They argued every year around this time.
She began her Christmas shopping before Halloween, and it never failed: his blood pressure spiked, his ulcers started acting up, and typically by Thanksgiving he had broken out in hives more than once.
It wasn’t that he hated the holidays. A part of him remembered that childlike excitement for the season as he savored the smells of peppermint and homemade fudge in the kitchen, or hummed along with the carols on a radio in a co-worker’s cubicle. He even got into the spirit enough to hang a strand of those icicle lights outside.
The problem was her spending. His wife was out of control.
* * * * *
She came from a large family. Where he had only his elderly mother to buy for, her extended family included both parents…a stepfather…four sisters…a brother…two aunts…an uncle…six cousins…twelve nieces…nine nephews…three brothers-in-law…and a sister-in-law she avoided like Ebola the other 364 days of the year.
She bought for them. Extravagantly. For all of them. He had never met anyone who prescribed to that old adage ‘tis greater to give than to receive more than his wife of thirty-one years. According to his better half, it’s the thought that counts was a cop-out for cheapskates and heathens who didn’t celebrate the reason for the season. Every year he feared the holidays would send them into bankruptcy. Never one to be unprepared for Black Friday, she talked him into taking out another loan against his 401(K). Throughout November and into December, a new credit card bill arrived in the mail twice a week.
One of these days, he half-joked, her generosity would be the death of him.
* * * * *
He went missing two weeks before Christmas.
The last time she saw him, they were leaving the place where desperate men sold their seed for quick, easy cash. He had argued against it, but she still had shopping to do. They met on his lunch break, and after that awkward business was done she took him next door to his favorite steakhouse. He felt like a dog, a treat tossed his way for doing some stupid trick.
Another grand in her pocket. Another name crossed off her list. She was pleased, but never finished.
The next day, when darkness fell and he still wasn’t home from the office, she started getting worried. He’d been working an insane amount of overtime (this was his last check before Christmas, after all), but he hadn’t returned her calls or replied to her text messages. It wasn’t like him, even when he was annoyed with her.
She paced back and forth, as much as she was able to. Boxes and bags of all colors, shapes, and sizes were stacked floor-to-ceiling in every room of the house. Maybe he’s right, she thought. I don’t know when to stop. Her hubby had always been infatuated with Greek mythology; the previous weekend he pointed to a painting of the Minotaur in a book he was reading, joked about how she was turning their home into a “labyrinth”. Eventually they would get lost in a maze of yuletide cheer and would never find their way out. That night, his quip had
conjured surreal eggnog dreams. She dreamed of a beast that walked like a man, but with massive reindeer antlers protruding from its skull.
She missed everything about him, even his bizarre sense of humor. “Where are you?” she wept until her eyes were red and swollen and she could weep no more. “What happened to you, my love?”
* * * * *
Around nine p.m., she wiped her nose on the back of her sleeve (by now she couldn’t find the furniture, much less a box of Kleenex) and forced herself to focus on the task at hand. In the morning there were gifts to give. Smiles to bring to children’s faces. Her family grieved with her, but this was their holiday too. She could put this off no longer. She began to take inventory of everything she needed to load into her Suburban for the festivities at her brother’s house bright-and-early. Where to begin? If she started here the whole thing might collapse, but then she couldn’t get to that without moving this . . . .
Grunting, she shoved aside an enormous red-and-green-wrapped box (a doll-house for her favorite niece, she remembered without looking at the tag).
Behind it, she found him.
Her husband had died sitting up, propped against an oblong package wrapped in snowflake foil. His face was frozen in a silent scream. One hand gripped a pair of scissors, the other -- inexplicably -- an empty cardboard tube, as if he had attempted to ward off something monstrous during his final moments.
She shrieked his name as she turned to run, her heart slamming in her chest.
But she couldn’t find her way out. Every path led to a dead end.
Too many presents. Too damn many . . . .
She staggered down a narrow path, passing every color of the rainbow. Nearly tripped over a cluster of pink and lavender bags full of perfumes and body wash for her sisters. Came to another dead end. Backtracked. Knocked over the new bicycle her youngest nephew Joey had asked Santa to bring him this year. Its cocoon of Batman gift-wrap split open, exposing a single black pedal that scraped a layer of flesh from her shin. She whimpered, crashed into another mountain of boxes. A curly yellow bow fell off of one, fluttered across her cheek like an injured bird jostled from its nest.
Her beloved had been right. Her kindness had created a labyrinth from one end of their home to the other.
Left turn. Right turn. Straight ahead. Back the way she came, or so she thought.
Elsewhere in the maze, something snuffled -- a sound like hot air blown through nostrils.
Heavy hooves clicked on hardwood floor.