started down the steps, but anywhere else in the house it cost him a quarter and a lecture from Mom to use words like that.

The angel he couldn't hear as clearly said something resentful, then asked a question.

“Nobody really knows," answered his angel. "And I don’t think we ever will without dancin’ around…”

The other angel seemed to agree with this, a brief muddled proclamation. To which his angel replied, “Yeah, right off the face of the Earth!”

Mikey really wished he could hear both of them. He tried to imagine where they were, like maybe the one he could hear was sitting on a cloud right above him, while the other one’s cloud was quite some distance away, across miles of open sky. The more distant angel was angry for a sentence or two. Bitter at some injustice.

“The Call of Depravity?” his angel asked wryly.

The other voice had its turn, and even though it was all a blur to him he could hear the love and concern, the soothing tones she used, trying to give her friend hope and strength…

But she spat in reply, “Time! That’s all anyone says ………. And I know, okay? Believe me, I know how huge it is! From here it looks like half the size of the Universe. And I know this isn’t going to happen on any schedule, and how you just have to hang on to the bull’s back and ride it out when it gets like this; and to just hope that that light at the end of the tunnel there-”

“It’s not, trust me. It’s the end of the tunnel,” said the other voice clearly before it modulated into a dull blatting once again. But whatever she was saying now---in the slightly singsong cadence of someone reciting something they'd memorized---cheered his protector up a bit.

His angel finished the other's quote: “‘Can benefit others…’ The Promises. Although I think I’ll be regretting some of that awfulness for a while, wishing I could shut the door on it; at least until I learn to walk on water. But I do like the idea of our experience helping someone, some good coming out of all this. Like Grace, the way she managed to climb out of that hell she was in, everything that'd happened to her! But I know it’s gonna be a while before I have anything like the serenity she does. If ever …… It seems like the harder I work on this shit, digging through the wreckage, everything that Devil bastard did-”

Wob-Wob-Wob-Wobbbbbbb- went the other voice, reasonably making some argument.

“I’ve had enough anesthetic, thank you very much, Doctor…”

Wobba-wumma-Wob-Wob-Wobbbbbbbbbbb-b-b-

“That’s true. I guess there has been progress there. But it still seems like I’ve been fighting these same demons forever, and I don't know how long I can keep doing this. It's like this is gonna go on until The End of the World-”

Mikey had no idea what any of this was about, but for angels to be speaking about Hell and demons and the end of the world had all sorts of dreadful implications. And what was that bit about the doctor? If he wasn’t dead could it be that he was laying on some operating table under banks of harsh lights, surrounded by masked figures with worried eyes and his brain full of stainless steel clamps and little sponges? Like Johnny Depp had turned out to be at the end of that weird scary movie After the Fall...

Suddenly a wind was picking up, dragging big crinkly leaves across the asphalt in a circle around him, a dust devil that had chosen Mikey to be centered on---sluggish at first but now picking up, the fine grit blowing against his face making him squint---and as the little whirlwind moved on even the clearer of the two voices was fading, “I just get so tired…”

And then it was quiet. Just the wind.

He searched and searched, but their car wasn’t anywhere to be seen. It was about five miles to his house, and he knew a route that would get him home without venturing into the "bad neighborhood" his parents had often warned him about. As cold as it was getting Mikey wasn’t going to enjoy making this long walk but it looked like he’d have to.
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You say that the Sky People don’t even ask you your name,
If it’s you or another, it doesn’t matter
To them it’s all the same
But we live suspended in each other’s minds,
A bulletproof sanctuary cathedral of eyes
That I offer you …… that I offer you…

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~~~///=====( The Man )=====\~~~
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And now we are focused on this brown Dodge van. An ugly old rust bucket, visibly spewing out sooty exhaust as it rolls down the street. And who’s this old guy behind the wheel? What does he have to do with anything?

Oh, okay …..... For as we view him at closer range and see his brooding gray eyes, he is recognizable as the Santa Claus that Mikey had just visited with. And while he’s not exactly a derelict like that kid in the line was insisting (he has this van anyway, and doesn’t appear to be living in it…) he does look pretty damn shabby; with a haggard face that’s far less cheerful and sanguine than his fluffy Dacron beard had made it seem, and a complexion so deathly pale that you might be tempted to check his wrist for a pulse. His beard, Santa suit, the fake stomach prosthesis and floppy red cone of a hat are piled haphazardly on the passenger seat next to him.

This Santa gig had been a sweet deal, the man thought. Being more of a habitué of those dim and mildewy bars you find in anonymous run-down suburban strip malls, a big shopping mall during its busiest month was about his least favorite sort of place to hang out. But he'd managed to show up for work more days than not, reminding himself that this was only for a handful of weeks, staying focused on this final drive home at 4 p.m. on the 24th; an hour that had beckoned from up ahead like the welcoming dark at the end of some obnoxiously noisy and over-lit plastic tunnel. And he'd sure loved those kids, even if they did hurt his bum knee. So innocent, so jazzed and excited to be seeing- “Santa! Santa!! Santa!!!”

Overall the job hadn’t earned him enough money that it would conflict with his disability payments, but it was enough to buy something nice for himself. Not presents for others, all that had been from some previous existence that he only recalled enough about to know he sure didn’t miss it. While there was Lloyd the bartender and a few of the regulars down at the Pandemonium that he knew well enough to greet by name---and that old widower Mr. Jackson (Or was it Jacobi?) who lived two houses down from him and that he’d somehow found himself watching football with on a few occasions, and visiting him that one time at Mercy General after he’d had his stroke---there was no one the man was so connected to that he would be forced to figure out what they might want for a gift. This was something that he hazily recalled he had invariably gotten wrong; a montage of faces he couldn’t put names to mouthing baffled & embarrassed 'Uh .... thank you's.

This year, whatever he’d earned was all for him. No guessing there. A bigger used television. A better grade of frozen dinners for a while. Some decent booze for sure. His house was pretty much falling apart, but he knew he wouldn’t spend any of this on fixing it. Hell, let it fall apart. With the future no more real to him than the past was, the man found it easy to let things like that slide...

He would have liked to buy a bottle and begin sipping on it en route, but knowing that the cops would be out in full force on Christmas Eve he'd decided to wait until he got home. Anticipating heavy traffic on Oakhurst Boulevard he turned right, and started down this street that wound through the center of the industrial park. As deserted as the place was it would be far less hectic, and would only add a few minutes to his drive time.

He thought of that little kid today who was crying about how he wanted to be a girl. That had been as sad as it was strange. He hated the sad ones---Please cure my leukemia, please make Daddy stop beating Mommy---It was awkward when they didn't simply want toys, and it ruined the pedophiliac thrill he got from running his hands all over them as they sat on his lap.

The boys that is. The girls he tolerated, they could be kind of cute, and funny sometimes---if you ignored the fact that they were all destined to grow up into evil blood-sucking bitches---but they did little for him sexually. Despite that little sissy-boy’s weird problem (and really, who even cared what they thought?), he sure had been something. Just the type the man liked- undersized for his age, fair skinned, polite and shy. Not like that spoiled, foul-mouthed snotbag before him, who seemed to know right where to drop his fat ass to set off a flair of pain, then grinning when it did; with that face you just wanted to smash!

Although that might be kind of a turn on too. Smacking him around, scaring him, wiping that arrogant smirk off his face- Hell, killing him even, fingers around the brat’s fat neck, if he was to really let his fantasies off the leash. The kid's bulging eyes filled with the realization of what a mistake he'd made when he assumed he could just mouth off like that without serious consequences! But this was an image from the outer fringes of the man’s fantasies, and he preferred to not even have to think about that obnoxious little sack of shit. Not when he could dream about that other one, with the beautiful eyes. What had his name been? That's right, Mikey…

Or Michelle, the kid kept saying. A real shame. Probably gonna grow up to be a faggot, all shrill and effeminate with ratty bleached blonde hair, skeleton skinny from the meth he smoked or the AIDS in his veins, trying to forge a relationship with one damaged gayboy after another, when common sense told you it could never work.

While pederasty was a noble tradition that dated back to the dawn of civilization (however out-of-fashion it might currently be), adult men doing stuff to each other---without the age disparity that put one participant in charge, and not as some inane “role play” but for real, in the way nature intended---was just disgusting! It was no wonder the fag lifestyle’s every attempt to contribute to our culture wound up being so distorted and pointless. The militant vapidity of that albino freak's soup-can paintings, or the grotesque capering of that flamer pop singer, Lambert Something-or-other…

Just then something moving along the side of the road caught his attention. He glanced over, and did a double take. Grunted, “Well, son of a bitch!”

