Christmas is tomorrow.

For almost a year, I have endured stares from friends, internal self-admonishment, and “helpful suggestions”. For almost a year, I have had people attempt to remove from me what is mine; through offhand remarks, through drunken fights over the true meaning of paranoia, in using the cover of care; but it is my secret, and my burden to bear. For almost a year, I have been barely living.

On January 1st of this year, I woke up severely hungover, spitting ash and breathing out the remnants of the pack of cigarettes I inhaled the night before.

Rolling over, I pushed my roommate Mikey off of my arm-cum-pillow and raised myself up on my elbows to see that our apartment had just barely survived a bomb attack; at least that’s what it looked like. Trash everywhere, bare flesh mingling with half-worn clothes, flecks of puke decking the halls; it was a veritable Renaissance painting of degeneracy.

Across the floor, there was a slew of bodies. A good mixture of friends, friends of friends, and utter strangers. Par the course for the four years Mikey and I had been living together; Halloween and New Years were always our big party days.

I got up slowly, my brain at-sea and my stomach awash with gurgling notches. Pain throbbed from every corner of my body as I footed my way to the bathroom. It was like a scene from a typical college trash flick. Someone asleep in the bathtub, an underbrush of red solo cups littering the floor; even a nice splash of some dark brackish liquid coating the side of the sink.

Quaint, I thought.

My stomach lurched. I’d have to nosh on something fried and greasy later. I’d probably send Mikey out; he owed me one after the incident with the toaster oven last night.

I reached out to turn on the sink, and stopped. On my wrist, a red ribbon was wrapped tightly, clinging to my skin. Weird, I thought. We didn’t go to any clubs. We were inside the apartment the entire night except a last-minute beer run to the corner store.

Picking at the band with my finger, it felt soft; silky, almost, like the kind you would wrap a present with. I noticed that there were words embroidered into the edge of the band, in a neat, white, flowery script. I brought it closer to my face and muttered them under my breath.

“Do Not Open Before Christmas”.

I laughed. “What the hell?”

The stranger in the tub stirred, shuffling against the stained porcelain, and turned over. Wading through the marsh of my memories from last night, I tried to remember where I might’ve gotten it.

In for six shots and a couple of beers, my search returned nothing but shapes and colors moving haphazardly to the throb of a distant, pounding beat.

Later, when we’d finally cleared the flesh from the floors and I was doing the dishes, I offhandedly asked Mikey, staring at the ribbon I’d neglected to take off.

“Did you, uh, I don’t know, wake up with anything weird?”

He looked up at me from the couch where he was busy scrubbing some mysterious stain out of the seat. “Nah, didn’t score last night.”

I was confused for a second, and then laughed, “No, I mean like this,” I brought my arm up, showing him the ribbon.

For a moment, he stared, and then a weird look crept onto his face. “Yeah, actually,” He brought his right leg up to the arm of the couch and rolled up the leg of his jeans, “Got one on my ankle.”

“Does it say something?”

“Do Not Open Before Christmas.”

We were both silent for a second, and then his face lit up. He snapped his fingers, “Those chicks last night! The ones in the slutty elf costumes. Black hair? You remember?”

My memory was still completely shot. “Not really.”

“Yeah, there were two of them. I think mine was Sasha or something; yours started with a ‘B’”

“Mine? Yours?”

“How do you not remember? They were all over us.”

“I thought you said you didn’t get laid.”

He shrugged, looking a bit indignant. “I didn’t. Neither did you. But every move we made, they were right there, on top of us. And they had a bunch of ribbons with them. I remember feeling drunker and drunker, almost like I’d taken a pill, and then she put a hand around my thigh. I thought she was gonna get hot with it, but she went down to my ankle and slipped this thing around it. The next thing I remember was waking up next to your sorry ass.”

“You were the one using my arm as a pillow, shitstain.”

Given reality’s shaky baton, my brain was now slipping fragments of this girl with the B name into last night’s whirlwind; raven-black hair, skin pale as the twice-filtered vodka she was sipping on, a smile painted on her face like a snake about to strike. The costume, leaving almost nothing to the imagination, hadn’t seemed out of place at the time; but in the judging light of day, a niggling doubt started to creep into the back of my head.

“Do you think they drugged us?”

“Hell man, I don’t know. Is anything missing?”

I went to check the safe in my bedroom as Mikey rifled through the drawers in the closet where we kept important mutual documents. We still had all the cash and cards in our wallets and all of our electronics seemed to be accounted for. Nothing was out of place, except for the ribbons.

We sat down on the couch, avoiding the stains, and looked at our respective bands. They were twins; bright red, soft to the touch, embroidered in the same white thread.

Hesitantly, I spoke the absurd words hanging in the air: “Do you think we should leave them on?”

Expecting him to laugh it off or call me an idiot, it unsettled me even more when he returned my question with another, nerves shaking his voice. “What if something happens?”

We sat in silence, toying with the ribbons, neither of us making a move to remove them.

Fortunately, Winter was still in full, freezing throttle, and living in New York, there wasn’t much hope for warmth anytime soon. This meant that long sleeves and pants were the norm, and we didn’t have to worry much about anyone seeing and questioning our dumb secret.

Unfortunately, as is the case with most things, it didn’t take long for someone to notice. For me, it was my boss. I worked in sales, so even if it hadn’t been cold as sin, I’d still be expected to wear long-sleeved dress button ups. In the bathroom, at the sink, I rolled up my sleeves and he looked over and laughed.

“Saving yourself for someone special?”

I laughed along, not wanting to talk about it, but he pressed on. “Hoping Santa delivers you himself this year?”

Staring at my reflection in the mirror, letting the suds run off of my hands, I saw my eye twitch. He finished up and left, still laughing at his own joke.

