Jenny strung the last of the burnt popcorn strings over the bows of the tree and stood back to admire her hard work with a skeptical, scheming smile. Stretched fat and flat, her distorted reflection stared back at her from the round faces of all the orange and black balls, a Halloween funhouse on the Holiest night of the year. Dollar store skeletons that looked like candlewax figures dangled limp and dead from every branch, eyeless sockets staring out into the unknown, witness to a darkness she could only imagine, a beautiful black void just beyond the periphery. Behind them glowed jack-o-lantern lights, two hundred of them, to be precise. They were cute, those lights, and had these innocent, three-toothed smiles that made Jenny think of a shy, goofy child caught whittling the skin from a dead cat. Evil could be cute. Black bows were scattered everywhere, as were the nooses she had made from all her shoelaces. It was hard to tie so many of them in one setting, thirteen coils on each one. Her fingers hurt. But they always hurt. She liked to stab the tips of them with straightpins and suck out the blood like a starving vampire. It was subtle self-mutilation, easy to hide. And fun. It was fun to hurt … a little.
The tree was a dwarf, only three feet tall. But make no mistake–it was evil. One-hundred percent demonic–a leprechaun with a bloody knife hidden behind its back, a cauldron of stewing bones at the end of its rainbow. On its highest point rested the head of one of her old dolls, a Cabbage Patch Kid once named Gretchen. But Gretchen’s name had changed when Jenny found the darkness, when pink ribbons were replaced with black lace, black nail polish, and her bright life painted black, dyed to the roots. The day the color was stolen. The day the gray clouds finally dropped and devoured her world in a thick, suffocating fog. There was no Henny Penny, no one to warn her. It just fell. She fell with it.
Annebelle Lee’s decapitated head looked out at her, her mouth a straight, determined line trying not to crack, like a child trying to fight back tears at Mommy’s funeral. Jenny had drawn stitches down the sides of her doll’s cheeks that looked like unfinished railroad tracks, and colored them with red marker. She had also bleached Gretchen’s pink face–filled it with pallor, injected it with sorrow, turned her into a porcelain doll no one would ever want. It had taken three days in the sink, soaking in a potent convection of Clorox and nail polish remover Jenny thought might be toxic to breathe. She wondered what it would be like to take a drink.
“You’re a traitor,” Annabelle Lee whispered to her. “How could you do this to me? How could you turn me into this horror? I trusted you. I loved you. I wanted you to hold me, sleep with me, love me in return. I wanted your love more than anything. I was an orphan, for God’s sake. How could you break my heart?”
Jenny walked to the tree and caressed the doll’s thick, stringy black hair. Annabelle Lee’s eyes stared at her, full of accusation and fear. Red paint, too much of it, dragged down the side of her cheeks in crooked streams. Jenny had wanted to make her look like she was crying blood, but instead she looked like her eyeballs had exploded. It was an emotional sight, like seeing an angel cry.
“Nevermore, babydoll,” Jenny cooed as she stroked the doll’s cold face and cried. “This will all be over soon.”
She went around the room, lighting candles throughout her studio apartment: two on the stove; three on the table beside the bed; one in the little bathroom that still had the previous tenant’s stains inside the toilet. The rest of the apartment was as much a shithole. She studied the fires, watching their flames sway wickedly in the warm wind from the furnace vents, little witches writhing on the stake.
On the coffee table were miniature statues, one of Santa, the other a tiny wicker reindeer with a golden bell around its neck. She had cut away Santa’s face with a kitchen knife–scratching away his effigy like the ancient Egyptians did to damn their pharaohs in the afterlife–and stuck the blunt tip of a broken pencil down the front his red trousers, creating a phallic protrusion. He was posed behind the deer, doing criminal things that Mrs. Claus had probably suspected for years. Not that anyone could do anything about him–Santa was judge and jury of the North Pole, the dominant male. A king, really; another man who had placed himself, like the Pope, above all others. Instead of kissing his ring, he wanted you to kiss his fat ass all year long, just to get on the right side of the list.
Knowing which side she was on this year, Jenny brought her fist down on Santa’s red hat, feeling his wire-body bend and bow to her savagery, prostrating him at the reindeer’s anus.
“That’s what you deserve, you dirty old man,” she said. “Every brokenhearted kid who didn’t get what they asked for knows you suck ass.”
She was biting her bottom lip, an old habit from childhood. Blood rolled into her mouth and mixed with her spit. Copper and Jack Daniels Devil’s Cut. She swallowed it greedily, wanted more. More blood and more booze.
“What are you looking at?” she asked Annabelle Lee. “Don’t you dare judge me. I can throw your soft little body away. And I’ll do it. You know I will, Anna. Splat–right in the trash, with the used rubbers, rotten hot dogs and diseased needles. You wouldn’t like that, would you–waking up with a molded, stiff wiener stabbing you in the mouth?”
The heat kicked on again, fanning the dying candles. The apartment was hot. Too hot. Sweat rolled down her face and her dark eyeliner ran with it, a river of wet, black ash, bitter on her lips. Just like her tears.
She needed someone, even if it was one of the homeless men down at the park. They were crazy, but interesting. She liked their stories, even if they were lies. Hers were, too.