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It seems like just yesterday when they were last here,

Sharing their laughter and their love,

Playing silly games and offering warm hugs.

 

Telling bedtime stories,

Of giants and beanstalks,

Jack Horner and Miss Muffett too.

 

Family meals,

School plays,

And summertime fun.

 

The beach,

The boardwalk,

Taffy and arcades.

 

A milkshake and french fries,

Special times,

Fun times.

 

It seems like just yesterday when my mother held me in her arms,

While an aunt made goofy faces,

And funny sounds.

 

Grandparents, parents, aunts, uncles, and cousins,

Ah, yes, the cousins,

All sizes, all shapes.

 

Boys and girls alike,

Playing in the old barn,

Cowboys and cowgirls.

 

Pretend horses, and sticks for guns and bats,

Toy trucks and wagons,

A ride.

 

With me in the middle,

An uncle pulling,

And another to the rear.

 

Such joy,

When sometimes doing things,

Things we knew we shouldn’t.

 

Yes, we were carefree,

And worried not,

Life was forever.

 

Fireflies,

Hide-and-seek,

And freeze tag.

 

Seasons came and seasons went,

Holidays too,

Thanksgiving, Christmas, and each new year.

 

Sleigh bells,

Santa,

The tree, the lights, and the angel perched high above.

 

Turkeys and hams and holiday treats,

Presents and eggnog,

Joy and comfort.

 

But it’s mostly quiet now,

As I often sit, lost in thought,

They’re gone now.

 

My grandparents,

My parents, uncles, and aunts.

The givers of hugs, love, and much-cherished treats.

 

Times change,

Wrinkles come,

And memories fade.

 

Falling leaves,

Long, cold nights,

And sad, lonely hearts.

 

It’s almost Christmas,

And it seems like just yesterday,

But they’re no longer here.

Officer Rudy Kramer drew his pistol, a nine-millimeter that, as always, was set to fire—a round in the chamber, fifteen in the magazine, and the safety off. Then he took a deep breath and a long hard swallow that first sent his prominent Adam’s apple down, and then back up again.

His heart, thumping against the inside of his chest, was a metronome on steroids.

Bump. Bump. Bump.

There was no backup to call.

No snarling K-9 to send.

No tear gas.

No SWAT unit.

To make matters worse he couldn’t find his flashlight.

Like it or not, the time had come and there was no alternative.

He had to go it alone.

So Rudy, a highly-decorated veteran cop who was just shy of his fiftieth birthday, started the search slowly, carefully, and methodically, clearing each of the rooms precisely as he’d been taught in the academy.

Five down.

So far, so good.

Only two rooms remained, including that room.

The one where—

He heard a sound and stopped dead still, holding his breath.

A beat passed and he heard it again.

Clunk.

The noise came from down the hallway.

The kitchen.

His heart picked up the pace.

BumpBumpBumpBump

Clunk.

He aimed the barrel of his pistol down the dark corridor.

Watching.

Waiting.

Clunk. Clunk.

Ice cubes dropping into the plastic bin.

He exhaled, slowly.

His heart downshifted a gear.

Bump. Bump. Bump.

Next came a low hummm and a soft whirrrr.

The refrigerator’s compressor.

The kitchen would have to wait until after he checked the room where “IT” happened.

Unable to put it off any longer, Rudy turned and moved slowly across the hardwood toward the open door of “that” room.

With each step the old floorboards sounded off with a faint and screechy creak.

A lone drop of sweat slalomed its way down his backbone until it dipped beneath the waistband of his favorite boxers, the red plaid pair he’d received as a birthday gift from his wife Ruth, the love of his life since they’d first met in high school.

He paused, cocking his head to one side, listening.

Adrenaline dialed his senses to hyper-alert.

He detected the individual scents of the dust motes that danced in the moonlight spilling through each windowpane.

He sensed his own blood streaming and spewing through even the tiniest vessels within his body.

His eardrums pounded inside his head, begging to hear the slightest of sounds, like those of those stinky dust particles as they spiraled and sailed their way to the oak flooring until they landed with the collective volley of hundreds of earsplitting thuds.

Still, in spite of the cacophony of “house” noises that assaulted his hearing, the absolute quiet inside the house was absolutely deafening and quite maddening, to say the least.

And there was that constant hammering of the antique mantle clock. The battering and grindings of tiny gears and cogs and wheels as they worked against one another.

Tick … Tick … Tick …

Outside, a brutal December nor’easter pushed and pulled on the leafless, gangly limbs of the old Hackberry in the side yard.

The corner streetlamp backlit the tree’s gnarled appendages, sending its dark shadow in through the windows to wave and sway on the interior walls, including the one spattered with splotchy-red stains and, well, that other stuff. The stuff he didn’t want to think about.

The Hackberry’s tiniest branches and twigs scraped and scratched against the exterior of the house—dozens of skeletal fingers strumming a clapboard harp. The eerie display reminded Rudy of a maestro’s arms and hands as he brings his orchestra toward a final crescendo.

Same song and show every night.

Every single night of his miserable life.

Night after night after lonely night.

Whir, click, clunk, scrape, tick, scratch, and the bump of his grief-induced heartbeat.

The macabre concerto had repeated each night since his beautiful wife, a once loving woman who’s mind gradually overflowed with depression and psychosis, used his service weapon, the same gun he held in his sweaty hand right now, to scatter the parts of her that once contained her memories, thoughts, silent prayers, and dreams of growing old together, all over the walls of that room.

He could no longer bear to watch the shadows dance.

The music had reached the coda.

It was time for the maestro’s finale.

The fat lady was singing her ass off.

He raised the gun and pressed the barrel against the roof of his mouth.

Whir, click, clunk, scrape, tick, bump, thud … BANG!

. . . . . . . . .

Tick … Tick … Tick …