Christmas Morning Coming Down
Welcome to the Hammer Party Christmas bonus
One of my favorite short stories that I have written is my one Christmas tale, “Christmas Morning Coming Down.” It first appeared in the ThugLit Cruel Yule anthology in a slightly different form. Enjoy and see you next year.
CHRISTMAS MORNING COMING DOWN
BY JORDAN HARPER
… and were all pretty goddamn rank by then, which is maybe why none of us in the van noticed that bad-cheese smell coming off Jimmy’s chest where the hippie had stabbed him. Maybe Jimmy didn’t even smell it, hard as that was to believe. Even laced as he was with nitrous and shatter and whatever else he was on, he had to know he was blood-sick. He had to know that in the place where the hippie’s serrated blade had chipped his rib his body was cooking up a black and milky sort of death.
Knowing Jimmy, knowing how much he was like me, I’d bet he knew what was happening with part of his brain, but most of him tried to deny it. Or maybe he was more scared of Joe than he was of poisoned blood. After Denver, I think most of us were.
The van was like a cockroach in two respects. For one, it was brown. For another, it was indestructible, one of those immortal 70s vans that will outlast humanity. We rode that van all across the West, from show to show. Hippie jam bands and electronic dance festivals were the best for our business. We sold nitrous balloons, ten bucks a pop. I hooked up with them a few months after my stepdad kicked me out. I was spare-changing outside a Ween show in Flagstaff. Joe gave me a balloon on the house. I blasted off. He offered me a ride in the van, offered me work for room, board and buzz. I climbed on. It wasn’t until the second month that I learned I couldn’t get off again.
Me and Jimmy filled the balloons. Jaylee and Delaney hawked them — Jaylee because she’s a girl and draws in the dudes, and Delaney because he’s got a mouthpiece on him. One of those motherfuckers who knows how to talk, you know? Momma — I ought to tell you, Momma’s a guy, and a big beefy son of a bitch at that — was the muscle. A big meaty dude who was tough just cause he was six foot four and three hundred pounds and made of meat and bone. The way he looked at Jaylee like she was a wild beast, I knew he’d never hooked up with a girl in his life. He took that sexual frustration and used it to put out psycho vibes. It kept the customers in line.
Joe had a connection in a San Diego warehouse who’d sell him hundred-pound tanks of the stuff on the downlow. He had the connect, which means he ran the show. He held the money. He bought the food. He bought the gas. He bought the chemicals, both retail and personal use. He decided where we went. He picked which tours we followed. He picked where we’d park.
That’s what started the shit in Denver. Parking. Nitrous crews give each other space at shows. Nomad drug crews can’t have permanent turf. So it’s first-come first-serve, block by block. You don’t set up shop across the street from another crew. Not unless you want to start shit.
Joe said he didn’t see the other crew across the street until we were already in business. I dunno. Maybe he didn’t. But afterwards, after the brawl, after the hippie with the steak knife stabbed Jimmy, when we were hightailing it the fuck out of Colorado, while Momma soaked his fists in the beer cooler and Delaney held his cleanest t-shirt to Jimmy’s chest, watching the cotton drink Jimmy’s blood, Joe talked about payback, and I saw fire in his eyes like I hadn’t ever seen before. And I thought about how those hippies who’d come after us, they hadn’t drawn weapons until after Joe took the boxcutter to that one dude’s face. Before that it had just been shouting and shoving. Macho bullshit. Then Joe had flashed out that boxcutter and all the sudden shit was real, real in a way nothing had been since I’d first climbed in the van.
I saw then what the deal was. Joe had been pushing himself into a corner for a long time, long enough that on some level of his brain it had to be on purpose. Dude can justify a lot to himself if he’s in a corner. Some folk put themselves in the corner so they can do what they wanted to do anyway.
Like slice faces.
Like start wars.
“Payback,” he said as we watched Jimmy bleed. He said it like a mantra. I climbed into the very back of the van to where the tank was and filled up a balloon. It filled up big and green. White letters spelled out MERRY CHRISTMAS on the side. Christmas is coming I thought and filled my lungs with numbness and forgetting.
You ever take a hit of nitrous? You breathe it in and out until you’re nothing but tingles and throbs all over. You get heavy, like walking on Mars. You can feel your cells rub together. Sounds cut in and out, like you’re listening to existence’s heartbeat go wub-dub wub-dub. Meanwhile, from the outside, it looks a lot like you’re dying. Your eyes roll back and your lips turn blue. You lay there like grandma on her deathbed.