There, walking down the empty sidewalk in the heart of this deserted industrial park, was little Mikey. His eyes downcast, lost in gloomy thoughts. What the hell was he doing in a place like this? While he’d managed to get a good enough look to see that it really was the same kid, Mikey hadn’t even registered his van's passing.

The man smiled. This was about as perfect an opportunity as he could ever hope for! Christmas Eve, with not a soul in sight, and just happening to have the perfect lure along with him to catch his pretty little fish! And he was definitely overdue for this. How long it had been since he’d last abducted one of his playthings? He couldn’t even say, although he seemed to recall having been shot dead shortly after.

Which was a startling thing to find in his memory, and at some other time he might have tried to puzzle out what it could mean, but right now he was too busy with his immediate plans to worry about it.

"Merry Christmas, Frank!" he sniggered, finally remembering his name, then circled around the block, parked, and started putting his fake Santa belly on right over his shirt.

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~~~///=====( Santa’s New Deputy Elf )=====\~~~
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When the dirty brown van pulled up beside him---crawling along slowly, matching his pace---Michael was naturally wary.

He looked around. As far as he could see in any direction were large drab warehouses as silent as tombs, their parking lots empty, the metal doors of their loading docks all rolled shut. The van's passenger side window slid open to reveal not the scowling pack of do rag-wearing gang members from the bad neighborhood that he expected to see, but...

"Santa?"

"Well hello, Mikey!" Santa Claus called out cheerfully, "What are you doing way out here?"

The boy pointed back toward the entrance of the industrial park, "I got lost there at the mall. Or maybe my parents got lost, I don't know. I'm tryin' to get home."

"Then hop in, I can take you," grinned Santa as he leaned over to pop open the passenger-side door.

Mikey was uncertain if he should accept a ride. He said, "My folks told me to never get into cars with strangers."

"And that's very smart of your Mommy and Daddy," smiled the white-bearded man, the eyes behind his tiny glasses looking sad. "But I'm not a stranger, am I? I'm Santa! And we’ve already met, haven’t we? You met me, and my elves, and my reindeer, and we had that nice talk. Come on, I’ll take you home."

Mikey didn't want to be impolite to Santa Claus. And as Santa had pointed out, he really wasn't a stranger. He knew all about you. When you were sleeping or awake or bad or good, almost like those angels he’d heard earlier. In fact, Santa and his guardian angels probably knew each other, being more or less on the same team. Mikey said okay and climbed in.

Santa hooked up his seatbelt and shoulder strap for him. Fussing with them, making sure they fit him everywhere just right, then he locked the doors to keep him safe. Mikey asked, "You know where I live, don't you?"

Santa seemed puzzled for a second, but then laughed, "Of course I do! But we need to stop somewhere else first."

"Yeah?" asked Michael.

"Oh yes. Somewhere special. Because I was thinking about what you asked me today, how you said you wanted to be a girl..."

"I do Santa, more than anything! Because really, it's like I already am one."

“How do you mean?”

“I don’t know. I can’t explain it, I just am.”

"But you're not, are you? I mean you can say you 'feel' this way or that way, but there's things that little boys have that little girls don't have, and things girls have that boys don't. I have some nice magazines that can show you what I'm talking about."

"I know about that stuff, but that's not what’s inside of me,” he pressed his hand to his heart- right here! “And my mommy says what’s inside of someone is what counts, and you can’t judge a book from its cover. And inside me I know I should get to be a girl, and to wear pretty stuff like a girl and everything.”

Santa nodded neutrally, “And what does your mommy say about that?”

“I ain’t told her yet. I think it might make her worry. And I know Daddy prob’ly wouldn’t like it at all; so I just…” Mikey tapped at the greasy crumpled fast food bag on the floor next to his foot with his toe, “I don’t know. But I know what I am.”

“You sound pretty sure about this.”

“I am. And I think there’s other people who can see it too. Because last summer, when my hair was like, real long, and me and Daddy were at those dinosaurs you climb on, you know, in Star Harbor Park?"

"I know where that is. That's a nice playground."

"A-and some lady was there with her kid, her name was Amber. Me and Amber were playing and stuff, and Amber's mom says, 'Wow you got a beautiful daughter!' And it felt nice, her sayin’ that. But Daddy got all upset when I smiled back at her, and all of a sudden he was takin' me to get a haircut, y'know, like BOOM! Right then! Draggin’ me out of the park saying how it wasn't right, because he was all: 'You don't wanna look like a damn girl do you?', and how wrong it was and everything. And I could tell what he wanted me to to say, so I said no, but ..…… But I think if I already was a girl then he could see it too. That it’s who I’m s’pose to be. And that’s why I asked you that, you know, what I asked you for, for Christmas.”

While he was saying all this an expression had come over Santa's face that made Mikey uncomfortable. Sort of like disgust. But maybe not, because then Santa smiled really big and said, "Well Michael---or should I say Michelle?---this is going to be your best Christmas ever. Because today I’m going to make all your dreams come true!"

"But you told me you couldn't."

"Well it's been a while since I did this for a child like you, and Ol' Santa can get kind of forgetful sometimes. But then I remembered how I could, so I looked for you on my special kid radar, and here you were."

Mikey could hardly believe his good fortune. Something was finally going to change his situation, this miserable wrongness. His prayers had been answered, and he was sorry he had ever doubted that they would be. He’d probably been on God’s ‘To Do’-list since the first time he’d prayed about this, but had had to wait until the other people on the list were taken care of---there were lots of people with problems in the world---and God could send Santa out to fix his. Or however they worked things in those places us mortals couldn’t see. In fact, this was probably why he’d been able to hear those angels earlier. Like they were finishing up the details of his case and had left the window open or something.

‘So take that, you stupid trash-talkin’, think-you-know-everything kid at the Mall!’, thought Mikey with a vindictive grin. He looked up at the man beside him, "So you’re really gonna help me?"

Santa nodded, smiling wide, "And that's why before I take you home I need you take me to my, uh, secret hideout."

"You mean the North Pole?"

"Well no, that’s my main headquarters. But I have places all over the world, where I keep my presents and toys and reindeer food and all my magic stuff. This is one of those. Where I can turn you into a girl just like you want. But because it's a secret hideout, I can't let you see where I'm taking you. Okay? So I need to blindfold you."

"But I won't tell anyone where it is, honest!"

"I know, Honey. But this way, if the terrorists catch you and try to make you tell, you won't be able to. You wouldn't want Santa's magic to fall into the hands of the terrorists would you?"

"No, that would be bad."

"It sure would. They could blow up the world!"

"The whole world?!"

"Yesiree," said Santa, pantomiming a world-explosion with his cupped hands, "And that’s why I’m so careful, and do this with all my helpers before they’re officially deputized, and trained.”

“So I’m your helper?”

Santa nodded, “I help you, and you help Santa. That’s how things should work, right?”

Right, grinned Mikey. “Hey, can I be an elf?”

“A what?”

“One of your elfs. Like that one at the Mall, where the line was…”

“Oh yes, Kathy. What about her?”

“When you make me a girl can you make me look like her? And you know, with ears like her,” asked Mikey, tapping the tip of his ear, “or maybe like Princess Arwen’s.”

“Uh sure, if that’s what you want," Santa shrugged, then reached over and undid Mikey's seatbelt. He pointed to the space beneath the dashboard, "Now get down on the floor there. That's it, real low. And here-" Santa took off his red felt hat with the fake fur border and put it on Mikey's head, then pulled it clear down past his chin. "Can you see?"

"Not really. Just, you know, red."

"Then good. Stay down there, it's just another few blocks. Okay?"

"Okay Santa."

They turned left, and a while later turned right, then right again. And then there were so many left and right turns that Mikey lost track, and wasn’t sure where they were. He wondered if Santa wasn’t just lost and not wanting to admit it.

"Um ....... Santa?"

"Yes Mikey?"

"How are you gonna make me into a girl?"

"With magic, of course," said Santa as the van slowed way down and turned, crawling up a little rise and into a dark space.

Mikey heard the rhythmic squeaking of a garage door closer and the rumble of the door rolling down, as the red glow he’d been seeing dimmed into total blackness. He asked, "It's not like a shot, is it? I hate getting shots."

