This story is by Debashish Das and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
The aroma of fresh baked cinnamon buns wafted through as Piedro pulled open the door. He smiled, thinking about the Christmas dinner that night.
“Mmm! Smells heavenly, Sheila. Nothing says happy holidays like cinnamon buns, does it?”
“Merry Christmas to you too, Piedro,” she said, sounding flattered. “But you better keep your hands away if you don’t want to get burned, like last time.”
“Hey, I just wanted to sneak a couple of them off to l’il Rosie before they got cold.”
“That’s why I baked a couple of special ones this time. With cranberry jam filling. I’ll make sure she gets them,” Shiela said, winking.
“So, who’s this l’il Rosie, Mr. Domingo?” Someone spoke from the back of the cafeteria.
Piedro turned around to confront the stranger. The man had a coarse, bushy gray beard covering most of his face, but he was bald as an egg on top. He was wearing a ratty pea-coat, giving him the appearance of being homeless.
“Who’s this guy?” he asked, cocking his head toward Shiela.
“The boss said he wanted to talk to you and that it was okay for him to …”
“Merry Christmas, Mr. Domingo. The name’s Ortiz. I work for the Daily Mail.”
Piedro stared at him. “You’re a reporter. You’re working on Christmas day.”
“Doctors work on Christmas, so do the police. Why not a reporter?” he said. “Besides, I’m an old man, I’ve got nowhere to be. Just thought I’d do some good today.”
“Do some good, huh?” Piedro grunted, took off his coat, and walked over to the table. “And how are you doing that?”
The reporter smiled pleasantly and stood up to shake his hand. “I’m writing a piece on the work you people are doing here. I mean, transforming a beat down mansion into a shelter for homeless kids? That’s downright heroic, considering all the shit that goes on …”
“We don’t use that kind of language around the kids,” Piedro warned.
“Sorry. But people need to hear about what you’re doing. There’s too much negativity in the news anyway.”
Piedro snorted. “So you’re trying to grow a flower in the mud, huh?”
“We’re all trying to make amends somehow, aren’t we?” The reporter smiled knowingly.
Piedro squinted at his face, trying to recollect if he’d seen him before. Suddenly, a sharp cold breeze made him shiver. He looked around to see Shiela stepping out. She caught his eye waved a pack of cigarettes at him. He shook his head, so she shrugged and closed the door behind her.
He sighed getting up from the table. Barely thirty, but he already had a prominent gut. And his knees hurt when it got cold. “You want coffee, Mr. Reporter?”
“Please, call me Henry. And yes, these old bones could sure do with a warm brew.”
Piedro walked over to the counter and was pouring coffee when the door opened again. He looked up and froze. A little girl, wearing a white frilly dress with red snowflake patterns had just waltzed in.
“Isn’t this dress pretty, Piedro?” she asked sweetly, twirling around.
The sharp sensation of piping hot coffee on his hands brought him back to the present. The mug he’d been holding was overflowing. He nodded and tried to smile.
She giggled and hugged his leg. “We’ll both be wearing red and white tonight when you’re dressed as Santa. I’ll see you soon,” she said running out again.
Piedro brought the coffee over and placed the mugs on the table with trembling hands. The old man had taken out a notepad and was scribbling something.
“What have you got there?”
“Mmm,” the old man mumbled. “Just taking notes for the story. I assume that was l’il Rosie.”
Piedro didn’t reply, but the old man didn’t seem to expect an answer.
“So how long have you been working at this orphanage?”
Piedro woke up in a cold sweat. He was shivering, in spite of having turned the heat all the way up.
Christmas always meant nightmares.
He dragged himself out from beneath the blankets and went to the bathroom to splash some cold water on his face.
The kids had loved the cinnamon buns at the Christmas dinner. L’il Rosie had been delighted to find cranberry jam hidden in hers. He’d played and laughed and caroled with the kids all evening. His Santa costume smelled of cinnamon and was decorated with crumbs by the time he’d handed out all the gifts. But when the merrymaking was all over, he’d drowned himself in bourbon, hoping to pass out. The nightmare had come all the same, just like it had for the last seven years.
Piedro stood in front of the mirror for a long time. An age-lined face with bloodshot eyes stared back at him. He realized he was beginning to look like that old reporter he’d met earlier that day.
Suddenly, he turned around, went back to his room, and switched on the table lamp. He fished around in his coat pocket for the envelope. The reporter had given it to him after the interview. “It’s a small Christmas present,” he’d said, “but don’t open it in front of the kids. This one’s for you.” He’d smiled and patted him on the shoulder before leaving.
Piedro glanced at the bottle of bourbon. There was about a quarter left. He placed the envelope on the table and reached under it for his old plastic briefcase. His hands were trembling. He flicked open the lock, reached in and took out the holster. His old service revolver. The last time he’d held it, his hands had been steady, but his nerves had been in shambles.
He knew he shouldn’t have snorted cocaine while on duty, but it was Christmas, so he figured what the hell. He and his partner had shaken down a street side hustler for the cocaine, which was now neatly spread out in rows on the magazine on the dashboard. They’d been about to do another round when the call came in. A shootout was going down nearby, and they were requesting for backup. His partner warned him to stay away, but he had the wheel and a sense of duty.
He saw six bodies, two in uniform, and tried not to step in the puddles of their blood as he made his way into the compound. His throat was dry as if he’d snorted cinnamon, not cocaine. He’d convinced his partner to stay outside and wait for the other units. But the deathly silence was unnerving. He had his revolver out in front of him, cocked and ready. Each step sent an icy tingle up his spine, but his hands were steady as a rock.
Suddenly, he heard a noise from one of the rooms and swung his revolver in the direction. He waited, frozen on the spot, but didn’t hear anything more. He started creeping toward the room hoping for a survivor. He licked his lips and prayed that the cocaine had not dulled his training. The door was open, and the room appeared to be empty. No bullets or blood here. Just as he was about to step in, he saw movement behind the couch. He ducked out immediately, but nothing happened. After a few moments, he peeked into the room, with his revolver aimed at the couch.
“Police,” he croaked. “Come out with your hands up.”
Again, he saw movement behind the couch. This time, he waited. But as soon as he saw the metallic glint of a barrel, he started firing until he ran out. With heart threatening to tear out of his chest, he slowly made his way around the room.
The first thing he saw was the white frilly dress. Red flowers were blossoming all over it, even as he watched. A few steps further and he saw the gore splattered on the wall. He crept closer, his breath now coming out in short, ragged gasps. The girl couldn’t have been older than ten. There was bullet hole where her left eye should have been. Piedro started throwing up, and before he knew it, he’d passed out.
He cocked the revolver and placed it on the table. Then he grabbed the bottle of bourbon and held it to his lips until it was empty. He didn’t need a stellar aim for what came next, but he did need the intoxication. He tossed the bottle onto his bed and reached inside the envelope. It contained two index cards.
The first one read: Lillian Garcia, aka, “Lil.” Age 10.
The second one had a black and white photograph taped to it. It only showed a pale, lifeless hand in a pool of black blood. But Piedro’s eyes were glued to the silver harmonica that was clutched in it.
No more Christmases, Piedro thought to himself as he picked up the revolver with a strange sense of relief. No more nightmares.