Contest #178 winner 🏆

126 comments

Christmas Crime Fiction

Squat, beige and Soviet, the Marie Antoinette Apartments stood against the stale gray Minneapolis sky. Irony of the worst kind, he thought, blandly ugly and unconscious. He would take exquisitely self-aware irony any day over this three-story architectural monstrosity, “classed up” with tacked on ionic Greek columns, harsh blue LED Christmas lights wrapped inexpertly around them, canned Christmas classics pumping through the air.


God, this place was only better than minimum security prison by a hair. But it was all he could afford now, so he’d just have to lower his eyes—and his standards—every time he approached. He tried to avoid the other people in the building, but a few of the near indigent souls, especially the family across the hall, insisted on pestering him with their lowbrow holiday cheer—the cheap gift of homemade cookies, the invitation of a seat at their dinner table on Christmas night on the flip side of a child’s crude drawing of a Christmas tree slipped under his door.


All this might have been more bearable if anyone he knew now understood why the Marie Antoinette Apartments pained his soul, filled him with righteous rage. He’d certainly never get that from his obtuse, court-appointed therapist, a small, garish woman whose office and clothing reeked of TJ Maxx. So, he amused himself by using up their fifty minutes complaining about how much he hated living there.


His fingers itched to blow the place up, her told her. To set it alight. She told him there were healthier ways to channel and examine his negative emotions so he could eventually let them go. He needed to think about what the Marie Antoinette represented to him, she told him, to look deeper, and to perhaps think about its positive attributes instead. 


This made him laugh hysterically. How much deeper can I go than living inside the damned building? Should I dive into the meaning of my laminate, faux wood floors and Formica kitchen counters, the rancid smell of old cooking that oozes from the graying, cracked walls studded with nail holes and abandoned, archeological remnants of tape from all the miserable souls who inhabited the purgatory before me? How about the rust-stained, leaking toilet and body-oil-marked tub? Should I look for Rorshachs in its grimy patterns?


That’s not what I meant, she said quietly, and you know it.


Well, I cherish my negative emotions, he said, suddenly tired. They’re the only things keeping me going these days.

~

Near morning a couple of weeks before Christmas, after one too many sleeping pills, he had a vivid dream. 


It started out of focus as he dragged himself toward the Marie Antoinette, bearing his usual cloak of heavy, gray resignation and pushed hard against the main door, as he always had to. Only this time, the door sprang open and instead of jarring, cold Christmas music, warm strains of exquisite chamber music vibrated through him. All came into focus. The entryway had grown to twice its size, the gray, non-descript industrial carpet replaced with a glowing, mahogany parquet floor. Instead of aluminum mailboxes and a frameless wall mirror on either side of the narrow space, giant gilt mirrors reflecting golden candlelight and gold and cream fleur-de-lis silk wallpaper covered the walls. The walls heaved outward until the room became what it wanted to be--a grand palace ballroom, complete with gently tinkling, candle-lit chandeliers. A ballroom for him alone.


The effect was ostentatious but stunning, the way his ex-wife had decorated their homes in the city, on the island, at the lake, near the slopes—their homes for every preposition—all gone now. He dream-prayed he had died and gone to heaven. 


But he awoke to the same ordinary life, the drab apartment, a shift at the same greasy job, and another boring session after it with his therapist, the only person he ever said more to than can-I-take-your-order-would-you-like-fries-with-that. A woman he would have sneered at, if not ignored, in his old life and would again someday when his luck turned. Would he tell her about his dream? He decided he would. It seemed safe enough, wasn’t about the past, the present, or even the future. It was just a dream.


But was it? As his workday dragged on, the customers who filed into the restaurant looked at him, smiling, with something more, it seemed to him, than mere pre-Christmas cheer. He began to wonder if the dream wasn’t a message. Maybe his luck was about to turn. He’d paid his dues after all.


That old feeling began to tingle again. 


By the time his four o’clock appointment with TJ (as he’d taken to calling her, even to her face) arrived, he’d decided he must keep the dream to himself until he knew more. He had to get through the session, get home, eat a little something and take his sleeping pills.


You seem distracted today, TJ said late in the hour. Something happen this week?


Same old, same old. Same crappy job, same crappy apartment. He shifted his gaze to the pressed board Believe! plaque near the window before she could read him, but she was astute, this small, tacky woman. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw her cock her head.


You’re not complaining like you usually do. Did something change?


Like I said, nope. Maybe I’ve adjusted to living in a shithole, I dunno. He attempted to give her an aw shucksgrin, but felt his face contorting in weird ways, so he scrambled to throw her a bone.


Have I told you about my neighbors across the way? He leaned back and sneered, coming up with an awful lie. I’d swear to god she’s killing him sometimes, and, man, I wish she’d succeed so I can get some rest. What do you think it means, doc, that I don’t care if he dies?


