I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs. Mʏ ᴛʜᴇʀᴀᴘɪsᴛ sᴀʏs ᴛʜᴀᴛ ᴛᴀʟᴋɪɴɢ ᴀʙᴏᴜᴛ ɪᴛ ᴍɪɢʜᴛ ʜᴇʟᴘ.

My therapist told me that talking this out would help process the trauma, but the local PD and DA's office warned that revealing too much could damage the investigation.

Neither one matters: I know the police will never figure out what happened, and I'm never going to heal. The only option is mitigating my pain, so let's get into it.

The headache woke me, and no wonder: I'd passed out sitting up with my head cocked backward, and the position left me feeling like a rail spike had passed cleanly through my left temple before popping out the right one.

I was sitting in a circle with four other people. One was this guy, Jerry, from my office; the other three I didn't recognize. I tried to speak, but there was no saliva on my sticky tongue. My arms felt free until I tried to stand; a sharp pain yanked against both hands, and I fell back into my seat. I looked down to see at least a dozen strands of twine wrapped so tightly around each wrist that my fingertips were turning purple. The slack was loose enough to reach in front of me, but stopped just short of allowing my hands to touch each other in hopes of escape. I relaxed against the metal chair, panting.

That's when I looked closer at my surroundings.

Jerry was struggling with his own twine bonds, meeting the same success that I had. Next to him, a short, college-aged girl was on the edge of hyperventilation. She sat beside a man in a black suit with slicked-back hair. He was grinding his teeth and staring at each of us in turn. Directly across from me was a blonde woman in her fifties. She was gazing at me as though I was the sole reason that every one of her childhood ambitions had turned to shit.


We all looked around to see a large, fat man walk to the center of our little circle.

"Ho, ho!" he continued, coming to a halt just before me. Up close, it became apparent that he was trying to put on the guise of Santa Clause. His long, scraggly beard was streaked with gray and white, but was far too greasy to be fluffy. The oversized coat had clearly been red at one point. But it was now so thoroughly streaked with stains that I could only assume were chewing tobacco and squirrel blood that it was mostly brown with crimson patches. His pants reeked of urine that evaporated without being washed, keeping all of the mustiness without losing any of the nastiness. His boots smelled of something other than dog shit, because dog shit was altogether more familiar and more pleasant. The cherry on top was a soft Santa cap that had been starched vertically into a cone shape, culminating in a festive fuzzy white ball that clashed with his brown and yellow teeth.

"What are you going to do to us?" Jerry asked, his voice trembling.

"Don't play into it," the blonde woman deadpanned. "He wants a reaction. The only control we have is just how bad this is going to be, so let's not make it worse than the hell we're about to eat."

She delivered the explanation so plainly that I had no doubt every word was correct.

"Would you like to be the first to draw a gift?" Dirty Santa asked. Several tense seconds passed before I realized that he was talking to me.

I snapped my attention to the center of our unholy ring, where I noticed for the first time that five presents were gift-wrapped and sitting on a small table.

"No," I squeaked.

"You can unwrap yours and take a look before showing your new friends!" he continued as though I hadn't spoken. "Keep the toy if you like it, or switch with a neighbor's if you're jealous! If someone gives you what they dislike, you have to play with it right away!"

I finally realized what his voice sounded like. My grandmother lived on a farm, and a chicken had once found its way into the kitchen and slipped its foot into the sink. In an attempt to escape, he fluttered his wings and flipped the switch to start the garbage disposal. The sound had rattled me so badly that years later, my pubescent hair grew in already raised. Dirty Santa's voice caressed the same ungodly recesses of my reluctant brain as that tortured chicken had.

I made a quick judgment call: choosing a gift seemed the best way to keep this psychopath calm, so I reached for a red bag with a green bow. The twine kept me from leaning all the way forward; Dirty Santa responded by reaching down to slide it closer to my fingertips. The smell got exponentially worse as he moved as he moved nearer - even while closing my mouth and breathing out through my nostrils - because the scent wafted through my ears and seeped into my sinuses.

Pinching the bag with my fingertips, I tipped it over in my lap. Something heavy tumbled out.

It was a pair of handheld garden shears.

Attached to it was a note that I instinctively read aloud: "For one of your own fingers. Nineteen toes and fingies is enough to type, but can you stay conscious with only thirteen?"