It didn’t take long for the word to spread. Like gnats, people and their comments surrounded my head, buzzing in one ear and out the other.

Mikey was also getting the hotseat treatment from his co-workers, from other friends, even from his family.

At night, we would come home and commiserate over a bottle, half-heartedly laughing off the worries of the day, trading the latest comments about our shared shame.

As the months passed, the stares became sharper, the words harsher, and it started to become a little too much to bear.

After a particularly long day at work, through half a bottle of Jack, we sat on the couch, silent; the TV buzzed, a re-run rolling in the background.

“My family thinks I’ve gone mental, y’know.”

I glanced over at Mikey; he looked terrible. His eyes were red-rimmed, sitting stale and dull at the back of his skull. It looked like he hadn’t slept in days. He took another swig from the bottle and hiccuped, his stomach gurgling loudly. “Mom keeps telling me she’s worried, dad says it ain’t right for a man of my age to be playing games or actin’ superstitious or shit. Even my brothers look at me weird. And don’t get me started on work.”

He didn’t need to; he’d already told me about his latest performance review, wherein his boss had said his numbers were showing serious signs of trouble.

I sighed deeply, looking into the bottom of my mug, wishing it full again. “Yeah man, dunno. It’s stupid; it’s always been stupid. But I just–”

“Can’t. You can’t. You get sick too,” he interrupted. And he was right. Every single time I’d gone to take the ribbon off, a feeling of nausea came over me, kicking up muck in the back of my throat and making my ears burn. Even thinking about it made my heart beat faster.

“I’m sick of this shit,” he muttered, standing up and kicking the table. A stack of magazines slid to the floor, spilling across the rug. I continued staring into my mug, watching the dregs of my drink swirl around the bottom as my hands tremored.

Mikey stared at the wall for a second; I could almost feel the heat radiating off of him, anger rolling through the air in unfettered waves. Then, without another word, he disappeared into his bedroom, slamming the door.

For nearly an hour, I sat and absently watched TV, sipping away at another drink, trying to numb out the pressing strands of unreality tempting my mind into oblivion.

Then, like a rocket from the crypt, an inhuman-sounding scream tore through the apartment. I jumped, my mug clattering to the floor. Looking around wildly for the source, I ran to the front hall. Another scream, louder this time, pulsed through the hallway; it was coming from Mikey’s bedroom.

Standing outside his room, shaking from head to toe, I slapped my palm on the door and yelled his name. In response, I was met with a third scream; I’d never heard anything so loud in my life. The cliche “blood-curdling” rings through my head when I think back to it; the sound was so animalistic, so piercing, that it felt like the blood in my veins had actually gone sour and thick.

I wrenched the knob and pushed the door open to a scene that is forever seared into my memory.

Mikey was completely nude, suspended in mid-air almost touching the ceiling, his skin rippling like some great force was flexing against it. His eyes were white save for the veins which seemed to be overflowing with blood, pushing against the white surface like a deep purple spiderweb. Where his genitals should’ve been, there was a gaping, bleeding hole, and blood poured from the wound in a violent, erratic stream; the jetting spurts were currently soaking the wall above his bed like some deranged abstract painting.

I felt mindless in that moment; felt myself observing the contents of the room unfolding,watching a movie within a movie.

With a massive cracking noise like two felled trees crashing into one another, Mikey folded in half backwards, pushing another scream from his lungs that should’ve never been able to come out of a human. Until that point, I’d never seen a human bone, and I can tell you that they are whiter than I would’ve ever imagined. His spine pierced upwards through the skin of his stomach, splintering and sending a shower of bone fragments across the room, the force rupturing any organ in the way.

With one final pain and fear-laden look into my eyes, I saw the shadow of life flicker between his, dancing a drunken dance as it leapt from his body. His entire body seemed to throb and then his skin gave way, splattering the ceiling. I was covered in a thick layer of blood and his limp form crumpled to the ground, a mess of steaming viscera and fragmented bone. He landed a few inches from his ribbon; it’d been ripped in two.

My phone call to 911 was a babbling, incoherent jumble of words that I wasn’t even sure were true. I was drunk, shock had overloaded my brain, and what was left of my best friend was coating his bedroom from floor to ceiling.

For a while, the police believed me to be a suspect. Eventually, that notion was dispelled by the pure eruptious violence with which Mikey had died. They concluded it to be a freak accident, an act of God. But I knew better.

Over the last month, I’ve barely left the new, smaller apartment I moved into. I quit my job. My cellphone has been turned off, not that it matters; I haven’t spoken much to anyone since the “accident”. Barely anyone came to the funeral besides Mikey’s immediate family and a few friends. I know they all think it was me. I know they all think we’d been going crazy with each other; maybe one night we got too drunk, our shared obsession got to be too much, and I snapped and killed him. Whatever they think, it isn’t true. But I know what is.

It’s Christmas Eve. The streets outside are hushed, like they always seem to be during a holiday.

It’s snowing inside the apartment; I don’t know where the snow comes from, but I know it’s marking an arrival. The walls have taken on a pinkish hue. It was pale at first, but it’s gotten deeper, reddening as the days turn to weeks and the weeks are preparing to herald in the new year. A year I don’t think I’ll be around to see.

In the dead of night, when the wind whips through the trees outside and I can see my breath, pale and wet, hanging in the air of my room, I can sometimes see them; small, needle-thin handprints pressed through the frosted glass of my windows. They appear and disappear quickly.

Something heavy knocks against the roof, making the icicles dangling from the ceiling quiver. Three times. The knocks always arrive in threes.

If I strain my ears hard enough, tensing over the thundering beat of my heart, I can hear a faint jingling riding the wind, like bells strung through the tips of feathered wings.

Merry Christmas.