It looks like you’re dying because you are. Nitrous’s joy comes from slow strangulation of the brain. It’s not as bad as it sounds. They teach you on teevee that death and pain are one and the same, but that’s not the way it has to be. Wrestle with nitrous and downers long enough and you’ll figure out pretty quick that death isn’t sour. Death’s sweet. Like anything sweet, the trick is to not overdo it. Just a spoonful of death helps life go down.
My first hit of the nitrous was when I was five years old, in a dentist’s office in Waterloo, Iowa. They were going to yank a sideways kiddie tooth out my mouth. The dentist put the rubber mask on my face and cranked on the gas.
‘Tell me when you feel like you’re floating,” he told me. I breathed in the oxygen/nitrous cocktail. The world got heavy on my chest, the way it had been when the dentist had put the lead vest on me before my x-ray, heavy and comforting, and the chair under my skinny kid ass went away, replaced by clouds. I breathed yogi-deep breaths. I floated.
“Are you floating?” the dentist asked me.
“No,” I lied, and kept on breathing it in. Five years old and already junkie-savvy. Already hustling for a better high. And already trying to see how deep it goes. I guess I’m still looking. And maybe I won’t stop until I reach the bottom.
All of us in the van, we liked a little chunk of death every day. For me and Jimmy and Jaylee, a couple balloons of nitrous and steady tokes of indica got us there. Joe and Momma, they liked all that stuff, but they also liked to get a bigger slice of death. Oxys and morphine patches and, when they made the right connections, they’d break out their spikes and shoot up whatever they could get their hands on. Nobody talked about that part. There’s some junkie code, you don’t talk about opiates. It’s like a secret club, even in that traveling drug carnival of the van.
Delaney, the new guy, didn’t truck with death too much. A meth-skinny dredlocked gutterpunk who’d joined up with us at a Stockton rap festival a few weeks ago, he drank a little but that was it. Delaney said he was going clean. Said he was just going to ride with us long enough to save enough cash to get back East where he was from. Said he was going to get free and clear.
He didn’t get it yet. Didn’t get there was only one way off the van.
Jimmy is the one who left. He left without saying a word. After Denver we worked a show in Vegas — we didn’t see the hippie crew, but believe me Joe was looking — and then kept heading west towards LA. Halfway there, Jaylee pleaded for us to stop. We pulled up to Primm Valley, right there at the California/Nevada border. There’s a casino there, Whiskey Pete’s, that has the Bonnie and Clyde death car. Jaylee wanted to see it so we pulled in for a bathroom break. Jaylee popped out, speedwalking like a woman about to piss herself, soon as the van rolled to a stop. And it wasn’t until the rest of us piled out of the van, until we turned around to see Jimmy there, eyes closed, tongue out like a toddler playing dead, that we realized we’d been driving in Jimmy’s death car for God knows how long.
We sat in the parking lot of Whiskey Pete’s with Jimmy dead in the back seat, waiting for Jaylee to come back. Joe getting madder and madder. At the hippie crew, at Jimmy, at the whole fucking world. Nobody wanted to make eye contact with him. Not even Momma.
I had this Doctor Doom bobblehead I was saving for Christmas to give to Jimmy. Jimmy told me one time he was a Christian and it about blew my mind. “Holy shit,” I told him. “I didn’t even knew they made you guys anymore.” But he was a good guy. And he loved that comic book shit. So when I saw the Doom bobblehead in a gas station outside Vegas, I copped it. Maybe the rest of us didn’t give a fuck about Christmas but Jimmy did. I figured he could use a present. If I’d known he was sick, I would have given it to him sooner, given him a smile before he went. He was my best friend in the van.
I took it out of its box there in Whiskey Pete’s parking lot while we waited for Jaylee to come back from the bathroom. I held the Dr. Doom bobblehead in my hands, watching Doom bobble, bobble, bobble until finally Delaney worked up the mad courage to say what we already knew.
“Jaylee’s gone, bro.”
“The fuck you just say?” Joe’s voice made my skin go gooseflesh. His eyes when he turned to face us made my balls climb for safety.
