Chapter 12

THE STUPIDEST ANGEL'S CHRISTMAS MIRACLE

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Sundown, Christmas Eve. The rain was coming down so hard that there didn't appear to be any space between the drops  -  just a wall of water, moving almost horizontally on wind that was gusting to seventy miles per hour. In the forest behind the Santa Rosa Chapel, the angel chewed his Snickers and ran a wet hand over the tire tracks at the back of his neck, thinking, I really should have gotten more specific directions.

He was tempted to go find the child again and ask him exactly where Santa Claus was buried. He realized now that "somewhere in the woods behind the church" wasn't telling him much. To go back to get directions, however, would dilute somewhat the whole miraculousness of the miracle.

This was Raziel's first Christmas miracle. He'd been passed over for the task for two thousand years, but finally his turn had come up. Well, actually, the Archangel Michael's turn had come up, and Raziel ended up getting the job by losing in a card game. Michael had bet the planet Venus against his assigned task of performing the Christmas miracle this year. Venus! Although he wasn't really sure what he would have done with Venus had he won it, Raziel knew he needed the second planet, if for no other reason than that it was large and shiny.

He didn't like the whole abstract quality of the Christmas miracle mission. "Go to Earth, find a child who has made a Christmas wish that can only be granted by divine intervention, then you will be granted powers to grant that wish." There were three parts. Shouldn't the job be given to three angels? Shouldn't there be a supervisor? Raziel wished he could trade this in for the destruction of a city. That was so simple. You found the city, you killed all the people, you leveled all the buildings, even if you totally screwed it up you could track down the survivors in the hills and kill them with a sword, which, in truth, Raziel kind of enjoyed. Unless, of course, you destroyed the wrong city, and he'd only done that what? Twice? Cities in those days weren't that big, anyway. Enough people to fill a couple of good-size Wal-Marts, tops. Now there's a mission, thought the angel: "Raziel! Go forth into the land and lay waste unto two good-size Wal-Marts, slay until blood doth flow from all bargains and all the buildings are but rubble  -  and pick up a few Snickers bars for yourself."

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A tree waving in the wind nearby snapped with the report of a cannon, and the angel came out of his fantasy. He needed to get this miracle done and be gone. Through the rain he could see that people were starting to arrive at the little church, fighting their way through the wind and the rain, the lights in the windows flickering even as the party was starting. There was no going back, the angel thought. He would just have to wing it (which, considering he was an angel, he really should have been better at).

He raised his arms to his sides and his black coat streamed out behind him on the wind, revealing the tips of his wings folded underneath. In his best pronouncement voice, he called out the spell.

"Let he who lies here dead arise!" He sort of did a hand motion to cover pretty much the general area. "Let he who does not live, live again. Arise from your grave this Christmas and live!" Raziel looked at the half-eaten Snickers he was holding and realized that maybe he should be more specific about what was supposed to happen. "Come forth from the grave! Celebrate! Feast!"

Nothing. Nothing whatsoever happened.

There, said the angel to himself. He popped the last of the Snickers bar into his mouth and wiped his hands on his coat. The rain had subsided for a bit and he could see a ways into the woods. Nothing was happening.

"I mean it!" he said in his big scary angel voice.

Not a damn thing. Wet pine needles, some wind, trees whipping back and forth, rain. No miracle.

"Behold!" said the angel. "For I am really not kidding."

A great gust of wind came up at that second and another nearby pine snapped and fell, missing the angel by only a few feet.

"There. It's just going to take a little time."

He walked out of the woods and down Worchester Street into town.

"Wow, I'm famished all of a sudden," said Marty in the Morning, all dead, all the time.

"I know," said Bess Leander, poisoned yet perky. "I feel really strange. Hungry, and something else. I've never felt this before."

"Oh, my dear," said Esther, the schoolteacher, "I can suddenly think of nothing but brains."