Dirty Santa clapped as light and fast as a hummingbird as the young woman started crying, emitting a soft wail of profound hopelessness.

"Oh, shit," Jerry huffed, his breaths coming in short gasps. "Oh, shit. This is for real. This is fucking real."

I stared at the tool in my lap, unwilling to believe what I knew was about to happen.

The blonde woman was right:

There are many degrees of "terrible".

Dirty Santa looked over at the man with the slicked-back hair, who reached out a trembling hand for a blue bag with orange ribbon. He could just reach far enough to stare into it, eyes wide.

"I'd… I'd like to change gifts," he whispered.

Before I could ask what that meant, Dirty Santa chanted in a voice that was an octave too high.

"No," I whispered.

His attitude changed very, very quickly.

I can't bring myself to go into the details, but we've all popped grapes between our teeth.

Most of us have never considered what it feels like to be the grape.

I thought the pain would be unbearable. But when I had no choice but to sit and watch what came next, my mind warped under a new threshold of "impossible".

In hindsight, I can obviously type with a missing eye. I wish that was the worst of it. Of course, things were about to get much more painful than the ice pick, but I've reached my limit for today. The valium's kicking in, and that's the only way I can sleep at this point. I'll share more later if I can, but this process is extremely painful for me.

I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs, ᴡʜɪᴄʜ ɪs ᴡʜʏ ᴡᴇ'ʀᴇ ᴍɪssɪɴɢ ʙᴏᴅʏ ᴘᴀʀᴛs.

"I'm not putting this ice pick through my eye," I explained with what I hoped was a tone of finality.

Dirty Santa cocked his head. "Why not?"

My jaw sagged. I didn't know how to answer that; every instinct told me that the action was simply impossible. I couldn't mutilate myself even if I wanted to do so. The self-preservation drive was just too strong.

"Are you saying that you want to switch your gift back?" he pressed as a line of drool sagged from his lips.

"NO!" screamed the man in the black suit. "No," he continued, his voice trembling. "You - you said that - that there were no switch-backs, cor-correct?"

Santa looked at the trembling man like he was a rare zoo animal.

"So he's stuck with the… I mean, I'm not the one who has to put that - that thing in my eye."

Dirty Santa folded his arms. "Then play with your clippers."

The suited man stared down at the garden tool in his lap, his whole body trembling. "I - I can't -"

"Do it now, or you get the ice pick," Santa pressed in a singsong voice.

I was sure he wouldn't do it.

Even as he picked up the garden clippers, I didn't believe that a man could chop off his own finger like it was a flower head.

Even as he lifted the tool with a shaking hand, I refused to accept it. The twine bonds allowed just enough slack for him to reach his fingers, but not enough to cut the strands on his wrists. But surely he would try to escape. Right?

I didn't believe that a man could cut off a live body part. I told myself that his choice to slide his fingertip between the blades was just for show.

I stared at his eyes the whole time, waiting for him to blink. Even as his pupils constricted to pinpricks and blood vessels in his eyes popped, staining the whites with ugly splotches of red, all I could think as "This is impossible." It wasn't until I digested the sheer determination in his gaze as he stared unwaveringly forward, never closing his eyes as he screamed loud enough to hurt my ears, unaffected by the mist of blood and drool that permeated the air around him, that I accepted how much we were all going to hurt.

The screams melted into gurgled sobs. Those rose back into screams as Dirty Santa used a red-hot iron to cauterize the open wound.

I don't know if talking about this is helping. I just downed two more valiums, because the memory of his screaming will bounce around my skull until I go back to sleep.

At any rate, that's when I saw the ice pick in a new light. It was frighteningly sharp, and my stomach flipped as I realized that sharp was better than dull. I tried to catch my breath, but I couldn't. Hyperventilation squeezed my chest like a living thing, and I prayed that I would pass out.

"That's a beautiful long, thin, 9.3-inch ice pick, but our friend isn't being thankful for his gift," Dirty Santa huffed. "Let's see what it means to be appreciative! You're up next, friend! Maybe you'll steal his present and teach him about gratitude!"

I realized through a distant light-headedness that Santa was speaking to Jerry. He responded by reaching for the largest present, a gray box with black ribbon, and struggled to open it with his arms restricted.

My panic was finally abating as Jerry pulled enough of the paper away to reveal a small can of gasoline.

Jerry looked down at the note and read it aloud: "Take a shower in me."

