There was a death-rattle in the Fiesta’s muffler, and every time Sam banked left or right, he held his breath and prayed they didn’t lose a hubcap. Cold air was rushing in through the vents and a mechanical failure in the driver-side window left a half-inch gap between the glass and the frame that he could not close no matter how hard he cranked the little, plastic handle. Gino was in the passenger seat, shivering like an Alaskan fur-trapper. He pushed in the cigarette lighter beside the steering wheel, waited for it to eject, then cupped it in his hand and held it beside his cheek, attempting to draw whatever warmth he could from the tiny heating element housed inside the lipstick-sized case.
“You had to have a real one,” he mumbled. “Had to find your holiday spirit during a blizzard.”
“Relax,” Sam said. “We’re almost there. Think of some place hot, like Maui.”
The tree was Sam’s idea. He’d grown tired of their venerable Christmas Cactus and wanted something a little more festive this year –something that did more than simply mark the spot where all those shiny, beribboned boxes were to be piled.
“At least the cactus is clean,” Gino said, still sulking. “We’re gonna have a mess of pine needles on our hands. You know that, right?”
Sam ignored his brother’s gripes. He knew Gino didn’t give two eggnog farts about the tree. He was there out of sibling loyalty alone –something Sam knew he could always count on.
“Why couldn’t we just pick one up from Lugnutz? They’re cheap and there’s one less than a mile away.”
“You pay Lugnutz prices, you get Lugnutz quality,” Sam said, then gently reminded his brother of the $40 aluminum shelving unit he ordered through their website the previous summer, thinking he’d got a great deal. “The thing arrived in about a million pieces. Spent the whole afternoon putting it together and now it’s in a landfill somewhere. I won’t make the same mistake twice. Besides, this lot comes highly recommended. Eric from work says he’s never seen such quality trees.”
“I’ll believe it when I see it,” Gino said. “I still say artificial is the way to go. They’re more expensive, but you get a better return on your money. Never have to step foot in a Lugnutz again if you don’t want to.”
Sam scoffed. “Where’s the fun in that? Christmas tree shopping is an experience, broheim. Driving out to the lot, strapping it to the hood of your car, carrying it inside…”
“Scraping your knuckles on the door jam, getting sap all over your hands, pine needles on the floor.”
“Since when are you afraid of sticky fingers?”
“This is your exit,” Gino said, pointing up ahead.
Sam turned the wheel gently and allowed the car to drift into the exit lane.
Gino wiggled uncomfortably in his seat, feeling vibrations in his tailbone as the car shifted into a lower gear. “How much farther is it? Need to take a leak.”
“Should be coming up on it right now,” Sam said.
The lot was a sprawling, tented area adjacent to an old strip mall, illuminated by a series of portable LED work lights. Parked on the edge of the lot was a small RV with wood paneling and a tear-drop trailer that looked like it had been sideswiped by something out of Mad Max.
Sam parked the car and the two stepped out into the icy onslaught. “Take your time,” Sam shouted over the hood. “No use rushing things. Don’t want to end up with a lemon.”
They were downwind from an old bread factory and the air carried an industrial tang. The streetlamps were out for miles and a slackened telephone wire whipped angrily in the blinding winter wind. Sam pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and held it to his nose and mouth. He squinted into the darkness of the street, unable to see beyond the grassy median, and noted the weeds growing in the chinks of the sidewalk and the glass of automobiles that lay like crushed ice on the road. Wind blew through the husk of a nearby bus shelter, kicked up some dirt and paper refuse hiding in a pothole and bore it away silently into the night.
Sam regretted this would be their last Christmas together. The thought of it almost brought a pang to his shriveled, little Rhesus-monkey-heart. After months of dropping hints, Kiera finally came right out and asked him to move in with her.“Why don’t you come live here,” she said one night over wine and calzones. “You’re here more than I am and you said yourself Gino’s far from the ideal roommate.” He did say that. And many other things he now wished he could take back. Together, they set his move-in day for January 10th. In the meantime, he would work hard to forge as many happy memories with his brother as he could. He made a list: apple-picking in Oneonta, New York ComicCon, the Cider festival, Chicken Tikka Tuesdays and countless other small gestures, none of which made even the slightest impression on Gino who, like the guy from that Jack London story, failed to see the significances of things.