TJ sighed and drummed her red fingernails on her thigh. It’s clsoe four-fifty, she said. Let’s just pick this up next week. 

~

The dream started the same as before. Heavy quotidian dread as he approached the stunted building, growing excitement and wonder as it opened to a Versailles-like hall of mirrors. But this time, the hall was filled with people, giant people, people twice his height, in silken, 18th century finery, swirling and spinning around the room, wind-up dolls in white wigs with faces he recognized. His old clients, wealthy people he’d cheated and stolen from for years, people he’d fooled into being his friends. People from the life he wanted back desperately. 


He tried to speak, to get their attention, but nothing came, not even air. As he watched, the dancers grew larger. Wait, no—he grew smaller. He was shrinking, becoming more and more insignificant. An insect. A speck. Dirt.


He would always be dirt.

~

He stumbled through the rest of the week, his nights vast and dreamless. TJ seemed surprised to see him in the waiting room early but said nothing. He sat on her couch, cleared his throat. I had this dream, he said. That my building became a palace, but one I will never have access to again. His voice shook. 


She handed him the tissue box. Yes. 


He gave her a brief description of the dream.


What do you think it means? she asked. 


Isn’t that your job?


No, she said simply, and crossed her arms, waiting.


I guess…I don’t think I’ll ever again have the life I had before. I don’t think, he said, swallowed, I deserve it.


No, she said again, not clarifying what she meant, which oddly, made him feel more respect for her. 


So, what now?


That’s up to you. 


Well, a hint might be nice, he whispered, wanting to scream. He swallowed you are my damn therapist after all.


Okay. What do you miss most about your old life? Not from in here. She tapped her head. Not ego. From here. She tapped her chest. Heart. What do you really miss?


He shook his head. I dunno. Without those things on the table, nothing. I mean, I don’t have kids, my ex-wife was a money-grubbing bitch, and my friends…shit, I didn’t really have those. Maybe luck? But that’s not what you mean either. I know what you’re getting at, but you’re barking up the wrong tree.


She smiled, the first full smile he’d seen from her since they’d met, before she’d gotten to know him. I don’t think so. I think you’re getting somewhere. Maybe your dream was telling you more than you think. Like I’ve said before, dig deeper, go further. The answers are there, inside that building and inside you.


He choked back a snarky whatever Obi Wan, and nodded at her. Glancing at the clock above the door, he stood, smoothing his sweaty palms against his jeans.


Hold on. She held up a finger and smiled again. I have something for you.


He stared, not comprehending. She turned to fish something out of a paper bag then turned back, holding out a flat package wrapped in green tissue paper and red curly ribbon. Of course. Christmas was only four days away.


He stammered, cheeks reddening, I didn’t get you anything. He didn’t know why he was embarrassed, which only made him blush harder.


She laughed. I was not expecting you to. Don’t worry about it, it’s no big deal. Merry Christmas.


Merry, yeah, he said, looking down at his name, Jeb, in black marker on the paper, an inexpertly drawn holly leaf and berries below it. A feeling spread, not altogether unpleasant, replacing ungenerous thoughts about the cheesy gift she’d likely procured at TJ Maxx. 


Thank you, Geraldine, he mumbled and bumbled out the door.

~

He worked Christmas Eve day, took the bus and trudged home as the sun set again too early, the day again too short, carrying his fast-food dinner and a bottle of California pinot noir he’d splurged on. It was only four, but it felt like midnight, and his near unfurnished apartment felt more featureless and tired and depressing than prison ever had been. Because it was his choice to leave it so, he realized.


He had nowhere else to go, so he busied himself with eating and drinking, the food cold and congealed, and the wine’s mediocrity disappointing. Folding up the empty, redolent burger paper and fries’ box, he glanced at the present Geraldine had given him, still unopened on the kitchen counter. He wasn’t sure whether he’d saved it because it was his only gift, or because he didn’t really care about it. Either way, he might as well open it now.


He washed his greasy hands in the kitchen sink and poured another glass of wine. He picked up the gift and carefully untied the red ribbon, did his best not to tear the green paper as he picked at the tape, then slid the paper away. 


Not a tacky nothing after all, but a green, leatherbound book, like the ones his ex-wife had bought by the shelf load from antiquaries to decorate their homes, curated for color and size rather than content. But this wasn’t inert decoration. It was chosen for him to read. 


He snorted. Crime and Punishment. He knew the gist of the story, though he suspected he’d have to read it to get the nuances she intended. Funny, he found himself looking forward to it. 


His doorbell rang. Book in hand, still smiling with surprised respect for Geraldine, he answered the door to find the frazzled woman from across the hall. 