“Jaylee was back there with Jimmy,” Delaney said. I tried to say the fuck are you doing? with my eyes, but Delaney didn’t pick up on it or Delaney didn’t care. “She was back there with him, she knew he was dead. She didn’t give no fuck about Bonnie and Clyde. She maybe didn’t even need to piss. She just got when the getting was good and I’m thinking that’s a pretty good idea –“
Joe came over the seat into the back of the van. Metal flashed in his hand and my brain screamed box cutter but my brain was wrong. I figured out after hearing the thick pumpkin sounds coming out of Delaney’s head as Joe hit him. It was a plastic-wrapped roll of quarters in Joe’s hand. Not the box cutter. Not yet.
Joe punched himself tired.
“Nobody leaves the van,” he said when he was done. “Not until we pay back those fuckers for Jimmy. We’re a crew.”
Maybe you think I could have ran. Or shouted for help. Fat tourists and day-drunks stood less than fifty yards away outside the front doors to Whiskey Pete’s. Maybe I could have. Joe was wore out. Momma never could run. But I didn’t run. I just looked at the Doom bobblehead I was going to give Jimmy for Christmas and thought, for Jimmy Christmas came early. He’d found his own Doom. This one was mine now.
We had a Viking funeral in Death Valley that night. Christmas Eve. Joe told Delaney to pull off the highway around Barstow. We took the van offroading in the desert.
Passing Barstow kicked up Hunter S. Thompson memories. I had a bag of mushrooms I’d picked up at a Phish show we worked a few weeks back. I knew it was a bad idea. A mushroom funeral screamed bad trip. But I knew I need to run and the only direction that felt safe was down to the center of my own skull. I split open a gas-station Moonpie and stuffed the dried shrooms inside. I took my first bite as Momma and Joe hauled Jimmy out of the back of the van. The rotten-tasting flesh of the mushroom cut right through the fake chocolate taste. I swilled beer and chewed until I could get the mushrooms down.
They soaked Jimmy in gasoline. They lit him up. Joe talking about Vikings, about warriors, about payback. The fire glittered and Jimmy turned blacker than the night. Up above us a million million stars glittered. In my hands Jimmy’s Doom bobbled, bobbled, bobbled. Weird stuff floated up from the riverbed of my brain. Stuff that had been stuck in the mud down deep. That’s what mushrooms do. Dig out the riverbed.
They were just starting to dig with two hands when Delaney sidled up next to me. He’d untied his whiteboy dreds so they hung in his face. His eyes were two split plums from the beating he’d taken.
“Hey,” he said. “How long until we’re the ones in the fire?”
“Which one’s the star of the East? That it?” I asked. I pointed up to some big quasar-looking motherfucker hanging in the sky. It seemed like it was pulsing but that could have been the shrooms.
“Why?” Delaney asked me. He chewed on his lip, the way a worried dog goes after his own leg. His teeth were corn yellow.
“It’s Christmas Eve,” I said. “The wise men. They followed the star of the East, right?”
“I don’t even know about that,” Delaney said. “But I do know this. I don’t want to get burned in the desert.”
“You won’t even know,” I said. “The thing they’re burning ain’t Jimmy. Just meat.” Everything was starting to seem simple and plain, the way they can on shrooms sometimes. We were in the desert. It was Christmas Eve. And there was a star in the East. Simple and plain.
“He says we’ll find that hippie crew in LA,” Delaney said. “At the New Year’s EMD Fest downtown. He says he knows they’ll work it. He wants to stop off at a Home Depot garden center and buy a bunch of fucking machetes. He’s gone hardcore nutball. He means it.”
“I’m not using a machete against anyone,” I said. “I’m not a killer.”
“Me either,” Delaney said. “But Joe may be killer enough for all of us.”
He covered his swollen eyes with his fists.
“I just want to be clean and free,” he said. “Don’t know why it’s so goddamn hard.”
“We follow the East Star,” I said. “Maybe we’ll find a baby Jesus to solve all our problems.” I started to laugh, weird mushroom laughs, the kind where you laugh out chunks of your soul and it feels good.
“You’re tripping,” he said, and all I could see were two purple plums and corn teeth in his skull. A man made of plants. Things were going south at a rapid rate.
Don’t go south, Doom whispered to me. Go East. Follow that star.
Across Jimmy’s pyre, Joe and Momma scratched battle plans into the dirt of the desert floor with sticks.
“Come on,” I said, holding the bobblehead in front of me. “Me, you and Dr. Doom. Three wise men.”
“They’ll come after us.”
“Yeah,” I said. “But maybe we’ll find that baby first. The one to make us free and clean.”
“You’re tripping balls,” Delaney said.
“Sure am,” I said, and me and Doom walked into the black. After a beat, Delaney followed.