“How did Eric hear about this place, anyway?” Gino asked. “Seems a bit out-of-the-way.”
“Beats me. Probably a word-of-mouth thing. He warned me it would be a trek, but said it was worth it.”
“Couldn’t we have waited until the weekend? Christmas is six days out and this storm is only going to get worse.”
“Eric said they’re a ‘pop-up lot,’ which I took him to mean that they don’t have a permit. They’ll be in this location for one night and one night only.”
Gino shook his head. “If you say so. But just so we’re clear; I’m not exactly excited about driving in a snowstorm with a douglas fir tied to the hood.”
“I’ll go slow,” Sam said, trying to reassure his younger sibling. “If it gets too thick to see, I’ll pull over onto the shoulder and we’ll wait it out.”
“And how long do you think it’ll be before hypothermia and frostbite set in? I already can’t feel my toes.”
Sam was again reminded of the unfortunate prospector from “To Build a Fire,” a victim of his own hubris and arrogance in the face of existential danger. Except now it was he and not his brother who inspired the comparison.
Gino kicked the Fiesta’s front wheel and the hubcap popped off and rolled into a nearby snow pile. Sam shot him an angry look, then mashed the lock button on his key fob. “Alright, let’s see what we’re dealing with,” he said.
The trees were piled into these heavy-duty wooden stalls and bound with a durable white netting. Wreaths hung from one of the tent poles and were going for $10 apiece, two for $15 if you paid in cash. The whole place had a strong cash-only vibe. The complete absence of shoppers gave Sam momentary pause. He’d specifically chosen this lot to avoid the spittle-mouthed, parka-clad hordes of Lugnutz Garden Center with their flying elbows and billowing paunches and their total disregard for human life. But the reverse now proved to be just as unsettling.
“Hey there,” Sam said, greeting a squat, pot bellied man in a North Face jacket whom he took to be the lot’s proprietor. “Merry Christmas. My brother and I are looking for a tree. Can you help us out?”
The man stepped into the glow of the LEDs, casting a long, flat shadow across the lot. His eyebrows were gray and bristly and his large nose –one of the largest Sam had ever seen –curved to one side like a road sign turned the wrong way by a pack of rambunctious youths. His plump face was framed by the earflaps of his aviator hat, revealing a sallow, jaundiced complexion –one Sam associated with the extremely ill and characters from great Russian novels.
“Oh, yes,” he said, contorting his mouth into a snarl. “I can help you boys.”
The man leered at Sam and Gino, sizing them up, like boxers at a weigh-in. “If you’d care to follow me…”
“You got a bathroom on that RV?” Gino asked, pointedly.
The man donned a friendly smile. “Of course,” he said. “Be my guest,” then stepped aside as Gino scurried off in the direction of the camper.
Sam and the man locked eyes. “Sorry. We drove all the way from Syracuse and didn’t have time to make pit stops.”
“Not to worry,” the man said. “I am Kristof, and these are my trees. Come.”
Kristof gave Sam a tour of the merchandise, leading him by the nose, while he waxed lyrical about his favorite trees for ten straight minutes. “Fact is,” he said, summing up his sales pitch. “The Canaan fir is the superior tree all around. Yes, it’s more expensive than a douglas or balsam, but it’s better constituted and less of a shedder than the other two. That last point simply can’t be overstated.”
Sam’s eyes were pensive. Sensing he was losing the sale, Kristof threw up his hands, dramatically, and said: “I’ll tell you what –you go for the Canaan and I’ll throw in one of these water-retaining tree stands, free of charge. An indispensable accessory, if you ask me. The same will run you at least twenty dollars at Home Depot or Lugnutz.”
“I don’t know,” Sam said, massaging his chin. “It’s a lot of money.”
“How about a skirt? You got a skirt?”