"You'll see," said St. Nick, and then laughed in a way that no saint should ever laugh.
.

.
You know that your guardian angel is dead, you have said
You say that the world is not a safe world
in which to be.
For all of your trying and all of your crying it seems
It's raining outside
Umbrellas are harder to find...

.

.
~~~///=====( The Dangerous Kitchen )=====\~~~
.

With Santa's big hat still pulled down over his face, the boy was let out of the car and guided by the hands on his shoulders, out of the chilly garage and into someplace warm. Warm and stuffy and-

"Ewwwww!" he groaned, as a smell like puke and rotten meat hit his nostrils.

"What's the matter?"

"It STINKS in here," said Mikey as lights came on, letting him see redness again through the felt fabric.

"It's not that bad, is it?" asked Santa Claus in surprise.

"It's pretty bad, Santa."

"You'll get used to it," Mikey heard, and then the hat was tugged off of his head, "Here."

They were in a kitchen. A filthy kitchen…

Cabinets hanging open, drawers that had been pulled from their slots for some reason and stacked haphazardly on the floor. A window up over the sink with a dingy yellow shade pulled down over it and tacked into place, patched here and there with silver tape. A powerful stench emanated from the moldy tower of pots, pans and dishes that rose up from the sink. The waste basket was so full that a brown cardboard box labeled SEAGRAM'S had been set alongside it to catch the overflow, but its whole bottom edge was soggy and a great quantity of something had leaked out of it to form a viscid-looking puddle. The floor was so sticky that it tugged noisily at the bottoms of their shoes as they crossed the room to the old formica table. The refrigerator's once-white door was an abstract composition of smears and splotches, its handle crusted with what Mikey really hoped was peanut butter.

"Oh my God! What happened in here?!”

"I know it's a bit messy," said Santa defensively, “This is a busy time of the year for me.”

"Messy? It's like a PUKE BOMB went off in here!" the boy grimaced, thinking of a particularly gross Renn & Stimpy cartoon he’d seen, "Or, or like a crazy bunch of animals broke in here and just went nuts, pooping all over, and-"

“That's enough!" roared Santa, making Mikey jump.

What the heck was wrong with Santa? Mikey gawked at Santa in growing disbelief as he snarled, “So maybe this isn't Buckingham Palace! Well that’s just too goddamn bad! I have to listen to you greedy brats all damn day---'Gimme some Squishies, Santa!! Gimme a bike!! Gimme an airplane!! Gimme a million dollars!! That GI Joe you gave me last year was the wrong kind, Santa!'---and I’m not about to listen to it on my own time. So I'm sorry, Princess, if my home offends your delicate fucking sensibilities!"

"Your home? But-"

"Home, hideout, whatever," spat Santa. Mikey searched his face for reassurance; hoping the man would at least apologize for his outburst, the way Mikey’s daddy usually did after he’d “let off steam”. But instead he was fixed with a cold, level stare of contempt. It was disturbingly familiar somehow.

Santa lifted a giant stack of yellowed newspapers off of one of the kitchen chairs and plopped it down on the table, which sent an empty brown beer bottle full of peanut shells rolling off the table. It hit the floor with a glassy clunk and continued rolling. Santa kicked it across the room. Pointed at the chair, "Now sit down and be quiet. I need a drink!"

Mikey sat, and Santa turned his back and started rummaging through the kitchen’s cabinets. The disgusting condition of everything he could see in here was troubling to Mikey. He just couldn't reconcile this kind of squalor with those images that the name Santa Claus had always produced in his mind. Pristine white snowdrifts, the quaint tidy workshop, maybe a Mrs. Claus humming contentedly as she went around cleaning the furniture with a feather duster; the whole gemutlich scene pervaded by a wholesome aromas of gingerbread and pine wreaths, not this horrible smell. It was this as much as his host’s sudden un-Santalike behavior that told him something was very wrong here.

Meanwhile Frank was facing his own sense of impending catastrophe, as he searched cabinet after cabinet without seeing the fifth of Jim Beam he’d been certain he would find at least half full. Could he have finished the whole bottle last night? It was looking more and more like he had.

Which meant he would have to put off the fun he’d been looking forward to having long enough to make a run to the liquor store. And how should he work his leaving into this fiction he had trapped himself in, that he was Santa and would help this weird kid “turn into a girl”? Frank’s new toy had already made him blow his top with his whining, and as deluded as the boy was, he seemed to be on the verge of deducing that Frank's real intentions had nothing to do with anything Mikey himself might want- like being able to escape. This was a critical juncture in this game, and God damn it he needed a drink!

He opened the last cupboard- FUCK!

Mikey’s stomach ached. He needed to go to the bathroom. “Santa?”

SHUT THE FUCK UP!” shrieked Frank at the top of his lungs, and drew his hand back to slap the brat, but stopped when he saw he wouldn’t need to. The look on the soft young face was one he’d seen before. The kid was cowering in a state of shock and bewilderment, having just begun to figure out that this "Santa" was a man who would have no qualms about hurting him in ways that no adult had ever done before.

Mikey’s mind was in turmoil. This whole scene was growing more and more horribly familiar. The filthy kitchen, this big man’s hatefulness and his violent temper were clicking into place to remind him of something that was about as wrong as wrong could get. What were these strange and awful memories? It was like they were coming from out of nowhere…

A dirty broken-down house like this. Two bedroom, one car garage. This same floor plan. The stuffy kitchen, with that cracked and discolored blind pulled down over the window. Except it was usually daytime, not just warm like this but hot, with fat black flies bumbling around in the brownish light. Summer. That whole long horrible summer.

The Man. This same voice, always screaming orders, and insults, like someone who really enjoyed being cruel would do to ...... to a slave. The man yelling, hurting him, hitting him, twisting his arm way up against his back. And then-

Whatever had happened next was something his mind was refusing to show him, like a computer when you typed in the wrong password. But whatever it was, it had hurt a lot. And as bad as he sensed its physically element had been, even worse was how these repeated horrors (for he sensed that it was more than once…) had made him feel about himself. Like there was something that he’d once had in him---some vital part of himself---that had been taken out; its loss reducing him in a dreadful way; to a nameless nothing that no longer belonged in a world where everything else had at least some speck of value.

Mikey's world had become a malignant funhouse version of itself, where cause and effect were impossible to predict- so that if you turned on the faucet above the sink there fire might be as likely to come roaring out as water. But the one thing he knew for sure was that whoever this person was, he was not Santa Claus. And he knew he shouldn’t risk angering this Anti-Santa by speaking again, but he really, really had to go potty.

"Um ….. Santa?”

“GOD DAMN IT! I TOLD YOU TO SHUT UP!" Frank shouted. And then he knew what he had to do.

It was a shame to have to go to “Phase II” so early, cutting this initial dance between them short. This was a part of the training process he loved, savoring the kid’s reaction as the true gravity of his situation finally began to dawn on him. But with this one there would be no such gradual dawning. Oh well…

"Stop it, you're hurting me!" shrieked Mikey as the man's fingers dug into his arm and he was dragged roughly through the house to a door in a dimly lit hallway. “Owwww! What’re you doing?!"

His abductor unlatched the door, swung it open and started shoving Mikey into what turned out to be a small closet, yelling, “Quit whining and get in there; I’ve had enough of your bullshit!”

Mikey knew he hated this closet, as more chaotic images that seemed to belong to somebody else flooded into his brain. Memories of interminable intervals locked in this shallow space, until the door would swing open to reveal the man standing there with that scary-hungry look on his face, before he was yanked out of here and dragged down the hall into the bedroom, where...

Suddenly he remembered. The last hideous piece of the puzzle.

Mikey's body went into motion. Somehow without having made any decision to do so he found himself fighting the man with everything he had! Slapping and punching, his small arms flailing in blind panic, just knowing that he had to get past this evil man. To get free!

Going for the face, he grabbed hold of the bushy white fake beard and ripped it off-

UNCLE FRANK!” he screamed in horror.

“Merry Christmas, Mikey,” jeered his hated dead uncle as the heavy door slammed shut, plunging the boy into total blackness.
.

All of the pain in the world is outside your bed
In the shapes of phantom men tapping your window
with rhythms of dread.
And all of the silver rosaries hung on the door
Will not drive them away
They are going to stay

.

.
~~~///=====( In the Realm of the Unreal )=====\~~~
.