"How 'bout you, kid?" asked Marty in the Morning. "You thinking about brains?"

"Yeah," said Jimmy Antalvo. "I could eat."

For Luck, There Is No Chapter 13.

JUST THIS CHRISTMAS PHOTO ALBUM

Sometimes, if you look closely at family snapshots, you can see in the faces of the children, portents of the adults they will become. In the adults, you can sometimes see the face behind the face. Not always, but sometimes...

Tucker Case

In this shot we see a well-to-do California family posed in front of their lakeshore estate in Elsinore, California. (It's an eight-by-ten color glossy, embossed with the trademark of a professional photographer's studio.)

They are all tanned and healthy-looking. Tucker Case is perhaps ten years old, dressed in a little sport coat with a yachting ensign on the breast pocket and little tasseled loafers. He is standing in front of his mother, who has the same blond hair and bright blue eyes, the same smile that looks not as if she is presenting her dental work, but as if she is just seconds from bursting out laughing. Three generations of Cases  -  brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, and cousins  -  look perfectly coiffed, pressed, washed, and shined. All are smiling, except for one little girl down front, who has an expression of abject horror on her face.

A closer look reveals the back of her red Christmas dress is tossed up to one side, and snaking in from the side, from under his little blue sport coat, is the hand of young Tuck, who has just stolen an incestuous squeeze of his cousin Janey's eleven-year-old bottom.

What is telling about this picture is not the surreptitious booty grope, but the motive, because here Tucker Case is at an age where he is much more interested in blowing stuff up than he is in sex, yet he is precociously cognizant of just how much his advances will freak his cousin out. This is his raison d'��tre. It should be noted that Janey Case-Robbins will go on to distinguish herself as a successful litigator and advocate for women's rights, while Tucker Case will go on to be a serially heartbroken horn dog with a fruit bat.

Lena Marquez

The shot is taken in someone's backyard on a sunny day. There are children all around and it's obvious that a big party is going on.

She's six, wearing a fluffy pink dress and patent-leather shoes. She couldn't be any cuter, with her long black hair tied up into ponytails with red ribbons and flying out behind her like silk comet tails as she pursues the piñata. She's blindfolded, and her mouth is wide open, letting forth a burst of that high, little-girl laugh that sounds like joy itself, because she's just made solid contact with the stick and she's sure that she has released candy, and toys, and noisemakers for all the children. What she has, in fact, done, has solidly smacked her uncle Octavio in the cojones.

Uncle Octavio is caught in a magic moment of transition, his face changing from joy to surprise to pain, all at once. Lena is still adorable and sweet and unsullied by the disaster she has wrought. Feliz Navidad!

Molly Michon

It's Christmas morning, post-present-opening storm. Tissue paper and ribbon are strewn around the floor, and off to one side you can see a coffee table, and on it an ashtray the size of a hubcap overflowing with butts, and an empty bottle of Jim Beam. Front and center is six-year-old Molly Achevski (she would change her last name to Michon at nineteen on the advice of an agent "because it sounds fucking French, people love that"). Molly is wearing a red sequined ballerina outfit, red galoshes that hit her bare legs about midcalf, and a giant, cheeky grin with a hole in the middle where her front teeth used to be. She has one foot propped up on a large Tonka dump truck as if she has just conquered it in a grudge match, and her younger brother Mike, four, is trying to pry the truck out from under her. Tears are streaming down his cheeks. Molly's other brother, Tony, five, is looking up to his sister like she is the princess of all things good. She has already poured him a bowl of Lucky Charms this morning, as she does for both her brothers every morning.

In the background, we see a woman in a bathrobe lying on the couch, one hand hanging to the floor holding a cigarette that has burned itself out hours before. The silvery ash has left a streak on the carpet.

No one has any idea who took this picture.