With a clatter, a cigarette lighter hit the floor.

My lungs stopped working as absolute clarity settled in my mind. I no longer had the luxury of delaying my choice through panic; if I didn't act within the next few seconds, the outcome would be decided for me.

Jerry was realizing the same thing. "I'd - I'd like to switch," he called in a hoarse whisper. "I'd like to switch now, please. I'm choosing the ice pick."

"No," the blonde woman sitting across from me said. "I'll take the ice pick before I even choose the next gift." Her voice sounded like it was coming from underwater, but I understood every word with painful clarity.

The college girl next to her just sobbed.

"Our friend wants to break the rules," Dirty Santa hissed. He doesn't want to play with his toy, even though it was switched fair and square."

I peered over at the man in the black suit. He was no longer crying. Instead, he leaned back in his chair, staring at the ceiling without blinking. His skin was the color of paper.

"Fine," Santa huffed at me. "You want to break the rules? You get the gasoline."

Time turned sideways in that moment, slowing down and rushing by all at once. I knew I had to act immediately or not at all, and that the rest of my life would hinge upon my decision.

So there was no more time for thinking.

It's amazing to see what we're capable of doing when we have no choice but to act.

"Please don't leave me with the gasoline," Jerry sobbed. "I thought we were friends."

Ignoring him, I pivoted the ice pick upward, staring at its sharp tip, and marveled at the steadiness of my own hand. Then I took three quick, shallow breaths, opened my eyes wide, and plunged my head downward.

The valium's finally kicking in, but the screams haven't abated yet. If anything, they're worse. I hope that exorcising these memories is a way to heal, because so far, reliving them just enhances my pain.

I still look back in disbelief at the fact that I made it out of that room.

Of course, from a certain point of view, I never really did, and I never really will.

I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs. I ᴡɪsʜ I ʜᴀᴅɴ'ᴛ ʙᴇᴇɴ ʀᴇsᴄᴜᴇᴅ.

Most of us have no way to comprehend the depths of physical pain that a person can endure. I've struggled and failed to understand the evolutionary or theological reasoning behind it. If you've never felt your body suffering at its absolute maximum, I have no way of articulating what it was like to shove an ice pick through my own eye.

Through the shaking, the hurt, the desecration of my body, I remember one clear thought filtering through:

I would have sacrificed my mother, my children, anyone I'd ever loved, to end the white-hot horror burning through my face. If a gun were pointed at my head, I would have pulled the trigger without a second thought.

If you believe that you wouldn't offer the same concessions to Satan, you don't understand yourself.

I have no idea how long I screamed. After a certain point, I couldn't remember anything from my life other than burning and agony. Eventually, I exhausted myself so thoroughly that I could only slump in the chair. The ice pick, wedged deeply in my eye socket, finally had the opportunity to slough through my head gristle. With a sound uncannily akin to strawberry jam squishing through infected toes, the tool dripped from my face with molasses-like slowness. I was too exhausted to react as it finally broke free from my sticky, coagulating blood and fell to the floor with all the grace and glory of an elephant's bowel movement.

I didn't have the strength to resist Dirty Santa as he stuffed gauze into my open wound before liberally applying medical tape. "Good thing you missed your blood vessels!" he croaked. "It's only eye goop spilling down your face." He pressed against my side as he worked. His erection was prominent.

Santa clapped his hands. "Oh boy, that was a FUN present. But now it's time to play with the… GAS-O-LEEN!" he yelled while dancing.

"I'd like to switch," Jerry gurgled.

Santa tapped his grimy beard with a fat finger. "HMMM. You picked it, so you can't trade unless someone else wants your toy. I can allow that, but only if one of your little friendsies is willing to swap their choice!"

My lone remaining eye was too exhausted to close. I watched him look pleadingly at the blonde woman and college girl.

"Come on… yours might be worse," he squeaked.

"I'll take my chances," the blonde woman deadpanned. "I'm so sorry, but you're stuck with the gasoline."

Jerry wept. His sobs grew louder as Dirty Santa lifted the gasoline can and poured it over his flabby body. He took great care to rub it into Jerry's ears, hair, and neck, using an almost loving touch as he made sure that every part of him would burn.

Prior to the ice pick, I would have been telling myself that this couldn't happen. That the universe simply didn't have the capacity to cause such great damage to one gentle soul.