As Mikey pounded on the closet door, he remembered how futile it was to do this. How it would have no effect on the door, on how long he would be stuck in here, on anything. That all it would accomplish would be to bust up his hands, until they were so tender and sore it hurt to even open and close them.

Yes, somehow he was back with Uncle Frank, these trips to the closet that had been a regular part of that awful summer. But how could he be “back” with someone he’d never met before? Who he wouldn’t even set eyes on until June of the following year? And how the heck did he know what was going to happen six months from now? Time was being very strange here…

Mikey, this is your Uncle Frank. When he was young, just out of the navy, he did something stupid and wrong, and he went to prison …….. Well if you must know, it was armed robbery, and somebody was hurt. No, not killed but he hurt that policeman very bad. But your uncle knows how stupid and terribly, terribly wrong what he did was, and he’s paid for it. He’s been paying for it since long before you were born. And after someone's paid for something they did---even something as bad as that---well, we try to help them to do good with their life. We give them a second chance. And you remember when Grandma passed away, she gave us her house? ……. That’s right, Grandma’s house. On Dandridge Street, where we go over and mow the lawns and make sure those kids haven’t stolen the realtor’s sign again. Well that house, we’re taking it off the market for a while so your uncle can live there, so he can save up some money and really get on his feet. So with him living just two blocks away you’ll be seeing a lot of your Uncle Frank, and we know you’ll be great friends. Because whatever he’s done in the past, Frank is a good man…”
.

Good man …….. Good man …….. Good man …….. Good man ….
.

Knowing there was nothing he could do but make himself as comfortable as he could in here, Mikey slumped to the floor and started to cry.
.

.
~~~///=====( One Cure For Child Molesting )=====\~~~
.

Frank locked the closet. His little prisoner could holler all he wanted to in there, it had an extra heavy soundproof door, with a one-sided lock he’d installed for the specific purpose of holding someone captive. The kid pounded on it pretty good for a while but didn’t carry on nearly as much as Frank had expected. As if he realized that screaming out threats or appealing to his captor's nonexistant sympathies would be useless.

He’d go get that bottle, but he would also stop by his favorite bar and have a few. Let the kid stew a while. A couple of hours in the dark tiny space, learning just how helpless and alone they were went a long way toward breaking down their resistance…

He started to shrug out of the heavy Santa outfit that he’d put on over his shirt and slacks, but then decided to leave it on. The outside temperatures would have dropped sharply since sundown, and he knew the regulars down at The Pandemonium would get a kick out of seeing him walk in there dressed up as Saint Nicholas. The irony of it. He grabbed his beard off the floor and his red Kansas City Chiefs jacket from the coat rack and went out.

Stepping into the garage, he remembered that day when he’d walked out here like this, had hit the button here, and had found himself confronted by the man who came barging in all bent over before the door was even half open, and stood up. It was Tom Dansen.

Somehow, in this suburb not known for its lawless element, these two ex-cons had befriended each other. And what had begun as reminiscing about the “good old days” of their lives as criminals had turned into a discussion of which businesses around town would be easiest to hold up, and from there to an actual plan…

“Hello Tommy,” he said pleasantly, as if he didn’t notice the Remington over/under Dansen had cradled in his arm, “Are we still on for that job on Friday?”

From as upset as his friend seemed to be---his eyes bugging out even more than usual---and from the no-nonsense way he was leveling that shotgun at Frank it was pretty clear that their partnership was off. Tommy spat, “I ain’t doin’ no jobs with you!”

“Well that’s a shame, with how we agreed it’d be an easy score. So then what can I do for you?” asked Frank, although he had a pretty good idea what this was about.

“You been messin' with my boy, Frank?”

'Christ, what a hick!' thought Frank. In his boiling rage Dansen's mushmouthed Georgia accent seemed especially thick, and was especially annoying. But he asked evenly, “Messing with?”

Frank tried to reason with the man. Saying that the kid must be imagining things, or maybe he wanted to be the center of attention, because we all know how kids will lie! Come on Tommy, put down the gun and we’ll talk. Figure this out…

But Dansen was having none of it. Saying that unlike the two of them, his stepson was as honest and straight as an arrow. Saying he had found the child crying by himself, and that far from trying to spread stories, Timothy had been terrified to even say why he was crying. And: “Shut your fucking mouth you filthy corn-holing pervert!”

Frank decided to brazen it out, in a way that would direct the hysterical stepdad away from doing anything rash, “Fine then. I thought you knew me Tommy, but call the police if you’re really so sure I’m some degenerate who could do anything as sick as that. They’ll take you seriously until they realize there’s no evidence. There can’t be. Because I didn’t do anything to your kid except help him with his homework; Just trying to be a good neighbor to the family of the one man in this town I can really talk to. So whatever your kid’s imagining---and it sounds like he might need professional help if he’s coming up with crazy stories like that!---just go ahead and call them. There’s the phone right there.”

“The cops? Let a slick piece of shit like you go squirtin' through the courts, do a little stretch upstate and then the parole board hearing? To hell with that news!”

The shotgun’s blast had been centered on his crotch. Pellets shredded both his femoral arteries, which is what killed him, but not before he had a chance to contemplate his genitals, how they had been turned into a bloody mass with the consistency of dog food oozing out through the tattered front of his pants. And then everything went blank.

But now here he was, hale and sound again.

Frank told himself that he didn’t care how this had happened, adept as he was at going with the flow and living in the now; but the truth was that he had a superstitious dread of finding out. Frank sensed that to start poking around in the hows and whys of this paradox might cause this strange bubble of reality he existed in to start unraveling. So instead he cracked a lame joke about how you “just can’t keep a good man down”, climbed into his Oldsmobile and started it up.

Glimpsing his moonlit reflection in the rearview mirror as he adjusted it, he saw that his physical state was miles from even the most generous definition of 'hale and sound'. But oh well.

Maybe I really am dead," he chuckled wanly, "Just somebody’s haunted memories..."
.

.
~~~///=====( Objectified )=====\~~~
.

An hour went by. Then another hour. And then Mikey wasn’t sure how much time had passed…

He was remembering way more than he would care to about the time he had spent under his uncle’s control. How his Mommy and Daddy suddenly had to take a trip- No, not a vacation Honey, but to take care of something, that’s not going to be any fun.

The death of another relative, who Mikey had met a few times but who hadn’t left much of an impression on him; His daddy explaining how they needed to "take care of Cousin Bob's estate” and to make sure everyone got what it said in the man's will, the same way they’d done for Grandma Louisa after she died. Except that this time it wasn’t just around the block from them but several states distant, in a city that was “no place for a kid”. And so wasn’t it lucky that Uncle Frank was right here, and nice enough to help out by watching him at his house for a couple of weeks?

He’d felt no apprehension about this. Uncle Frank didn’t come off as very sincere a lot of the time when he was trying to sound friendly or interested in what you were drawing, but there were lots of grownups like this. At that point he’d had no idea what the man was, and obviously neither did Mommy or Daddy.

But then things had changed, almost as soon as his parents’ plane had left the runway, into a nightmare reality he at first couldn’t believe was happening. A type and degree of sadism that he’d had no precedent for in his young life and no context for understanding. That name Uncle Frank had for him, which he now had to answer to.

And then the phone call from his Daddy about how a bunch of battling relatives and their greedy lawyers had made this complicated thing they were taking care of even more complicated, making the hassles stretch out way longer than they’d thought possible…

Uncle Frank had held the phone to his ear with his bony white hand, nodding that it was no problem at all to watch the boy for as long as Joe and Patti needed. How he and the child were getting along just great, and what a pleasure Mikey was to have around, so that another six or eight weeks would be no trouble at all; Frank's voice purring out reassurances and aw-shucks humility while his horrible eyes stared coldly into Mikey’s with their message of doom: YOU’RE MINE!

Mikey remembered himself padding out into the kitchen---the way the sticky linoleum floor would tug nastily at the soles of his bare feet as he crossed it---to grab a beer from the fridge or to mix one of the cocktails he’d been taught to mix and bring it back to the bedroom, and “making it goddamn snappy” like he had been ordered to, before he had a reason to fly into another rage.

Except he always had one. Even when he didn’t, the man would make something up. Like how his drink had been made way too weak, a deliberate and malicious act of sabotage (“You must think I’m STUPID!!”); when the only way you could have made it any stronger would’ve been to leave the mixer out entirely.

What came after this was termed punishment, but it was simply this monster taking his terrible pleasure in a way that allowed him a pretense that the things he would be doing were his victim’s fault. And when he’d had his fill of these deeds, and of Mikey, there came the "punishment” of the closet.