Dale Pearson

This one was taken only a few years ago, when Dale was still married to Lena. It's the Caribou Lodge Christmas party, and Dale is, once again, dressed as Santa, sitting on a makeshift throne. He is surrounded by drunken revelers, all laughing, all holding the various joke gifts that Dale has passed out to them earlier that night. Dale is brandishing his own present, a fourteen-inch-long rubber penis, as big around as a soup can. He's waving it at Lena with a leer, and she, dressed in a black cocktail dress and a single string of pearls, looks quite horrified at what he's saying, which is: "We'll put this rascal to good use later tonight, huh, baby?"

The irony of it is that later that night, he will don one of his vintage German SS uniforms  -  everything but the jodhpurs, anyway  -  and what he asks Lena to do with his new present is exactly what she told him he could do with it at the party. She will never know if it was she who gave him the idea, but it will be a milestone in her move toward divorce proceedings.

Theophilus Crowe

At thirteen, Theo Crowe is already six feet four inches tall, and weighs a little over a hundred pounds. It is a classic scene of the three kings following the star. The seventh-grade music class is performing Amahl and the Night Visitors. Originally cast as one of the three kings, Theo is now dressed as a camel. His ears are the only parts of his body that are in proportion, and he looks very much like a camel fashioned out of wire by Salvador Dal��. His chance to play Balthazar, the Ethiopian king, was lost when he announced that the Magi had arrived bearing gold, Frankenstein, and myrrh. Later, he, the two other camels, and a sheep will be suspended for smoking the myrrh. (They would have never been caught had the sheep not suggested that they play a quick game of "Kill the Man with the Baby Jesus" out behind the theater. Evidently the myrrh was "prime smokage.")

Gabe Fenton

This one was taken just last year, at the lighthouse where Gabe has his cabin. You can see the lighthouse in the background, and windblown whitecaps out to sea. You can tell it's a windy day because the Santa hat that Gabe is wearing is streaming out to the side, and he's holding the reindeer antlers on Skinner's head. Crouched next to them, in a thousand-dollar St. John knit, red and cut in the style of a Napoleonic soldier, with brass buttons and gold braid on the shoulders, is Dr. Valerie Riordan. Her auburn hair is styled to curl behind her ears and accentuate her diamond hoop earrings. She's done up in Headline News Prompter Puppet makeup, as if her face has been completely sanded off, and then painted back on by a crack team of special-effects people  -  brighter, better, faster than a real human face. She's trying, really trying, to smile for the camera. She is holding her hair in one hand, and appears to be petting Skinner, but is, upon closer examination, holding him at bay. A racing stripe across the knee of her nylons betrays an earlier attempt by Skinner to share a holiday leg hump with the Food Guy's female.

Gabe is scruffy in khakis and hiking boots. There's a fine coating of sand on his pants and boots from where he was sitting astride elephant seals that morning, gluing satellite-tracking devices on their backs. He has a great, hopeful smile, and not a clue that anything might be wrong with this picture.

Roberto T. Fruitbat

This picture was taken on the island of Guam, Roberto's birthplace. There are palm trees in the foreground. You can tell he's just a young fellow, because he has not yet acquired a pair of Ray-Bans, nor a master to bring him mangoes on demand. He's curled up in a Christmas wreath made from palm fronds and decorated with little papayas and red palm nuts. He is licking papaya pulp from his little doggy face. The children who found him in the wreath that Christmas morning are posed on either side of the door where the wreath hangs. They are both girls, and have the long curly brown hair of their Chamorro mother, the green eyes of their Irish-Catholic father, who is an American airman. Father is taking the picture. The girls are in bright, floral mission dresses with puffy sleeves.

Later, after church, they will try to coax Roberto into a box so they can later cook him and serve him with saimen noodles. Although he escapes, the incident traumatizes the young bat and he does not speak for years.

