The clock on the dash read two a.m. and Christmas music had been the only thing on the radio since Denton Kline left his sister’s place in Gila Bend. He reached over and shut it off, hoping to get a grip on his thoughts and maybe… just maybe the voices in his head would shut up.

  Why the hell did he even think of surprising his older sister by driving all the way to Arizona dressed as Santa? He shook his head and pounded on the steering wheel. Ardell left home when Denton was fourteen. She moved to a commune way the hell out in Gila Bend and never stayed in touch.

Up ahead, a long grade waited for him and an even longer night. He wrestled the shift lever down one gear and felt around under the seat until he came up with a half-empty bottle of Jack Daniels that he kept next to his .380 auto. He unscrewed the cap and took a swallow. He never got along with her anyway. And the guy she lived with? The jerk was a total asshole

Denton needed time to think, and this drive gave him plenty of that. He stopped for gas at a little station on the Arizona side of the Colorado River before crossing into California.

He pulled up to the pump and shut off the engine. Denton sighed and shoved the bottle back under the seat. When he straightened up, he saw in the rearview mirror that he was still wearing the Santa hat and fake whiskers. A couple of kids in the car at the next pump saw him and yelled, "Hey Santa. Where's your sleigh?" He wanted to flip them off but a guy, probably their father, peered around the pump. Denton, instead, gave the kids a lame little wave and went about filling his tank.

He got back in the Wagoneer, started the engine, and headed toward the westbound freeway onramp. 

The California State Agricultural checkpoint loomed ahead, and he braced himself for the grilling he'd get for being dressed like he was. Instead, the inspectors waved him through and shouted a "Merry Christmas" as he passed. 

After a mind-numbing hour of dark straight freeway later, a truckstop the size of Rhode Island beckoned him with a brightly lit billboard, flashing signs and just about every brand of fast food joint on earth.

He pulled into the lot and parked next to a couple of mud-covered 4x4s, a ten-year-old Hyundai, and a hulking Southwind RV.

He pressed his temples with the heels of his hands, but the voices persisted. He knew it had to be hunger and fatigue. The bottle of Jack looked to be almost gone. With a shaky hand, he shut off the engine, took a deep breath, and stepped out into the night.

After a quick scan of the area, Denton headed for the men’s room and washed up. Now fully awake but still a bit blurry from his friend Jack, he replaced the hat and whiskers and went inside the food mart for something to eat. The catcalls and comments from the truckers and assorted tourists just added to his headache, Denton was right on the edge, but he held it in.

The guy behind the counter said, “Happy Christmas to you sir,” with an East Indian accent.

Without a word, Denton slapped a couple of twenties on the counter and took three slices of pepperoni pizza, a small bottle of Jack and a coffee back to the Wagoneer.

The coffee did nothing for his headache, but he took a deep breath and got back on the road. The drone of the engine was interrupted by a sound on the roof and splatters of water on the windshield. "Just great!" he smacked the steering wheel and yelled out loud, "It's raining in the frickin' desert." Denton flicked on the wipers which only served to smear his forward view with wet desert grime. The rain fell harder and louder. He took the last swig of Jack from the bottle under the seat and punched a button for an oldies station, but the music had paused for some mattress commercial. He turned down the volume and cracked open the window a little. The night air was cool and best of all – it was quiet. No Christmas music, Mexican polkas, or preachers, and no voices in his head. That swig of Jack started to work its magic, and his eyelids grew heavy with the hypnotic rhythm of the wipers.

“Hey! Wake up! What’s the matter with you? You’re dancing on the Bott’s dots. Wake the hell up!” The voices in his head were back.

The rain had stopped. In a couple of hours, he'd be back in L.A. and done with relatives at last.  Denton was now close enough he could pick up some of other music – Neo Death Metal music. He knew L.A. was a place where everything was available… even on Christmas Eve.

Denton was almost to the East L.A. interchange when the voices in his head came back so loud they drowned out the screaming electric guitar riffs and drum solos on the radio. He recognized one voice over the others. It was his sister Ardell's, and she was railing on him—nagging, picking, whining, and lecturing him for not making something of himself. Her voice was so loud he could've sworn she was sitting behind him. He drifted over to the shoulder somewhere near the Fremont Street exit and reached under the seat. But he wasn't reaching for the bottle of Jack. He’d already finished that. Unable to see straight from the voices and persistent headache, he grabbed the .380 and unloaded it at the backseat. When the smoke cleared, the upholstery was in tatters - chewed up by the bullets. The rear window of the Wagoneer was shot out…gone. He turned back around and looked down at all the spent cartridges. All he needed was some quiet so he could think. He put his face in his hands. His ears were ringing from the gunshots.

 Because his eyes hadn’t readjusted to the darkness after the muzzle flash, he didn’t see the red and blue lights of the Highway Patrol cruiser that pulled up behind him. He watched the two patrolmen get out of their car in his mirror — one on each side of his Wagoneer.

He closed his eyes and waited for the tap on his window. He cranked it open just enough to hear, “Well. Hello Santa. We noticed you stopped here on the roadway and your rear window is damaged. Do you need assistance?”

He shook his head. “Everything’s fine. I just spilled my coffee and was cleaning it up.” A second Patrolman approached and whispered to the first. The first one looked at Denton. “Sir, something appears to be leaking from your vehicle.”

“I’m fine, officer.”

"We'd like to show you. Please step out, and we'll make sure everything is all right.”

He opened the door and, reeking of Bourbon, stepped out and leaned against the door.

“Wow, Santa. That must've been some Christmas party. Come with us, please."

He followed them to the rear of the car, shading his eyes from the glare of their spotlights.

“After we make sure your vehicle is safe, we’re going to administer a breath test, if you don’t object.”

Denton shook his head. But then he wasn’t in any condition to object.

The patrolman shined his flashlight under the car.

“What is that?”

Denton bent down to look. “It’s probably just transmission fluid – I’ll take it in tomorrow. Okay?”

The first patrolman said. “Uh yeah. It doesn’t look like it.

The other patrolman shined his light through the shot-out window.

“Sir, what's under the blanket in the back? May I take a look?”

“Is this really necessary?”

“Sir – please.”

Denton stood back. His fake beard and hat blew to one side as cars and trucks flew past them on the freeway. Holding the blanket with one hand, the patrolman pulled his service weapon and ordered Denton on the ground.

“Hey!” He called to the other patrolman – “You better get the Coroner down here. We’ve got a dead female in the back of the vehicle.”

He kept his gun trained on Denton.

"Santa. It looks like you've been a naughty boy."

January 17, 2020 00:41

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