Of course, that was before I'd been forced to pluck out my own eye. Now I understood that the world was composed of the kind of hopelessness that diminishes the specter of death.

Jerry was crying openly as Santa shook the last of the gas can over his crotch. "Why are you doing this?" he wailed.

Dirty Santa leaned close to his ear and smiled.


Then he scooped the lighter from the floor and flashed a bright smile. "Any last thoughts you'd like to share while you still have lips?"

"You could stop this now," Jerry sobbed, "and it would be the best thing in my whole damn life."

Dirty Santa turned his head to the side. "But I won't."

He flicked the lighter and dropped the flame.

The heat was so powerful that it was the only physical sensation I could feel through the eye pain. A few seconds later, though, Jerry's screams hurt my ears badly enough that physical agony was attacking me in three different places.

It could have been nineteen minutes or thirteen seconds. Time lost all meaning as I listened to my friend scream until his cheeks and throat had dissolved too thoroughly to be loud.

I knew that it was over when I heard the thunk of Jerry hitting the floor. I realized, in a distant sort of way, that it meant the fire had finally burned through his bonds.

For a moment, everything was still.

Then a heavy, wet sack hit my thighs. I struggled to make sense of what my eye was seeing.

Have you ever observed a man without skin? The sight will creep into your head and take up residence, gluing to your memory as so much fried chicken-like gristle sticking to the inside of your greasy skull.

"Please kill me," the bone-and-sinew creature begged as he placed the ice pick in my hand.

What would you have done for a friend?

We all have our "limits". Those are the boundaries we tell ourselves we can't cross, because it gives the illusion of control. The reality is that every one of us is just a few steps away from racing across a line that we foolishly believed is out of reach.

I couldn't reach very far with my bound wrists, so it was a messy affair. But once I got between his ribs, it was like putting a toothpick through cold Jell-O.

He died in my lap. His body stayed there.

I didn't have the energy to slide him to the floor.

The body twitched a lot.

"O-Kay-Doh-Kay!" Dirty Santa called. He danced a little jig. "Two presents left, and two people to share them!" He looked at the college girl. "You're next! I'm not gonna lie, my favorite present hasn't even been picked yet!"

That's enough for now. I think my therapist is full of shit: the more I talk about it, the worse I feel. I don't know if I'll be able to exorcise this particular demon.

I've taken four Valium, but it's not enough. To be perfectly honest, the thought of an overdose just doesn't scare me.

I'll finish the story if I wake up.

I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs. I'ᴍ sᴛɪʟʟ ᴀ ᴘʀɪsᴏɴᴇʀ ᴏғ ᴛʜᴀᴛ ɴɪɢʜᴛ.

I stopped believing in hope when a jiggly, greasy Santa Claus leaned in front of the popped eyeball goop dripping down my face, his lumpy erection bumping against the two remaining gifts, as the barbecue smell wafted from my friend's sizzling corpse while it melted onto my thighs. The stranger I only knew as "brunette college girl" sobbed quietly and shook her head, unable to articulate her pain and horror within the confines of the English language.

"I said that it was your turn," Dirty Santa grunted. He ground his teeth back and forth. It sounded like an ungreased axle scraping the paint off a car's hood.

"Please don't," she mouthed without sound.

"Did you know that I can cut pieces of your face off, then stitch them back in the wrong spots?" Santa reached for his sphincter and smiled. "Even if you make that course of action a necessity, you'll still have to choose a gift afterward."

She shook her head, tears streaming and snot jiggling, as she reached a trembling hand for a red bag with a festive red bow.

Santa licked his lips. Dry skin snowed down like dandruff.

I silently begged her not to pick the red bag.

She hesitated.

And then she picked the red bag.

The young woman reached in and extracted a trembling hand, holding a pistol with a tag attached to it. It was a bizarre juxtaposition; she was short and slight, clutching a weapon that was clearly designed for a much larger person. Her eyes were wide, and she was too afraid to let go of what she held.

The blonde woman next to her read the tag aloud:

"You found Santa's best gift,

you sly little elf!

Pick one person to shoot,

Yes, even yourself!"

The young woman held the gun as far from her face as she possibly could. It looked like she was squeezing a particularly old slice of mayonnaise custard. But she didn't release it; the weapon stuck to her fingers like an electrical current was keeping her grip shut tight.

"I'd like to switch my gift," the blonde woman said.