Chapter 14

THE CAMARADERIE OF THE LONESOME CHRISTMAS

Theo wore his cop shirt to the Lonesome Christmas party. Not because he didn't have anything else to wear, because there were still two clean flannels and a Phish sweatshirt in the Volvo that he'd snagged from the cabin, but because with the storm pounding the stuffing out of Pine Cove, he felt as if he should be doing cop stuff. His cop shirt had epaulets on the shoulders (that are used for, uh, holding your paulets  -  no  -  for keeping your hat under  -  for your parrot to stand on  -  no) that looked cool and military, plus it had a little slot in the pocket where he could pin his badge and another one where he could stick a pen, which could be really handy in a storm in case you wanted to take notes or something, like: 7 p.m, Still Really Fucking Windy

"Wow, it's really fucking windy," Theo said. It was 7 p.m.

Theo stood in the corner of the main room of the Santa Rosa Chapel next to Gabe Fenton, who was wearing one of his science shirts: a khaki canvas utility shirt with many pockets, slots, buttons, pouches, epaulets, zippers, Velcro loops, snaps, and vents, so you could hopelessly lose everything you owned in it and essentially sand your nipples off while patting the pockets and saying, "I know I had it here somewhere."

"Yep," Gabe said. "It was gusting to a hundred and twenty when I left the lighthouse»

"You're kidding! A hundred and twenty miles per hour? We're all going to die," Theo said, feeling suddenly better.

"Kilometers per hour," Gabe said. "Stand in front of me. She's looking." He snagged Theo by the epaulet (aha!) and pulled him around to block the view from the other side of the room. Across the open hardwood floor, Valerie Riordan, in charcoal Armani over red Ferragamos, was sipping a cranberry and soda from a plastic cup.

"Why's she here?" Gabe whispered. "Didn't she get a better offer from some country club or some business guy or something?" Gabe said the word business like it was a putrid taste that he needed to spit out before it sickened him, which was exactly how he meant it. Although Gabe did not live in an ivory tower, he did live next to one, and it gave him a skewed perspective on commerce.

"Your eye is twitching really badly, Gabe Are you okay?"

"I think it's conditioning from the electrodes. She looks so great, don't you think?"

Theo looked over at Gabe's ex-girlfriend, considered the heels, the stockings, the makeup, the hair, the lines of her suit, her nose, her hips, and felt like he was looking at a sports car that he could not afford, would not know how to drive, and he could only envision himself entangled in the wreckage of, wrapped around a telephone pole.

"Her lipstick matches her shoes," Theo said, by way of not really answering his friend. That sort of thing didn't happen in Pine Cove. Well, Molly did have some black lipstick that matched a pair of black boots she had, which she wore with nothing else, but he really didn't want to think about that. In fact, this moment would only have any meaning at all when he shared it with Molly, which he realized he wasn't going to be doing, which made him jealous of Gabe's twitch for a second.

The double doors to the chapel opened, and wind whipped through the room, rattling the few strands of crepe paper that still clung to the wall to this point and knocking a couple of ornaments off the giant Christmas tree. Tucker Case came in, his bomber jacket dripping, a little furry face sticking out through the V in the zipper in the front.

"No dogs," said Mavis Sand, who was fighting to get the doors shut. "We've just let kids come the last couple of years, and I'm not happy about it."

Tuck grabbed the other door and pulled it shut, then reached over Mavis and caught the door she was battling. "He's not a dog."

Mavis turned around and looked right into the face of Roberto, who made a little barking sound. "That's a dog. Not much of a goddamn dog, I'll give you that, but a dog. And he's wearing sunglasses."

"So?"

"It's dark, moron. Get rid of the dog."

"He's not a dog," Tuck said, and to illustrate his point, he unzipped his jacket, took Roberto by the feet, and flung him at the ceiling. The bat yelped, opened his leathery wings, and flew to the top of the Christmas tree, where he caught the star, swung halfway around, and settled, upside down, hanging there above the room, looking, despite his cheery nature and hot pink sunglasses, a little creepy.