Although as the weeks progressed the isolation and near total sensory void of the closet began to feel more like a refuge than a punishment---a “No Uncle Frank Zone”---where the real misery lie in the knowledge that these intervals of peace would inevitably end, and the fear came from never knowing when that would be…

Some unfamiliar part of his mind told Mikey that this not knowing whether a trip to the closet would last a minute or well into the next day, and his never being able to predict what would anger the man were both part of his Uncle’s strategy, a “system of psychological tyranny” designed to keep him anxious and disoriented, painfully aware of just how powerless he was; Which in time would render the prisoner perfectly obedient and malleable- the dull robot complaisance that comes after hope has died. And it told him how when another person defines your reality so completely, you can even start to find yourself depending on them, and to feel dizzy with happiness when you’ve pleased them at all. A phenomenon that superficially resembles love and trust but has nothing to do with either: Stockholm Syndrome.

How do I know that? wondered Mikey; and then suddenly he was remembering books full of big words that he had read and somehow understood. Majoring in Psych...

He started to cry again. He was so tired of nothing making any sense, of being so afraid.
.

.
~~~///=====( The Angel's Promise )=====\~~~
.

He had been crying for some time when from out of the dark a voice started speaking.

“Mikey? Listen …….. If you can hear me-”

It was his guardian angel! That lady he had heard in the sky, talking to that other lady angel. She sounded even clearer and closer than she had in the parking lot, like she was right here in the closet with him.

“I can hear you,” he shouted, telling her that his uncle had put him in here and begging her to help him get out!

“I just want you to know, that no matter how bad things look, you should never, never give up hoping…”

As she kept talking it became clear that he wouldn't be having a conversation with her. That whatever was letting him hear her was a one-way thing, and his angel couldn’t hear him any more than a person on television could.

“No matter how dark or how horrible as it gets, you can survive this. Please believe that. Never give up hope…”

He could hear his Angel crying as she said this. Crying for him. He could tell she knew everything that was going on with him. That she hated all these things Uncle Frank had done to him, was doing now and would do. That it broke her heart so bad that she could barely get the words out, but she had to let him know:

“I want you to know that your life will get better. It really will. That you’re going to survive this, everything that sick son of a bitch is doing to you, even though it’s going to hurt you, way down inside for a long long time. And you should know that some of the things you might find in your life, that will seem like they’re making it better, they don’t really help. They’ll really make it worse. Like getting drunk. Like drugs. That kind of happy, finally-I-don't-care feeling they give you, well it’s a lie. And it's bad; a bad decision...”

“But what WILL help you is, you will find people who believe you, and who care, and understand, like only those who had stuff like this happen to them can, and together you’ll find a way out of the dark, and into a life that has more beauty and love in it than you- Hand me one of those Kleenex, would’ja Babe? Make it a couple.”

Mikey felt around for a box of tissues but there wasn’t one, and as he heard the crying angel blow her nose on something he realized that someone---probably that other angel---had provided her with one.

“And not only that, Michelle Sweetie …… Oh yeah! That’s something else you’d probably want to know …... This thing that’s eating you up, the thing about looking like a boy and knowing you’re really a girl, and that seems so impossible and like only some magic can fix it ……. There are ways, real ways, and you’ll find them. And you won’t be all alone in the dark with that either. You’ll have friends who know, who will love you like a sister, and will help you see there’s nothing wrong with you, with who you are. That you’re not bad, and you’re not crazy. And you'll come to see that God really does love you, the girl you are ........ And you know what? Some day you really will get to be a woman, who has a …… well not a husband but someone you love very much; and that your mom- Uh, your mommy and even your daddy will be proud of some day, and not ashamed to be seen with you when you’re in a dress. Because it really can- it will all come true, and get better for you. Believe that, Michelle.”

“I believe,” whispered Mikey/Michelle, a resolute prayer of affirmation.

"But it’s not going to happen quick, and you have to hang on, through all the awful stuff. Okay? No matter how bad it gets, which is nothing you deserve, and I’m sorry that it hurts so bad; but you will start to heal from it; with God and love and some wonderful people in your life. So there’s hope. There really is, and…”

It took him a while to realize it was over, that this wasn’t just another gap while his angel gathered her thoughts or got her crying under control.

It was all pretty hard to believe, but the Angel had sounded so sure, so adamant about what she was saying.

Mikey tried to imagine that future life the voice had spoken of, and there were parts of it he could believe. His angel hadn’t promised things would be perfect, and had acknowledged that there would be pain and hard work ahead. But that word ‘hope’ she’d kept repeating was still ringing in his ears...

And then he woke up. He had fallen asleep on the floor of the closet.

So had it been a dream? He really hoped that it wasn’t; that the voice had really been talking to him, and that these things she’d spoken of were real.

He began to pray that they might be, and that he would be somehow find himself delivered from this nightmare predicament. He prayed more fervently than he'd ever done before, to God and Jesus, to the Holy Ghost and to his angel. And then he prayed for his angel, because she’d sounded awfully sad herself that she could not do more for him; and because when she'd talked about problems like addiction and "hurting way down inside" it'd sounded like these were things she knew about personally. Maybe these feeling or the "bad decisions" they'd led to were what had killed her, in the life she'd had before she was an angel. He hoped not...

Lost in his petitions to whatever unseen goodness there was in the Universe, Mikey didn’t notice the muted sounds of his captor’s approach. He was startled and blinded by the sudden light as the door swung open.

“Get up,” ordered Uncle Frank.

.
~~~///=====( THUNK )=====\~~~
.

The confused look on the kid’s face as he struggled to his feet was priceless.

Frank had thought it would be a kick to leave the Santa suit on while he had his nasty fun. Not the beard or the hat, he wanted his little victim to see his face, to realize how pathetic all his fairy-tale beliefs had been, and how badly he’d been duped. To rub his face in reality, finishing off his illusions about the world and showing him the way things were going to be from now on. It was doing him a favor, really.

As he grabbed Mikey’s frail arm and yanked him out into the hall the boy was sobbing and babbling like a looney-tune, loudly begging baby Jesus and some angel that he thought he’d seen to save him.

It was amusing for about a second, then it started giving Frank a headache. “Would you goddamn zip it? That ain’t gonna help nothing! Never did, never will! You think you're anything special? Do you think those people in that plane crash the other week weren’t praying on their way down? Nobody heard them, or the billions of other people all through history when they ran up against God's plan for their oh-so-special lives like bugs hitting a windshield.”

“Please God Jehova and Jesus and my guardian angel! I heard you, I heard you, and I know you can hear me! I know you’re real, so PLEASE-”

"SHUT UP!" Frank snarled as he backhanded the boy across the jaw. "That's better. Now here's the deal. You ever heard the expression 'a man's home is his castle'? Well this is my home, my castle. And that makes me the king around here-”

“Let go of me you big creep,” Mikey howled through his tears, "I didn't wanna come to your stinky castle. You tricked me! You said you were Santa! You’re a LIAR!"

The kid had more fight in him than Frank had yet seen. Interesting, but it didn’t change anything. With his free hand he unhooked his wide black belt and tugged it free of his pants. The oversized pants dropped to his ankles and he stepped out of them, “Well guess what? Everybody who talks about Santa is a liar. Your ‘mommy and daddy’, the stores, the movies ….. because there ain’t no Santa Claus. Now take off your clothes.”

“My what?” squawked Mikey, and tried to wriggle away.

"What are you, stupid? Your clothes!" he grabbed hold of the boy's shirt and pulled it upward. It came off, ripping where it had snagged on Mikey’s elbow, “And you know what else? There's no magically turning into anything either. You want to be a broad, a little chick? About the closest you'll ever get is to get fucked like one, so you might as well learn to enjoy that-”

Suddenly there was a loud noise from the fireplace: THUNK!

'Thunk?' thought Frank, and turned.
.