We made it thirty or forty steps before we heard Joe shout.
Shout that he was coming.
Things got weird in the dark. Slithering sounds that could have been wind or snakebelly against rock. Delaney, already half blind from the beating, went full night blind. He wrapped a fist in the back of my t-shirt so I could lead him.
Behind us, Joe and Momma marco-polo’ed each other, sweeping the desert night with the lights from their phones. Catching glimpses of us, shouting, continuing the chase. I felt the dark in front of me with one hand and held Doom with the other.
Oh the mushrooms had me then. Stars swirled. Coyotes howled, or maybe it was Joe. Demon screams, mountain lions fighting or fucking or both. Time jellied and splattered. Maybe minutes. Maybe hours. My eyes on that quasar star taking us East. Delaney and me breathing hard, sweating out all the shit inside us even in the winter chill of the desert. Christmas Eve became Christmas morning. We’d entered rolling hills by then. We went up and down like drowning men. The place where the sky met the earth showed a thin line of pink. First fingers of dawn. It felt like hope for no reason. It’s not like Joe couldn’t kill us in the light. In fact, I realized, my first sane thought in a long time, the light would make it easy for him. Once the light came up, he’d have us.
And then in that first light I saw something, something that made me stop, made me say “shit.”
“What?” Delaney asked between strangled, tired breath.
“A fence,” I said.
The tall chain length fence stood outlined against the coming dawn. It stretched out in front of us as far as the eyes could see in both directions. I looked behind us, past Delaney’s bruised face into the dark. I could hear Joe coming. Maybe Momma too, but Joe was all that mattered. And I knew then that he’d never stop, that whatever fueled him was stronger than whatever fueled me. I knew nothing could save us but the baby Jesus, and I knew the baby Jesus wasn’t real.
“What do we do?”
I looked to Doom. He bobbled, bobbled, bobbled like what the fuck do you want from me?
“We head for the fence,” I said. “Wise men head East.”
“What do we do when we reach it?” Delaney asked.
“No fucking idea,” I said.
Delaney followed. He had no choice. I was his eyes then. And my eyes looked east to that fading star behind the fence. No choice but to believe.
We were fifty yards from the fence when Joe caught us. The last hundred feet of the chase, we squeezed everything we had out of us, moved as fast as we could, but of course it wasn’t enough. He thudded into Delaney who thudded into me. I ate a mouthful of dirt. Don’t worry, I thought to the dirt. You’ll be eating me right back soon enough.
I rolled over on my back. I held up Doom like a crucifix to a vampire. Joe smiled like goddamn right I am and raised the boxcutter so it twinkled in the first rays of real daylight. Behind him Momma looked on, panting, eyes scared but excited too. I looked at them and thought of something and started laughing like screams.
The three wise men and Joseph and the virgin Momma. The gang’s all here but baby Jesus. Laugh, I thought I’d die.
The shrooms made Joe’s face wiggle. He said something but my pulse plugged my ears and I couldn’t hear him. Joe put the box cutter to my face. He’s starting with my face, I thought. I thought help me baby Jesus.
God spoke a word like thunder and Joe’s head exploded.
He dropped like someone cut the cord holding him up. His broken skull leaked stuff onto the desert floor. The desert drank the liquid part greedily. Momma raised his hands like I surrender. I looked to see who he was surrendering to.
It was baby Jesus dressed in green, a rifle at his shoulder. Baby Jesus was baby bald with a big round head and big red cheeks. Baby Jesus had the body of a man. He kept his rifle on Momma. He barked orders. Momma followed them. I turned to Delaney on the dirt next to me.
“Baby Jesus saved us,” I said. “Holy shit. Like literally holy.”
Delaney laughed, the clean laugh of a man who’d been saved.
“You’re still tripping,” he said. “Read the fucking sign.”
He pointed to a metal sign on the fence, legible now in the morning light. The sign read MARINE CORPS LOGISTICAL BASE BARSTOW.
I looked back to baby Jesus. I saw where he wasn’t really bald, just shaved down to the scalp. He had Momma down on the ground next to Joe’s body. He looked to us. His eyes were terrible and fierce. Not a baby’s eyes at all.
But they wouldn’t be, would they?
“You fellahs okay?” he asked.
My laugh sounded a lot like Delaney’s then. The laugh of a man who’d been saved in more ways than one. I held out the Doom to baby Jesus.
“We are now,” I said. “Happy birthday. We brought gifts.”