Sam cracked a smile. “I’d be careful using that word around my brother. Guy’s a bit of a hound.”
Kristof snickered. “Is that right?”
“Speaking of,” Sam said. “Where is Gino? He’s sure taking a long time.”
“Does Gino have bowel issues perchance?”
“I don’t think so.”
Kristof craned his neck towards the camper. “Maybe I ought to go check on him. See what the hold up is.”
“Let me do it,” Sam said. “He’ll be less embarrassed. Besides, I’m feeling like I may need to use the facilities myself. If you don’t mind?”
“Not at all,” Kristof said. “Have at it.”
Sam turned and started trudging his way through the thick snow towards the camper. Anxious thoughts preyed on his mind, sapping him of his resolve as he prepared to break the difficult news to his brother. He had planned to tell Gino about the move in the car ride over, but couldn’t find the right words. They’d been roommates from the very beginning and it was assumed that nothing short of death or military conscription could separate them in any permanent way.
Sam climbed inside the camper and immediately recoiled at the squalor that lay before him. The kitchen sink was heaped with stacks of dirty dishes and the grease-splattered door of the refrigerator was wide open and hanging partly off its hinge. The overhead cabinets were likewise covered in a thick film of cooking grease. On his right, flies buzzed around a moldy sponge that lay atop a wooden bobbin table scarred with cutlery marks and cigarette burns. The sticky linoleum floor made suction sounds as Sam walked across it towards the bathroom. He knocked and called his brother’s name and when no reply came he tried the door. “You in here, Gino?”
The commode was empty. Pink q-tips were scattered around the base of the sink. On the wall, beside the light switch, hung an oblong mirror with a cheap wooden frame stained the color of espresso. There was a red splotch on the plastic toilet paper holder that looked to Sam like a bloody thumbprint. The smell of dollar store air freshener mingled with the stale, warm air being pumped in via a rusty metal vent in the ceiling. Sam felt that if he didn’t get out of there immediately, he was going to be sick.
Fleeing the RV, he began weaving between the rows of trees, shouting his brother’s name and looking for shapes in the white tempest. “Gino!” he yelled. “Gino! Where are you?”
A voice –Kristof’s –answered him. “Is everything alright?”
“Not really,” Sam said, panting. “Gino’s disappeared.”
Kristof’s pale eyes were wide with concern. “Must have wandered off,” he said. “This place has all sorts of nooks and crannies. I’ll help you find him.”
Kristof suggested they begin their search on opposite ends of the lot and meet in the middle. “Just be careful over by the RV,” he said. “There’s black ice on the ground. Wouldn’t want you to slip, break your ankle, then sue us into oblivion.”
“Leopold. My partner. He should be bumming around here somewhere. If you see him, tell him I said to quit what he’s doing and help with the search. That kid has a real talent for avoiding work. You almost have to admire it.”
“Thank you,” Sam said. “I appreciate that.”
Leaving Kristof where he stood, Sam went to investigate the back of the RV. There were footprints in the snow behind the trailer leading away from the lot and towards a warehouse loading dock hemmed in by the blizzard. Sam paused by one of the aluminum bay doors to catch his breath. He watched as the wind tore a sheet of snow off the warehouse roof and hurled it at a lamppost, scattering feathery shrapnel into the night air. He felt the lash of the cold on his nose and cheeks and regretted not wearing a ski mask under his trusty fur-lined hunting cap. He could almost hear the voice of the Old Timer chiding him for his foolishness.
Then, a little ways in the distance, he spotted what looked like the wilted form of his brother kneeling beside a stack of tarped pallets. Sam once again called Gino’s name and again there was no reply. As he approached from the rear, a strange apprehension took hold of him. He laid his hand on his brother’s shoulder and gave it a gentle squeeze. Gino’s eyes, when he turned to face him, were pupil-less voids, and his mouth hung open, revealing two crooked ivory fangs.
Sam stood rooted to the snow-covered ground, a tremor working its way into his left hand and up the forearm to his shoulders. For several seconds he was unable to draw breath and the labored thrumming of his chilled heart was all he could hear.