Everyone in the place, thirty or so people, stopped whatever they were doing and looked. Lena Marquez, who had been cutting lasagna into squares over at the buffet table, looked up, made brief eye contact with Tuck, then looked away. Except for the boom box playing reggae Christmas carols and the wind and rain thrashing outside, there was not a sound.

"What?" Tuck said to everyone and no one in particular. "You people act like you've never seen a bat before."

"Looked like a dog," Mavis said from behind him.

"You don't have a no-bat policy, then?" Tuck said, not turning around.

"Don't think so. You got a great ass, flyboy, you know that?"

"Yeah, it's a curse," Tuck said. He eyed the ceiling for any mistletoe he might get trapped under, spotted Theo and Gabe, then made a beeline for the corner where they were hiding.

"Oh my God," said Tuck as he was approaching. "Did you guys see Lena? She's so hot. Don't you think she's hot? I miss her."

"Oh God, not you, too," Theo said.

"That Santa hat, it does something to me."

"That a Pteropus tokudae?" asked Gabe, peeking out quickly from behind Theo and nodding toward the Christmas tree with the bat.

"No, that's Roberto. Why are you hiding behind the constable?"

"My ex is here."

Tuck looked over. "The redhead in the suit?"

Gabe nodded.

Tuck looked at him, back at Val Riordan, who was now chatting with Lena Marquez, then again at Gabe. "Whoa, you were really crawling out of your gene pool, huh? Let me shake your hand." He reached around Theo, offering his hand to the biologist.

"We don't like you, you know?" Theo said.

"Really?" Tuck took his hand back. He looked around Theo at Gabe. "Really?"

"You're okay," said Gabe. "He's just cranky."

"I am not cranky," Theo said, but, in fact, he was a little cranky. A little sad. A little stoned. A little out of sorts that this storm hadn't just blown over like he'd hoped, and a little excited that it might actually turn into a disaster. Secretly, Theophilus Crowe loved a disaster.

"Understandable," Tuck said, squeezing Theo's shoulder. "Your wife was a biscuit."

"Is a biscuit," corrected Theo, but then, "Hey!"

"No, it's okay," Tuck said. "You were a lucky man."

Gabe Fenton reached up and squeezed Theo's other shoulder. "It's true," Gabe said. "When Molly isn't completely off her rocker, she is a biscuit. Actually, even when she is  - »

"Would you guys quit calling my wife a biscuit! I don't even know what that means."

"Something we say in the islands," Tuck said. "What I'm saying is, you've got nothing to be ashamed of. You guys had a good run. You can't expect her to lose her sense of judgment forever. You know, Theo, every now and then Eraserhead will hook up with Tinker Bell, or Sling Blade Carl will marry Lara Croft  -  that sort of thing gives us hope  -  but you can't count on it. You can't bet that way. Why, guys like us would always be alone if some women didn't have a deep-seated streak of self-destruction, isn't that right, Professor?"

"Truth," said Gabe. He made a sort of swear-on-the-Bible gesture. Theo glared at him.

"Eventually a woman will wise up," Tuck continued.

"She's just gone off her meds."

"Whatever," Tuck said. "I'm just saying that it's Christmas and you should be grateful that you were ever able to fool someone into loving you in the first place."

"I'm calling her," Theo said. He pulled his cell phone from the pocket of his cop shirt and keyed the button for his home number.

"Is Val wearing the pearl earrings?" Gabe asked. "I bought her those."

"Diamonds studs," said Tuck, checking over his shoulder.

"Dammit."

"Look at Lena in that Santa hat. That woman has a talent with tinsel, if you know what I mean?"

"No idea," said Gabe.

"Me either. It just sounded kinky," said Tuck.

Theo snapped the cell phone shut. "I hate both you guys."

"Do not," said Tuck.

"No service?" asked Gabe.

"I'm going to see if the police radio in my car is working."

Rain was pooling in the graveyard behind the chapel as the dead pulled one another from the muck.