.
~~~///=====( Pandemonium )=====\~~~
.

Another man in a Santa outfit was crawling out into the room, dragging a large red sack and muttering, "I'm gettin’ too old for this shit...”

"What the hell are you doing in here?" Frank hollared at the intruder, and wondered how this big fatso had gotten down the narrow chimney, a passage that his thigh alone would probably have trouble fitting through. Given what the date was there was the obvious answer, but that was ridiculous!

"I was kind of wondering what I’m doing here myself,” said Santa as he struggled to his feet, “The only good thing you did all year was to go visit your neighbor Ernie Jacobs in the hospital; which I know you did more out of boredom than any concern for Ernie. But those two angels were quite adamant about my coming here, so-”

All at once Santa Claus focused on the unsavory tableau before him. The pants-less fake Santa, the terrified child struggling in his grip. "Oh Frank,” he sighed sadly, “You are definitely off my Good List…"

“I don't give a rat’s ass. You’re trespassing! Get the hell out of my house!”

Santa shook his head, "No can do, Buddy Boy. There's no way I'm going to let you hurt this kid. Or any kid ever again.”

Frank whip-cracked his black Santa-belt threateningly, like some dissolute Indiana Jones. "And what are you gonna do about it, Tubby?"

The anger that was building inside Santa would have made Mrs. Claus warn him about his blood pressure, but even a saint can only take so much, “And damn it, you had to go and dress like me to do it? You are just twisted. And on Christmas Eve, no less! You ..... YOU FILTHY DEGENERATE!"

Saint Nick launched himself at the imposter Santa. His first punch caught Frank square on the jaw, sending him staggering back, but Frank recovered and drove his fist into Santa's large gut. Santa grunted, but quick as a flash closed the distance to the pervert, grabbing him in a crushing bear hug- "Michelle Honey, call the police!”

He called me Michelle, marveled Mikey as he ran all over the house looking for a phone, hoping to find it the next place he looked.

And then what had been weird got exponentially weirder. The house seemed to telescope out ahead of him, presenting doors and rooms and hallways and tunnels that couldn't possibly exist in a two bedroom suburban tract home; like this stone bridge caged in by stalactites that arced across a vast domed enclosure with mighty waterfalls thundering down its walls into a lake of phosphorescent green water...

One door that was labeled PANDEMONIUM in creepy twisty lettering opened into a dark tavern illuminated only by arcane patterns of thin red neon tubes crisscrossing the shiny black ceiling. And though he knew he was too young to be allowed into such a place Mikey had at last found some people, and was about to run in there and start yelling for them to call the cops, that this was an EMERGENCY; when he noticed that the patrons and bartender were not people at all but were all monsters and devils. And somehow he knew that the glowing vapor they were drinking out of those big heavy snifters had been brewed from human souls...

They were all grinning at him, with a malicious intensity that made Uncle Frank's depraved interest in him seem as pure and innocent as a puppy's love. He slammed the door quick and took off running again!

There were so many branching corridors that he feared he would get hopelessly lost, and by now he sensed somehow there wasn't a single phone anywhere in here, so he headed back---This way! No, THAT way!---finally making his way to the more familiar parts of the house, rooms that at least might have a door or something he could escape through.

He saw that the two struggling men they had fought their way into the dining room. It was easy to tell which one was the real Santa, and he was glad to see that the one wearing pants was winning. Santa had Frank bent back against the dining room table, his large powerful hands around his throat-

But then Uncle Frank's hand finally landed on what it had been groping around for. He drove the big sturdy kitchen knife into Santa's paunch clear to the wooden handle. And as Santa grunted and released his hold on Frank's neck he did it again. And again. And again and again and again.

"Bad list," rasped Santa, pointing his finger sternly, then fell down dead on the floor.

Frank stood over the corpse of his foe. Gasping, his vision clearing and coherent thought coming back to him after having been choked nearly unconscious. He was amazed at how little blood had been produced by so many large wounds. As he considered how he would go about the gruesome task of getting rid of the body, it started to collapse and then turn to dust, like some vampire in a movie.

So that took care of that problem. Jolly Old Saint Nick could be cleaned up with his wet/dry vac. And that could wait until after he'd had his way with- Oh shit! Where was the brat?
.

.
~~~///=====( THUNK II )=====\~~~
.

Mikey had tried escaping through this house’s back door, the one leading out into the garage, and now the front door, only to find that while the door knobs unlocked and turned each of the doors had an additional deadbolt that could only be undone with a key. This whole house was designed to prevent escape, he remembered. And he saw that the hallway leading to all those strange rooms and corridors he had just run through---which could have provided acres of hiding places---had ceased to exist.

So this left windows. From the height and breadth of these curtains that covered a big chunk of that one wall, the living room appeared to have a large picture window. Mikey figured he could throw something through it, jump out and run until he found a neighbor. But when he ran to the heavy drapes across it and yanked them aside he saw a very serious grid of steel slats just past the glass, ostensibly to protect this home against burglars but in fact the bars of Mikey’s prison.

"No," he groaned, his heart sinking.

A strong hand came clamping down on his shoulder, its fingers digging in. As Uncle Frank pulled the drapes back into place he said in a mockingly calm and pleasant tone, “No? From now on that word is no longer in your vocabulary. You don't say no to me, not ever. In fact you don't do or say anything unless I told you to do it. Whereas I on the other hand, get to do anything I want with you. Doesn’t that sound like fun?”

"But you can't!" said Mikey, tears of rage and helplessness pouring down his face.

“And who’s to stop me? Nobody saw me take you, or has a clue about where you are. And the one person who tried to help you, with all that magic or whatever he had? I wasted his fat ass, and didn't even break a sweat doing it," Frank said, and pointed triumphantly, “The man who was the whole goddamn point of this holly jolly ho-ho-holiday is laying in the other room there, deader than mummy shit. That’s right, and let this day go down in history: I, Franklin T. Ellsworth, have killed Christmas!"

With a loud crack the front door burst from its hinges and fell into the room, crashing loudly down onto the carpet. The tall figure silhouetted in the doorway said, "Aren't you forgetting something?"

“Jesus Christ!” yelped Frank as he whirled to face the intruder.

“Yep. Got it on the first guess!”