Gino tried to take Sam’s hand, but was too weak and fell back onto his coccyx.
“Stay back!” Sam shouted, unwilling to accept the malignant creature before him as his brother. “What’s wrong with you! What’s…”
Sam’s screams were cut short as he felt something latch onto his neck. Two long-fingered hands enveloped his shoulders and then a puff of warm breath grazed his cheek. He felt lightheaded and began to go limp in his legs and spine. With his eyes reduced to mere slits, he could barely make out the figure who now appeared beside his brother.
It was Kristof.
Clasping his hands to his chest as if in prayer and bending slightly forward, he said in a scolding tone: “Leopold! What have you done now?”
Leopold released his grip on Sam and stepped aside, dabbing his ruby lips with the cuff of his peacoat.
“Your stupidity amazes me,” Kristof said, shaking his head. “It really does.”
He then turned to Sam, his demeanor softening, and took a couple cautious steps forward. “I want you boys to know I’m gonna make this right. You hear me? This isn’t how I like to do business.” Kristof looked over his shoulder at Gino who was slumped in the snow, fumbling at the buttons on his chest, desperate to escape the confines of his wool overcoat.
“Damn it to hell,” Kristof muttered. “I’m gonna make this right. I promise. You boys can bet on that…”
Sam squinted at Kristof, his mind whirring and his heart pistoning inside his chest. He felt the wind try to bowl him over and dropped to one knee, laying his left hand flat on the ground for support. All sound was swallowed up by the blizzard; only the surging of blood in his ears and the steady grinding of enamel in his mouth remained. As the whole world passed into pantomime and darkness began to encroach on his vision, Sam looked over at his brother’s collapsed form and wept.
He reached out his hand, straining to touch Gino one last time, across the gulf of dirty snow that separated them. After a few more seconds of trying, he gave up and let his arm fall silently to the ground. Then everything went black.
Sam and Gino climbed the stairs to their apartment with the seven-foot Canaan fir on their shoulders like pall-bearers. They shoved it violently through the front door, scraping their knuckles on the jam and turning the rubber mat hirsute with pine needles. Once inside, they tossed the tree in the corner, knocking over a lamp and side table and went to fix themselves a drink in the kitchen. Gino sat at the kitchen table with his eyes closed and head down while Sam solemnly laid out two mugs and prepared the tea. He poured the boiling water over the tea bags and set the mugs on the table and took a seat. For minutes, the brothers sipped their Earl Gray in silence, unable to meet each other’s gaze.
Sam wondered what Kiera was doing at that very moment. Probably decorating the apartment in his honor –rigging up colorful paper garlands in the den with the words “Welcome Home” in thick, balloon-style lettering. Maybe there’d be snack bowls and candles and chilled bottles of champagne, or at least that expensive Belgian beer he sometimes got from the co-op on special occasions. This was a special occasion, was it not? He conjured the whole velvety scene in his head, forsaking no small detail, and when it was complete and he realized it would never be a reality, he covered his face with his hands and began sobbing.
“Nice of them to just give us the tree,” Gino said, blowing on his tea.
Sam knuckled his eyes and sucked in a load of snot. “Shut up, Gino. Just shut up for a minute. I’m not in the mood.”
“My throat is dry as a bone. This tea isn’t helping.”
Sam poured out his Earl Gray on the floor and tossed the empty mug over his shoulder. “Open a window, will ya? Feel like I’m about to combust.”
Gino got up and pried open the window above the sink, letting in a blast of frigid air. His fingers were alabaster-white and elongated with nails that could have rent a man’s back into ribbons. Sitting back down, he said: “I don’t like this, Sam. Not one bit.”
Sam was looking at his reflection in an old coffee spoon. “I look like that Klaus Kinski asshole,” he said, baring his fangs. “What the hell happened back there?”
“I went to use the john and the guy jumped me from behind. Probably thought I was a car-jacker.”
“He bit you?”
“On the neck,” Gino said, showing Sam the puncture wound just above his collar bone. “I managed to fight him off, but I was hurt pretty bad. Think I’m gonna need a rabies shot.”