"This looked easier in the movies," said Jimmy Antalvo, who was waist-deep in a puddle and being pulled out by Marty in the Morning and the new guy in the red suit. Jimmy's words were a little slurred and slurpy, between the mud and a facial structure that was mostly mortician's wax and wire. "I thought I'd never get out of that coffin."

"Kid, you're better off than a couple we've pulled out," said Marty in the Morning. He nodded to a very feeble and mostly decomposed pile of animated meat that had at one time been an electrician. The mushy thing made a moaning sound.

"Who's that?" asked Jimmy. The torrential rain had washed the mud out of his eyes.

"That's Alvin," said Marty. "All we can understand from him."

"I used to talk to him all the time," said Jimmy.

"It's different now," said the guy in the red suit. "Now you're really talking, not just thinking it. His talking equipment is past warranty."

Marty, who had been portly in life but had slimmed down significantly since his death, bent down and got a good grip on Jimmy's arm, bending the elbow around his own, then made a great straining lift to pull the kid out. There was a loud pop and Marty went over backward into the mud. Jimmy Antalvo was waving around an empty leather jacket sleeve and yelling, "My arm! My arm!"

"Jeez, they should have sewn that on better," said Marty, holding the arm in the air, even as the hand appeared to be doing a very jerky version of a parade wave.

"This whole undead rigmarole is disgusting," said Esther, the schoolteacher, who was standing to the side with a few others who had already been dug up. Water was pouring off the shreds of her best church dress, which had been reduced by time to calico tatters. "I'll not have anything to do with it."

"So you're not hungry?" said the new guy, muddy rainwater streaming out of his Santa beard. He'd been the first one out, since he hadn't had to escape a coffin.

"Fine, once we get the kid out we'll just push you back down your hole."

"I'm not saying that," said Esther. "I would enjoy a snack. Something light. Mavis Sand, maybe. That woman can't have enough brains to spread on a cracker."

"Then shut up and help us get everyone out."

Nearby, Malcolm Cowley was staring disapprovingly at one of the less articulate members of the undead who had been pulled from his grave and was showing lots of bare bone between the meat. The dead book dealer was wringing out his tweed jacket and shaking his head at every comment. "Suddenly we are all gluttons, are we? Well, I have always enjoyed Danish Modern furniture for its functional yet elegant design, so once we have consumed the brains of these revelers, I feel compelled to seek out one of these furniture boutiques I have heard so much about from newlyweds in the chapel. First we feast, then IKEA."

"IKEA," chanted the dead. "First we feast, then IKEA. First we feast, then IKEA."

"Can I eat the constable's wife's brain?" asked Arthur Tannbeau. "She sounds like she'll be spicy  - »

"Get everyone out of the ground, then we eat," said the new guy, who was used to telling people what to do.

"Who died and made you boss?" asked Bess Leander.

"All of you," answered Dale Pearson.

"The man has a point," said Marty in the Morning.

"I think while you boys finish up here, I'll have a stroll around the parking lot. Oh my, I don't seem to be walking very well," said Esther, dragging one foot behind her and plowing a furrow in the mud as she moved. "But IKEA does sound like a delightful after-supper adventure."

No one knows why, but second only to eating the brains of the living, the dead love affordable prefab furniture.

Across the parking lot, Theophilus Crowe was busy having the water in his ears replaced with dog spit.

"Get down, Skinner." Theo pushed the big dog away and keyed the mike on the police radio. He had been adjusting the squelch and the gain, and getting little more than distant disembodied voices, just a word here or there in the static. The rain on the car was so loud that Theo put his head down by the dash to better hear the little speaker, and Skinner, of course, took this as an invitation to lick more rain out of Theo's ears.

"Ack! Skinner." Theo grabbed the dog muzzle and steered it between the seats. It wasn't the dampness, or even the dog breath, which was considerable, it was the noise. It was just too loud. Theo dug into the console between the seats and found half a Slim Jim in a folded over wrapper. Skinner inhaled the tiny meat stick and savored the greasy goodness by smacking his chops right next to Theo's ear.