.
~~~///=====( Divine Intervention )=====\~~~
.

Although tonight the Son of God wasn’t dressed anything like he was in Mikey’s GOLDEN BOOK OF BIBLE STORIES. His long brown hair was held back with a tan leather headband. He wore combat boots and baggy desert camouflage pants, its pockets bulging with what looked like Easter eggs but were more likely hand grenades, and a long knife in a scabbard strapped to his leg. Crisscrossing his bare chest was a pair of ammunition belts, and in the crook of each arm was a long and massive machine gun that looked too big to lift, but he handled them both with ease.

"Oh hell," gulped Frank as Mikey scrambled out of the way.

“Dis time I come with a swoooord, Baby!” droned Jesus in a comical Teutonic accent, and opened fire with both guns, reducing Uncle Frank to bloody chunks of bone and meat and gristle in a matter of seconds, while also pretty much shredding everything else in the room, except for the boy he’d come to rescue.

“Sorry you had to see that kid,” he said as he tossed the guns aside. And though Mikey’s ears were numb and ringing from the gunfire, he had heard Him clearly.

“Yes Mikey, it’s me ……. Come here,” he smiled, the vengeance that his eyes had flared with when dispatching the pedophile now replaced with a love that was so pure and vast it was scary, not in a way that Mikey had ever been scared before, but afraid that if you were to gaze into that much love for more than an instant you might merge with it and become pure love yourself, losing all the details of who you had been before now, these things no longer relevant, a prospect which will frighten the ego of even a trusting and innocent child like Mikey. Sensing this, Jesus toned it down to near human levels.

Mikey ran to Him, and got the best hug he’d ever had (“Sorry Mommy, Daddy …... It’s no contest!”), as Our Savior murmured things like, “Don’t be afraid, Mikey. I’m with you now. I’m always with you.”

After a while Mikey asked, “What’s gonna happen now?”

“Well now I’m taking you home. Your mom and dad are worried sick about you. You really shouldn’t have taken off from the mall like that.”

“But I didn’t! I mean ....... Well really I don’t know what happened. Everyone disappeared, and there were these giraffes, and ...... it’s been kind of a weird day.”

“Yes, that it has. And after I get you home I guess I’ll be up half the night filling out the Divine Intervention Forms. It’s funny, you’d think I would be one person who could get out of doing paperwork, but ...... And oh yeah, about that,” nodded Jesus, as a long scroll appeared in mid-air between them, “There is one thing I require from you, while it’s still fresh in your memory. Since you’re the last living mortal witness to all of this, I need you to tell me what happened today.”

“Sure, whatever you need, Jesus,” said Mikey, staring at the levitating parchment. There was a pen made out of a large angel’s feather poised near the top of it, ready to write. He asked, “So like, what do I say?”

“Just tell it in your own words. What happened, who this guy pretending to be Father Christmas was, how you met him, what did he try to do. Just start at the beginning.”

“It’s all been real confusing, so I’m not sure how good I’ll do,” admitted Mikey, but after Jesus assured him that whatever he could tell him would be okay, he started with how he’d mysteriously appeared in the atrium of the local mall in mid-afternoon, the magic quill pen dutifully writing down everything he said.

Watching its strokes and pauses matching the cadence of his speech was distracting, so he focused instead on the loving face of God, who occasionally directed the boy’s testimony, some detail he’d missed or should elaborate on a bit.

“…and so then it was my turn to sit on Santa’s lap and tell him what I want for Christmas, so I did, and-”

“And what did you ask him for?”

“Well it wasn’t like a regular thing, like I wanted a bicycle or something. It was about this problem I have. Like there must’ve been some weird mistake when I was born-"

"Mistake?"

"Or something. And how I was hopin' that maybe he had some magic he could fix it with...”

And then Mikey hit that same wall of embarrassment he had run into with the Santa at the Mall, about telling anyone about this. But Jesus just nodded for him to go on, with all that love in his eyes, so he told Him. “Like if he could turn me into a girl. Because that’s what I really want, more than anything else on Earth. Because it like, hurts to not be one-”

The love in Christ’s eyes vanished instantly, and his shout rang out like a sonic boom: YOU WANT TO BE A GIRL?!!”

“No! I mean yes! I mean, I mean ……. it’s like this thing that inside me, a-and it’s not nothin’ I ever wanted to want!” stammered Mikey, terrified of the judgment he saw in those eyes.

God loves the girl you are, his guardian angel had assured him. But Mikey knew there were those who felt otherwise, who thought that what he believed about himself was totally contrary to God's will, and to give in to such wrongness was a huge and unforgivable sin. And now here stood God himself, and he was clearly in their camp. This was a nightmare!

“YOU LOATHSOME ABOMINATION,” roared Jesus, And suddenly in his hand was a steel staff.

Or not a staff like some Bible guy might hold, Mikey saw now. It had a handgrip at the top, and was sticking up from a slot in the floor, and some mechanism under there that it was attached to. It was a lever. And----somehow knowing that this device would be the instrument of his immediate and eternal damnation---the boy squealed, “No! Please! I’m sorry!!!”

“SORRY? YOU DON’T KNOW THE MEANING OF THE WORD SORRY! BUT YOU WILL,” thundered Jesus as he pulled the lever. YOU’RE GOING TO HELL!!!”

The floor dropped out from under him and Mikey was falling down, down, down a rough, rock-walled shaft; toward a pinhole of ruddy brightness miles below him, that grew larger and larger, brighter and brighter as the hot sulfurous wind whistled past him; until he could see the flames beyond it, and hear what sounded like a whole universe of torment, a million strong chorus of unimaginably anguished screaming, which now was being drowned out by an even louder sound from above, of God's merciless mocking laughter!
.

.
~~~///=====( One Second or 20 Years Later )=====\~~~
.

You're trapped in a world of angels who no longer care
In the space where his cruel hand was
my hand is, reaching out for you there.
Love is the weapon left after The Fall
It may not seem like much but girl that's all there is...
Girl, I love you.

.

The silence of the night was shattered by a terrible scream!

Michelle Ellsworth bolted upright in bed, taking the covers with her, hugging them to her as she gasped, her mouth gaping wide.

“It’s okay, I’m here,” came a voice. The hand landing on her back made her pounding heart kick into overdrive, until she realised whose hand this was, the one person whose touch she would welcome at an instant like this. Angel. Angel Hidalgo. Her Angel, wrapping her now in her arms.

I’m home. Safe, thought Michelle, and thanked God for this.

She blinked and shuddered as she remembered the infinitely vengeful "God" from her dream. How sick was that?!

While she acknowledged that she could be entirely wrong about the matter---nobody had any real proof one way or the other---Michelle did believe in God; A higher power who she figured was known by many names and many faces in different cultures around the world, but who she trusted would never in any of these personae dump someone into an ocean of fire just for being transgender. She believed this, despite what a bunch habitually pissed-off holy rollers might think, and despite whatever miserable guilty nonsense she’d had in her head as a kid. Michelle also believed in Christ Resurrected, who had redeemed her of her sins. A fairly long list of them actually, but a list which she was sure had not included her gender identity conflicts and what she’d done to fix them. People could argue over what it said in the Bible about which sorts of thoughts or deeds displeased God but so could she, and she smelled something rotten and un-Christian in the motives of folks who weren't content to run their own lives and wrestle with their own sins but felt a need to micromanage yours.

The bedroom was reassuringly cool compared to the blast furnace heat that her nightmare had ended with. She sighed. Just a bad dream...

But wow, that had to have been the worst one yet. The Mother of All Bad Dreams! She was relieved to realise that she hadn’t actually soiled herself.

Her lover’s hands ran slow gentle circles around her back and shoulders. “Another one about Uncle Frank?”

“Yep. Who else? Just another exciting episode of The Trials of Mikey,” Michelle tried to laugh but it came out more like a cough. “Or, well …….. It was but it wasn’t. Like I didn’t know, didn’t put it together, that this was about him. So it all seemed okay at first. I mean Christmas at the mall, for a kid that’s pretty exciting. Although everything about it was just a little bit off-”

“Star City Plaza? Where they put up that huge white tree every year?”

“No, uh …… the old one. Downtown,” said Michelle.

“You mean Bayview Mall?”

“Right. Or maybe some composite of the two. And kind of nice, the way they had it decorated. And they had a Santa there, but Santa-”

And suddenly the full horror of the dream came back to Michelle---even though a lot of its details were lost to her---and with it all the horrors she had faced as a boy named Mikey. Horrors worse than any nightmare, for being real events. Real crimes, violations and betrayals that had nearly killed her long after the man who’d committed them had died. That had poisoned her mind and soul to a point where she’d tried to lose herself in liquor and drugs, seeking an oblivion that she hoped would appease those parts of her that just plain wanted to die; Until she'd ended up turning into nearly as big of a drunk as he'd been; her gender conflicts fading into a dull irrelevance as she reached a place where she no longer felt like a man or a woman or even much like a person anymore, and yet still hating herself more and more the further down she slid...

And if it hadn’t been the grace of God she didn’t know what it was, the way something inside of her just woke up one day and said “No, I’m NOT going to finish the job for him! I deserve better than that, I know I do! And besides---heh! heh!---just think how much he would hate it if I was happy and living as a girl...”; and had started out on the road to recovery.

But Jeez, what a long struggle traveling that road had been. And she knew she was probably still closer to the beginning of it than the end. Because even today---when everyone said she was doing so much better, this confident, capable woman well on her way to being healed---the damage inside her had Michelle screaming at 3 a.m. like some total basket case, scaring the wits out of Angel; who she loved so much and who she was robbing of a good night’s sleep three, sometimes four times a week.

If their roles were reversed, she wondered, would she be this understanding? So invariably and instantly comforting? She'd brought up the idea of her sleeping out on the front room couch until this latest run of nightmares was over, but her beautiful Angel wouldn’t hear of it...

Shit! This was just getting so old! She pulled away, shaking her head, “Oh God I am so sorry!”

“Sorry? Why?”

“That you have to put up with this! Dragging you through all this. Right into the damn mine field!” she said, and now the tears started, “You don’t deserve…”

Because it wasn’t just being woke up at night that Angel had to endure. It was all Michelle's moods, her endless crying. It was having to leave that really fun party after only an hour because some guy had looked at her---or she’d imagined he had---in some way that had hit one of her freak-out buttons and she’d fallen into an anxiety attack; And even after she told Angel to stay and have fun, that she’d be okay taking a cab home and putting on her jammies and curling up with a Rita Mae Brown mystery, Angel just wasn’t going to have any fun until she was sure Michelle was okay again, and they left together…

Unaware of just how damaged she was, Angel had had the misfortune to fall in love with Michelle before she’d entered therapy for her abuse issues and all the fun started. Back when Michelle had been the clever, comical one at their AA meetings; two years sober and a year post-op, and seemingly so together. If only Angel Hidalgo had known that her partner was going to turn into this PERSON WITH PROBLEMS, defined more and more by her issues, a big crybaby like out of one of those Drea Di Maggio novels that were so popular with the abuse-recovery crowd. The thought of this made her start crying in earnest.