Sam got up and began pacing around the table, arms windmilling, his t-shirt a Rorschach test of sweat. “So you’re saying it was an accident?”
Gino’s eyes were beginning to lose their pigmentation. He shook his head and shrugged. “I don’t know. Who can say?”
The windows in the living room rattled violently and the radiator –a hulking steel fossil with flaking silver paint –was dribbling scalding water on the carpet.
Sam peeled off his shirt, draped it over the arm of the chair and sat down. His knees were bobbing under the table. He had a strong desire to strip off and climb inside the icebox.
“What are we gonna do?” Gino said, clawing at his collar.
Sam’s eyes began to tear up again as he thought of Kiera and the home they would never build together. He balled his fists and held them stock still at his sides, feeling the sting of his sharp nails digging into his palms. After a few seconds, he looked at his brother and said: “Kiera and I were gonna move in together.”
Gino looked up from his tea, his face serene. “Were?”
“I wasn’t sure how you’d react. It’s taken me months to work up the courage to tell you. Not that it matters now.”
Gino’s expression was unchanged. If he was seething with rage and contempt, it sure didn’t show. Eventually, he said: “Would she charge you rent?”
Sam bristled. “Bro! Aren’t you listening? I said I was planning to move out.” He beat his fist on the table. “I was gonna abandon you!”
“It’s okay,” Gino said. “I’m not mad. It was bound to happen sooner or later.”
Sam stood up and resumed his pacing. “I don’t get it. I just don’t understand how you can be so damn calm. Don’t you want to punch me? Put me in a headlock and gouge my eyes out?”
Gino said: “Why would I want to do that? You’re my brother. I love you.”
Sam started pacing faster. This was not the response he was expecting. Something was wrong. A side effect of the bite, maybe? Or an act of deception –one preceding horrible, bloody fratricide. He sat down again and began fanning himself with an old glossy magazine. “Are you sure you’re okay? You’re not gonna smother me in my sleep later? Assuming I stop sweating long enough to fall asleep.”
“Don’t be an idiot,” Gino said. “That’s my job, and I like to think I’ve perfected it.”
Sam snickered. He reached up and touched his face with his long, skeletal fingers. Felt the ridges of his cheek bones, the teeth and gums which were more animal than man.
“Stop it,” Gino said, leaning forward in his chair. “We’ll figure something out. There’s gotta be a cure. And if not, then we’ll just have to learn to live with it.”
“And what about Kiera?” Sam snapped. “How do I begin to explain any of this?”
“I don’t know,” said Gino, “but we’ll manage. You and Kiera will move in together and I’ll get a place of my own. A little efficiency with poor heating and no windows. A slumlord who doesn’t ask questions, and neighbors who keep to themselves.” He sniffled, fighting back tears. “It’ll be hard, at first. But we’ll make it work –we’ve got to.”
Sam was touched by his brother’s optimism. He felt like subjecting him to a long, uncomfortable hug. In the end, he settled for a thump on the shoulder.
“Ouch!” Gino cried. “What was that for?”
“Just reminding you who’s boss.”
“It’s gonna leave a bruise.”
Sam held up a finger, as if struck by inspiration. “I just thought of something,” he said.
“What about him?”
“He gave me the tip. Maybe he knows more than he’s letting on.” Sam wandered over to the kitchen window. “Might be worth paying him a visit.”
Gino turned and looked at his brother slightly askant. “Why do I suddenly feel like I’m in a gangster movie?”
Sam grinned. “I just think we ought to dot our Is and cross our Ts. That’s all.”
“No crosses, please,” Gino said. “I’m afraid they no longer agree with me.”
“Fair enough,” replied Sam
“Alright, then,” Gino mumbled.
A.J. Britz grew up in Ireland and currently lives in St. Paul, Minnesota with his wife Sarah. In 2012, he received the Emerging Writer Award from the University of Chicago. He is the recipient of a Truman Capote Fellowship from the University of Alabama, and his work has most recently appeared in The Honest Ulsterman.