Hi. Jeb, right? Her grin was crooked, a little shy. Infectious. He nodded, and she said, Marissa. You never responded to our invite to dinner for tomorrow evening. Can you make it? We’d be glad to have you. We’re making turkey with all the fixings. A couple other neighbors are coming.


He considered this only a moment, tasting the oily coating of his pitiful dinner as he licked his lips. You know what, yes, Marissa. I’d be honored. Can I bring anything?


Just yourself. She grinned again. Six o’clock sharp, if that’s okay, because of the munchkins’ early bedtime.


Sure, he said, finding himself grinning in response. Six.


Great. She glanced at his book, then inside the doorway at his near bare apartment. Looks like a bookshelf is in order, hunh? Maybe even a sofa? She laughed.


He couldn’t help but laugh with her. Yes, he said. It’s time. Again, that soft, warm lightness pushing out something hard and heavy he hadn’t even known was there. What was it? 


Only later, while lying on his secondhand mattress on the floor, after he’d read the long first part of the leatherbound book about young, impoverished Raskolnikov scheming and rationalizing his decision to murder a pawnbroker for her money, did it come to him. Like Raskolnikov, he'd lost something along the way. Something essential and tender that had shriveled to a hard stone inside him once he began to drip Ponzi-scheme money. Something poor-little-rich girl Marie Antoinette likely never knew her entire tragic, gold-plated life.


That night he dreamt again, a simple dream. The Marie Antoinette Apartments remained an ugly, pedestrian building, but he entered with lightness, that warmth down to his bones. He greeted neighbors in the lobby by name, delivered groceries to the housebound old lady down the hall, went into his simply but warmly furnished apartment to make himself a nourishing meal. 


Christmas morning, he leapt out of bed. If he was lucky, he might find gifts for the children across the hall before noon.

December 24, 2022 19:14

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126 comments

Zack Powell
23:15 Jan 03, 2023

This. This right here is good stuff. Great use of the prompt to chronicle the tale of an upward swing in someone's downbeat life. These types of stories are my favorite: character-driven with an emphasis on growth/development and the struggles of getting through life. Michał beat me to the story analysis (and did it better than I could anyway), so instead, I'm gonna mention the things I thought did piece did well in terms of craft. First, the lack of quotation marks for dialogue. Don't see that often enough in stories, and it's a shame, bec...

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Molly Kelash
00:11 Jan 04, 2023

Thank you, Zack, for your time and attention to this. I appreciate your view into my (attempt) to take all of the "tell" I could out of this story. Sometimes it felt like I was cutting too close to the bone, but I'm glad the final effect left you with a sense of lushness. And yeah, I had fun with the lack of quotation marks...leaving them out absolutely felt like a Jeb state of mind thing. Best of luck to you as well!

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Michał Przywara
21:39 Jan 03, 2023

Great voice here! It's so full of bitter vitriol at the beginning, that the tone alone does a lot of storytelling. Same with the vocabulary he uses, and his dream. I suspect he only got this apartment because of the name, and then despite hating it, stuck to it out of some subconscious hope that Marie would help him from beyond the grave. His transformation is not sudden. It's very gradual, and likely the dream was as much a key ingredient as him just having lots of time to adjust to this new reality. Geraldine no doubt knew this, and bide...

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Molly Kelash
22:20 Jan 03, 2023

Good catch on the Christmas Carol elements--they were very intentional! I'm glad that you read his transformation as gradual because I was afraid with the limited wc it might seem too insta. Truly appreciate your insightful read and feedback. :)

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Michał Przywara
22:30 Jan 06, 2023

Congratulations on the win!

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Molly Kelash
22:36 Jan 06, 2023

Thank you, Michał!!!!

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20:20 Jan 06, 2023

I'm just a teenager and also a storyteller. I hope one day I can write in the way you did. While reading this, I really felt something real but it was also like a dream. Thank you ! And I hope you always keep expressing your feelings in this way,by writing...

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Molly Kelash
21:15 Jan 06, 2023

Thank you for your kind words, Ruveyha. I write all the time and am constantly perfecting, which it sounds like you are doing as well, so brava to you. Keep on keepin' on!

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17:46 Jan 14, 2023

My first thought upon finishing was, "aww, the Grinch's heart grew two sizes that day..." This story sort of snuck up on me and I felt myself melting right along with Jeb as he reflects on his life and opens his heart and mind to what is right in front of him. I like the slow arc of his transformation and his resistance to it until he finds himself giving in. Really well done. The lack of quotation marks for the dialogue was a bit off for me, but I adjusted to it and felt like it was more of a narration instead of a flashback or happening ...