“Nooooo, Sweetie!” Angel was hugging her again, one hand smoothing her hair, a gentle repetitive motion. Michelle clung to her gratefully, feeling so horribly needy. Big damn needy baby ...... But Angel, living up to her name, saw things differently, “’Dragged me into this?’ You didn’t drag me into anything! I mean yeah I’m in it. But I get to be with you, and that’s the best thing that ever happened to me. Listen: You’re facing something that so many people never have the guts to face. All these miserable so-called sober people who just ‘put the plug in the jug’ and won’t go an inch further toward trying to get free of the shit from their past, when anyone can see they have major unresolved issues. Telling you ‘just get over it’ about this, like you’re some kind of whiner, when you’re ten times braver than they’ll ever be. And I’m just so proud of you, Babe. Proud to be with you.”

“But still, there’s just too many nights like this. This is happening more now than it ever did! And all the other bullshit, I mean FUCK! When is this shit going to be over with, Angel? When?!”

“I don’t know when. That motherfucker raped you, that whole summer and half of the fall. And if that neighbor hadn’t come along and shot him, who knows how long it would’ve gone on. What was that about, anyway?”

“Nobody really knows. And we never will, without Dansen around.”

“That’s right, he disappeared that day.”

“Yeah, right off the face of the Earth,” shrugged Michelle. The police had concluded that her uncle’s murder was the result of a falling out between criminals, but with what she’d uncovered about her own past she suspected it was something else entirely.

“But not before he did the world a favor, ridding it of that sicko. I mean a pervert might be driven by some lust they can’t control, or whatever they tell themselves, but your uncle went way beyond that. Above and beyond the ….. the…”

“The Call of Depravity?” suggested Michelle.

“Yeah. Getting off on your pain, your fear. Like him telling you he’d kill your whole family if you said anything! These bastards know just how to do it, don’t they? To keep control. And you coped, survived all that abuse, alone, maybe the only way anyone can, and now it’s all coming up from where you buried it. So it’s not like some little speed bump you hit, this is HUGE! But if you keep doing what you’re doing, it will get better, though it’s gonna take time.”

“Time! That’s all anyone says ………. And I know, okay? Believe me, I know how huge it is! From here it looks like half the size of the Universe. And I know this isn’t going to happen on any schedule, and how you just have to hang onto the bull’s back and ride it out when it gets like this; and to just hope that that light at the end of the tunnel there-”

“It’s not, trust me. It’s the end of the tunnel. It’s freedom,” Angel smiled, and then recited, “We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity and we will know peace. Now matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience-”

“‘Can benefit others…’ The Promises,” Michelle nodded, “Although I think I’ll be regretting some of that awfulness for a while, wishing I could shut the door on it; at least until I learn to walk on water. But I do like the idea of our experience helping someone, some good coming out of all this. Like Grace, the way she managed to climb out of that Hell, everything that'd happened to her! But I know it’s gonna be a while before I have anything like the serenity she does. If ever …… It seems like the harder I work on this shit, digging through the wreckage, everything that Devil bastard did-”

“It might be sooner than you think. Recovering from what happened to you, really facing it like you are, it’s like you’re doing a root canal on your ……… on your soul or whatever, without any anesthetics, so the pain is pretty much blocking out your view of-”

“I’ve had enough anesthetic, thank you very much Doctor,” joked Michelle.

“Me too! That’s an option some of us don’t have anymore. We kind of blew that,” grinned Angel ruefully, “And so you can’t really see all the progress you’re making right now. But other people can. For example, when was your last panic attack? You keep bringing up the time you had to split from Judy’s party, but that happened four months ago…”

Michelle thought about it. There had only been two since then, fairly minor, that she had pulled herself out of using a technique her therapist had taught her. Moving sideways to get out of the rip tide instead of thrashing against it. “Okay that’s true. I guess there has been progress there. But it still seems like I’ve been fighting these same demons forever, and I don't know how long I can keep doing this. It's like this is gonna go on until The End of the World, and I just get so tired..."

An irritable wind started blowing outside the bedroom window, dragging leaves and dirt across the panes, and Michelle suddenly had a glimpse of another part of her dream. She was Mikey, and had wandered out of the Bayview Mall, and had been standing out in the strangely hushed parking lot, looking up, listening to something up there, when suddenly a whirlwind had started up. And then what?

“Well it’s not going to take 'til then, Silly,” Angel said and then kissed her. “And you’re wonderful,” she said and kissed her again, another playful little smack and then drawing back, like a puppy nipping at someone they love. “And don’t feel bad about waking me up," another peck, "When it gives me a chance to do this-”

This time Michelle grabbed her, and made sure this kiss was a real one, long and loving.

.
~~~///=====( God Help Us, Every One... )=====\~~~
.

The kiss ended. Angel looked into her lover’s eyes. The woman who had been screaming like some condemned soul being cast into the fires of hell. It broke her heart, that of all the people in the world, Michelle should have to carry such a burden. “So how you doing? You okay?”

“That’s kind of a relative concept. But yeah. Right now, it's good,” Michelle smiled and slumped against her contentedly, “And that dream ……. I don’t really even remember most of it. Not that I want to. Something about running through a bunch of weird caverns, and there was a giraffe, I think... I'm glad I'm not a Freudian.”

“So do you think you could get back to sleep? I mean if you want to try...”

Michelle glanced over at the clock on the bedside table, “Oh hell! Three-seventeen. I think we’d better.”

Angel knew that Michelle felt guilty for these awful awakenings, even though she wasn't in any way to blame. Angel smiled, “Yeah, but no work tomorrow. Christmas Day. So if there’s anything you want, I’m up for it. To get up and make waffles, or open our presents, make love, go bowling …”

“I’m too worn out for waffles,” Michelle sighed, then reached over and turned out the light, “Let’s just lay here a while, ‘kay?”

Angel hugged her---You are soooooo special!---and they settled in. Drifted.

.
3:18, 3:19, 3:20
.

Michelle spoke, “Not tomorrow though…”

“What isn’t?”

“Christmas. You said Christmas tomorrow. But it’s been Christmas since midnight. It’s today.”

“That’s right! Merry Christmas.”

”Mmmmmm; Merry Christmas...”

.
3:21, 3:22, 3:23
.

“Y’know what I wish, Angel?”

‘Nuh-uhn.”

“I wish I could talk to myself.”

“You do that enough, don'tcha?”

“Remind me to hit you tomorrow ……. No, I mean Mikey. Back then. That scared shitless little kid, thinking everything was so hopeless, and feeling so wrong. I mean where did I get all that ‘Going to Hell’ stuff? Not from my mom, that’s for sure! And not Dad either, he’s…”

“He’s improving,” Angel smiled, thinking about the man running around in his I LOVE MY LESBIAN TRANSSEXUAL DAUGHTER t-shirt.

“I think you’re right. He really is. Damn if we aren’t all improving! So I don’t know where that stuff at the end of that nightmare came from. Because God is…”

“God is good.”

“Yeah he is. And life is good.”

“Yep. Can be.”

“And I just wish Mikey could know that. That all this would all happen. That it wasn’t so hopeless as he felt. I wish I could talk to him for even just a minute. You know, tell him…”

“So why don’t you?”

“What? Hop in my time machine? Fire up the tachyon transmitter?”

“No. I mean …… You’re still Mikey in your dreams sometimes, right?"

“Yeah. Like tonight.”

“So then he’s still in you. Some part of your subconscious. You guys don’t call it the ‘inner child’ for nothing.”

“Okay. So just talk to him? Right now?”

“I can’t think of a better time.”

“Okay I- Hey stop tickling! Okay, I’m gonna do it; here goes. Testing, testing...” said Michelle, and conjured up an image of herself as a young boy, at the worst time of his young life, in the clutches of that evil man. She pictured him alone in that locked hall closet that the sick fuck had christened ‘Solitary’, that Mikey would wind up beaten and tossed into for looking at him sideways. Or just to be put away, like some appliance when you were done using it. Poor fucking kid...

Oh great! She was crying again. Not sure this would do a lot to reassure her kid-self, but since he wasn’t really going to be able to hear her she supposed it didn’t matter. She sniffed and said, “Mikey? Listen ……. If you can hear me, I just want you to know. That no matter how bad things look, you should never, never give up hoping…”
.

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Song lyrics are from Guardian Angels by Tom Rapp (Pearls Before Swine)
GUARDIAN ANGELS from their 1968 lp Balaklava:
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfFw4VtDW-U



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