Cliff was more than used to spending Christmas alone. Well, technically, he wasn’t alone. There were his parents under the basement floor, his sister under the patio, and his youngest brother in the woods just beyond the back fence. But that was his little secret.
He lit another cinnamon scented candle; a vague attempt to cover the slight smell of rotting that permeated the walls of the house. At least it wasn’t quite so potent in the winter.
This year, he had a guest. There were two plates for Christmas lunch, two crackers, two jokes. He grunted. That’s just what everyone else at the office thought; he’d heard what they said in hushed voices.
The first time Cliff had spoken to Veronica was at their office party a week ago. She’d only been with the firm for a couple of weeks before that, and was the only temp to ever attend the annual evening of ostentatious torture that was the office Christmas party. But that was her. Always keen to break the mould.
“I’m on the payroll,” she’d told him. “Why shouldn’t I come?”
There was no argument to that. They’d stood in silence for some time; sipping their cheap champagne, nibbling bread sticks, enjoying spending time with someone else who saw small talk as another pointless endeavour. And in the week that followed, they’d been practically inseparable.
“I suppose there’s no point in us both spending Christmas alone,” Veronica had said during lunch one day. They were sat at their usual table, tucked behind the hum of the vending machine, eating together in silence.
“I guess. Want to come to mine? I already have a turkey,” Cliff said.
She shrugged. “Could do.”
Cliff had simply nodded, pushing the last bite of his ham and cheese sandwich into his mouth. His insides were doing the cha-cha, but not a flicker of emotion reached his face. He dared to let the words pass into his brain. Kindred spirit.
Cliff laid the table, stopping to rub a spot from a knife. If the table was perfect, she’d know how he felt. He glanced at the clock. Ten minutes to spare.
Cliff flicked on the basement light, the fluorescent tube flickering and hissing into life, and carefully descended the wooden steps. The banister had been missing for years, and he still hadn’t fixed the third step from the bottom.
The aroma was more intense down here, and Cliff closed his eyes, basking in its familiarity.
“Hey Mum, hey Dad,” he said. “I’m bringing a girl home for you to meet. She’s nice, a lot like me. She doesn’t need to fill every silence with inane chatter. I think you’ll like her.”
Cliff idly picked at the corner of a cardboard box. His mum liked to have her stuff around her; she’d always been sentimental.
“So I’d like you to be on your best behaviour,” Cliff added. He nodded, satisfied.
Somewhere above him, a sound rattled through the hall. It was so long since he had last heard it, that it took a moment for him to realise that it was the doorbell. He climbed the stairs and carefully bolted the basement door.
Veronica’s coat was open, revealing a bright red dress that matched her lipstick. She nodded a greeting and stepped into the hall. As she shrugged off her coat, she stopped and sniffed the air.
“Mmmm, smells delicious,” she said.
Cliff frowned. “The turkey?”
“And the other.” Her fingers brushed his. “We have the same hobby.”
They ate lunch in silence, donning the paper hats from their crackers in a sense of either irony or tradition. Did it really matter which?
As Cliff placed down his cutlery and leaned back in his chair, he felt Veronica’s toes slide over his ankle. He looked at her, one eyebrow raised.
“Cliff,” she said. “Who at the office have you fantasized about?”
Cliff looked down at his plate. Was he meant to say her? In truth, he’d fantasized about them all. He’d planned each of their deaths in meticulous detail; separated those who begged for their lives from those who threw futile threats. The criers, the screamers, the ones who fought back.
Veronica’s foot moved up his leg. “You’re thinking about it right now, aren’t you?”
Cliff watched her lips move, imagining the red lipstick smeared across her chin, black mascara staining her face. In the hall, the basement door rattled. Mum and Dad wanted her too.
She stood and moved around the table. She leant forward, placing her mouth by his ear. He closed his eyes from the view down her dress.
“I’ve thought about it too,” she whispered. “You would be so beautiful.”
Warm liquid filled his lap as she sliced his thigh open. Cliff smiled, pain crystallising his thoughts. Her neck felt like heaven under his fingers, even better than he could have imagined. He liked how surprised she looked, her mouth gaping.
Cliff stood in the open doorway, looking out over the snow-covered garden. Footprints led to the fence and back, their route highlighted by drops of his blood. His thigh ached in the cold air; it made him feel alive. It had been too long.
He hummed ‘Silent Night’ to himself as he closed the door. She was the most beautiful yet.