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Molly Kelash
22:13 Jan 14, 2023

Thank you, Jeannette. There is definitely a bit of a Grinch in Jeb! I'm glad you could overcome the lack of quotation mark--it was really a stylistic choice that felt right in the moment, something to match Jeb's joyless view of the world. Glad it didn't ultimately hamper your enjoyment of the story. :)

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Sasha N.
00:23 Jan 09, 2023

I recently worked with someone who mentioned how therapist/client interactions in fiction tend to be exposition heavy (overtly so) and undermine much of the magic in storytelling. Having been guilty of this, reading the interactions between this client and his therapist felt like a lesson in the right way to leverage such interactions. Everything else about the story, top notch. So much change in so few words is a great accomplishment.

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Molly Kelash
15:14 Jan 09, 2023

Thank you! I wanted Jeb and the building front and center, what was going on inside both of them, so to speak. So while the therapist was key, she was always something seen through his filter, as an annoyance first, and a catalyst for change second. Cheers.

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Wally Schmidt
19:51 Jan 06, 2023

You are a born storyteller. Or maybe you're not. Maybe you have to work very hard at your craft. I don't know. It just feels like you have that camera lens eye pointing the reader to what you want them to see. And it all feels so right. Congratulations!

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Molly Kelash
21:21 Jan 06, 2023

Thank you, Wally. Born or not, I have been writing all my life and honing my craft one way or another since I can remember, so I appreciate you can see a glimmer of that in this piece. Sometimes it all comes together, I guess!

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Wally Schmidt
21:36 Jan 06, 2023

And isn't it amazing when it does?!?! The scenes with the therapist particularly intrigued me because I wrote a story called The Cancer Patient which takes place between a therapist and the MC and I literally had to google 'what do therapists say to clients'. I guess I didn't hit the mark, because even though I thought it was one of my better stories, it didn't get any love on Reedsy. You have showed me the way on that point.

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Molly Kelash
21:54 Jan 06, 2023

Hehe. Guess it helps to have two therapists in my family and a few others as friends! ;)

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Wally Schmidt
22:27 Jan 06, 2023

That'll do it! And now I know who to consult if I ever decide to put a therapist in my story again. 👍

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Indira N
23:49 Jan 25, 2023

Nice work. You really set the scene. I felt the story come alive through the wording. Although, I noticed one minor error on the fourth paragraph in the first sentence. All in all, great story.

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Molly Kelash
20:42 Jan 26, 2023

Thank you! I will look back for the error!

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Molly Kelash
19:12 Jan 28, 2023

Found it. So weird that I couldn't see it before. Guess it goes to show that we all need editors!

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Indira N
19:24 Jan 28, 2023

Don't worry, it takes time and an ongong practice for new and advance writers to edit. I'm still new and I'm working on it. :)

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Molly Kelash
19:59 Jan 28, 2023

Even advanced writers need copy editors! :)

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Indira N
21:17 Jan 28, 2023

That's true as well. Anyway, I think you're doing quite well in your writing and editing. :)

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Kelsey Mathias
05:41 Jan 15, 2023

Hi Molly, I think this is a real place...? I used to identify with Jeb...now I see in my simple life more blessings than I can count. I do believe our dreams have meanings...we just need to "dig deeper" to find them. I wonder, have you read Crime and Punishment? If so, was that your inspiration for this story, or was it a dream? Congratulations on a well-deserved win!

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Molly Kelash
14:47 Jan 15, 2023

Thank you Kelsey! You must be a Minneapolitan! It sure is a real place. I drove by it one day, about a week before this competition, and laughed at its absurdity, deciding it needed to be a "character" in a story soon. I read Crime and Punishment long ago, but it wasn't a conscious inspiration, the insertion of the book itself part of the flow I was in. TBH, I wasn't conscious of any direct influence of any story until I was writing it.

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Kelsey Mathias
05:45 Jan 16, 2023

no...I'm in California...but out of curiosity I googled the name! It's amazing the unconscious stuff that pours out of our fingers when we start writing...sometimes a delightful surprise to us.

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Placidia Chiwita
17:50 Jan 13, 2023

Wow, there is such beautiful imagery in this story. You described the setting so perfectly, I could practically see it. It's a skill I am having trouble mastering and seeing it done so perfectly is motivating.

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Molly Kelash
18:06 Jan 13, 2023

Thank you, Placidia! It's often a question of what to leave in and what to leave to the reader's imagination, which comes more from feel than calculated forethought. Keep on keepin' on!

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Parker Henry
12:03 Jan 13, 2023

Hi Molly, lovely story. Would you mind me reading this and posting a yt video of it?

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Molly Kelash
18:07 Jan 13, 2023

Parker, I am flattered, but any chance I could get more info from you? What's your YT channel?

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Julie Squires
20:43 Jan 12, 2023

Really awesome writing, really great story. Congrats on your win! :)

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Molly Kelash
22:14 Jan 14, 2023

Thank you , Julie!

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13:49 Jan 12, 2023

pLAGRIZING THIS STORY!

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Molly Kelash
15:35 Jan 12, 2023

I really hope you are kidding.

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