Theo snapped the radio off. One of the problems with living in Pine Cove, with the ubiquitous Monterey pines, was that after a few years the Christmas trees stopped looking like Christmas trees and started looking like giant upturned dust mops, a great sail of needles and cones at the top of a long, slender trunk and a pancake root system  -  a tree especially adapted to fall over in high wind. So when El Niño cruised up the coast and storms like this came in, first cell and cable TV repeater stations lost power, soon the town lost its main power, and finally, phone lines would go down, effectively cutting all communications. Theo had seen it before, and he didn't like what it portended. Cypress Street would be underwater before dawn and people would be kayaking through the real-estate offices and art galleries by noon.

Something hit the car. Theo turned on the headlights, but the rain was coming down so hard and the windows were so fogged with dog breath that he could see nothing. He assumed it was a small tree branch. Skinner barked, deafeningly loud in the enclosed space.

He could go patrolling downtown, but with Mavis having closed the Slug for Christmas Eve, he couldn't imagine why anyone would be down there. Go home? Check on Molly? Actually, she was better equipped with her little four-wheel-drive Honda to drive in this mess, and she was smart enough to stay home in the first place. He was trying not to take it personally that she hadn't come to the party. Trying not to take to heart the pilot's words about not being worthy of a woman like her.

He looked down, and there, cradled in bubble wrap in the console, was the art-glass bong. Theo picked it up, looked it over, then pulled a film can of sticky green buds from his cop-shirt pocket and began loading the pipe.

Theo was briefly blinded by the spark of the disposable lighter, at the same time as something scraped against the car. Skinner jumped over into the front seat and barked at the window, his hefty tail beating against Theo's face.

"Down, boy. Down," Theo said, but the big dog was now digging at the vinyl panel on the door. Knowing that it meant that he'd have to deal with a lot of wet dog later, but feeling that he really needed to get a buzz on in peace, Theo reached over and threw open the passenger door. Skinner bounded out the door. The wind slammed it behind him.

There was a commotion outside, but Theo could see nothing, and he figured that Skinner was just frisking in the mud. The constable lit the bong and lost himself in the scuba bubbles of sweet comforting smoke.

Outside the car, not ten feet away, Skinner was gleefully tearing the head off an undead schoolteacher. Her arms and legs were flailing and her mouth was moving, but the retriever had already bitten through the better part of her decayed throat and was shaking her head back and forth in his jaws. A skilled lip-reader would have been able to tell you that Esther was saying: "I was only going to eat a little of his brain. This is entirely uncalled for, young man."

I am so going to get bad-dogged for this, Skinner thought.

Theo stepped out of the car into an ankle-deep puddle. Despite the cold, the wind, the rain, and the mud that had squished over the edge of his hiking boots, Theo sighed, for he was sorely, wistfully stoned, and slipping into that comfortable place where everything, including the rain, was his fault and he'd just have to live with it. Not a maudlin self-pity that might have come from Irish whiskey, nor an angry tequila blame, nor a jittery speed paranoia, just a little melancholy self-loathing and the realization of what a total loser he was. "Skinner. Get over here. Come on,boy, back in the car.

Theo could barely see Skinner, but the big dog was on his back rolling in something that looked like a pile of wet, muddy laundry  -  sort of snaking back and forth with his mouth open and his pink tongue whipping around in ecstatic dogasm.

Probably a dead raccoon, Theo thought, trying to blink some rain out of his eyes. I've never been that happy. I will never be that happy.

He left the dog to his joy and slogged back into the Lonesome Christmas. He thought he felt a hand across his neck as he wrestled his way through the double doors, then a loud moan when the doors slammed shut, but it was probably just the wind. It didn't feel like the wind. Had to be the wind.

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