"Hmmmm?" Santa asked, smiling toward her. "But you haven't even picked yet!"

"Doesn't matter," she shot back. "I want hers."

Santa sniffed his finger before reaching behind himself once more. "Well… why don't you take it, then?"

The younger woman looked at her with pleading eyes. I could have sworn that she just wanted a parental figure in that moment.

"Hand it to me," the blonde woman said, nodding. "I promise it will be okay."

The gun shook.

Then the college girl dropped the weapon in the other woman's extended hand, snapping her arm back as though she'd been burned.

The blonde woman gave a sad smile. Her younger counterpart leaned back, relief washed over her face.

The blonde woman turned the pistol at the college girl and shot her.

Headshots are glamorous in every movie you've seen. The hero executes with perfect, clean aim to eliminate someone whom we accept as a "bad guy". Superfluous characters are rarely considered after their demise, and we never wonder how their mothers react upon hearing that the funeral will need to feature a closed casket.

I had no such luxury. The human head contains no empty space, and when her blood and brains had blown onto the floor, my mind boggled at how it all fit to begin with.

Her eyes stuck with me the most. They bulged, twitched, and blinked long after brain function had ceased.

"Gorgeous," Santa breathed. "A sight that would give 19 erections to 13 dandelions." He was three fingers deep at this point. "But what to do now?" His nostrils flared. "No one is left to choose the final present!" He looked at me with shaky pupils. "Our gift exchange has ended early. Oh well, it was fun!"

Then he turned and skipped - no shitting, he actually skipped - toward the only door in the room.

"Wait," the blonde woman called after him. "If it's over, can we go home? Can we leave?"

"Oh, I taped exacto knives and your fully-charged cell phones beneath each of your chairs. They've been there the whole time, and you have more than enough slack to reach them even with your hands tied. Isn't it funny that you could have escaped without hurting yourselves?"

Then he farted and hopped out the door.

The blonde woman's face blanched as she froze for just a moment.

Then she reached under her seat, moving furiously. Five seconds later, she emerged with the knife and cell phone, then began working to free herself. She locked eyes with me, panting.

I hadn't budged.

Using quick movements, she shredded the twine holding her in place. With that out of the way, she stood, flexed her fingers, and pocketed the phone. Then she took the exacto knife in her left hand and the pistol in her right, turned around, and advanced on me.

I still hadn't moved. I was spiritually empty.

"We're built to survive," she whispered. "And secrets are meant to be kept." She looked down at the weapons she held.

Only then did I understand.

"There's no good way out of this," she whispered. "I'm sorry, my friend - but not sorry enough to stop myself."

My blood ran cold. I knew that there was a knife just below me, and I knew I'd be dead before reaching it.

I cried out of my remaining eye.

"I'm sorry," she whispered once more. "But I just checked, and there's only one bullet left, which I'll need to keep for an emergency." She lifted the knife, her breaths coming in rasps. "I'll try to minimize your suffering. Now lift your neck and hold very still."

Obviously, I survived.

I attribute that to the fact that I'm not a good man.

I can't write anymore tonight. No amount of Valium is helping at this point. I hear that huffing bleach can cause brain damage; here's to hoping that damage comes in the form of erased memories.

I'll explain what happened next if I'm able to get up off my bathroom floor.

I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs. I'ᴠᴇ ɴᴇᴠᴇʀ sᴍᴇʟʟᴇᴅ sᴏ ᴍᴜᴄʜ ʙʟᴏᴏᴅ.

"So?" I asked, my voice shaking. "Is - is that good enough to let me live?"

The blonde woman looked at me like I was a science experiment. She cocked her head to one side and weighed my worth. I held my breath.

The gun barrel aimed at my jaw. It shook.

I wanted to believe that was a sign of hesitation, which meant hope.

I tried to swallow, but my throat was too dry. I was so wired that each of my own heartbeats shook me.

I wondered what getting shot would feel like.

Probably like a concentrated baseball bat strike. I would feel my teeth knocked out. If your last moments are bitingly painful, do you reach toward unconsciousness, even though it means never patching up what was said during your last fight with a loved one?

I focused on sitting still. For some reason, I believed that would help.

"Okay." Her words shook me; I'd been expecting a bullet, and the stimulus nearly knocked me out. "But I'm keeping the gun aimed at your head the whole time."

I let out a breath that I didn't know I'd been holding. "Okay," I answered, my voice trembling. "But - well - why didn't you just shoot Santa?"

Her shoulder fell. "You think I didn't try?" She wiped a tear on her shirtsleeve. "He stood beyond the range that I could reach with my hands tied. The fucker knew exactly what he was doing."

I nodded slowly. "Your arms are free now, though."

"And I won't hesitate to fire. I'm so sorry - I hope you know that."

I began to stand up.

"But not sorry enough to spare you, if that's what it comes to," she answered.

We gazed at one another. I knew then that we each wanted to cry, but were both so far beyond shattered that we lacked the capacity for such an escape.

I broke eye contact and leaned forward, pushing Jerry's charred corpse off of my lap. Have you ever tasted French onion soup that was just too hot? The gooey surface stretches across everything it touches, burning any exposed skin with its scalding touch. Jerry was like that; his burnt skin parted from his body like a rich mixture of Swiss gruyere and mozzarella, clinging to my hands and thighs as it sloughed off. The slightest touch scalded my skin, adhering to it like rubber cement. The exposed flesh beneath was the smeared red paste of hot marinara, spattering across every available surface before what remained of his corpse pitched backward. The rest of his body smacked against the floor, dissolving into an amorphous blob now that his skin no longer enclosed the meat sack.

He smelled like a pungent mixture of honey-baked ham and the terrified excavation of bowels that had been liberated by fear and fire.

"This is your last chance."

I snapped my attention upward and stared at the blonde woman with the gun. "What?"

"I've told you three times to cut yourself loose and stand. I won't say it a fourth."

"Sorry!" I stammered, reaching around in panic. "Sorry, I was lost in my thoughts and didn't hear you - I - the knife is just under the seat, right? Should I use that? Of course. Hang on, let me reach for it - just give me a second, please - that's okay, right? Okay, I'm doing it now, please don't shoot - I've got it in my hand, now I'm cutting one string away - now here's the other one -"

"I don't need you to narrate your life," she snapped. "Just finish and stand."

"I'm sorry, I blabber when I get nervous, and the gun you're pointing at my stomach makes me very -"

"Shut up. Stand."

I pushed the cut ropes away and got shakily to my feet.

She nodded.

That was the moment that everything got real. When you're trying to survive the next few seconds, your mind can shut everything else off. But the promises I made felt very different now that I had to pay them in full.

"Wait," I stammered. My voice felt like a brittle leaf. "We still haven't done it yet. It's not too late."

She looked at me with icy blue bombardier's eyes and shook her head.

I knew then that there was no turning back.

My breath hitched once, but I had no capacity to cry. I realized that I never would again, that some part of me had forever been left behind in that chair.

One step at a time, I stalked over to the man in the black suit, the man who had cut off his finger with garden shears. My shoes make a squish squish sound in the shallow pool of charcoal blood that Jerry had left on the floor.

I stared at the man, who was both blurry and shockingly clear all at once. He looked like a mannequin; his body was white and still. A stream of viscous blood dripped in a steady waterfall from his severed finger, and a wide pool of the liquid lay beneath his chair. My heart leapt at the idea that he might be dead already.

Then his glassy eyes rolled toward me. He tried to speak, but his voice was almost too raspy to hear.

He smiled. "We survived. Thanks for coming to cut me loose, man."

I wanted to cry. I wanted to break. But there was nothing in me whole enough to provide such a release.

He saw it in my expression.

"No, man, just - hey, there's no reason to hurt me, just walk away if you - wait - wait - wait, please wait -" He pressed his neck against his chest so that I couldn't reach his throat. "Please, not now," he whispered. "All of this made me realize why I want to live, I need to tell my sister I'm sorry - please, I just have to live long enough - wait, I -"

Nausea rose in my throat as I finally got the exacto knife into the side of his neck. He flinched, exposing more neck, and I hit him again. I couldn't help suppress the thought that this is so easy, that human skin offers so little resistance to knives that it's a wonder we don't kill each other more often.

It's fucked up. But I couldn't stop; I could only marvel at just how fucked up it all really is.

Movies portray deaths, even gruesome ones, as somewhat glorious. But this was just messy. Once I couldn't bear the thought of stabbing him anymore, I stepped back to watch his final minutes.

There was no dignity. He convulsed, pissed his pants, and stared at me with deep frustration and soft confusion. I was grateful on his behalf when it ended.

I dropped the exacto knife onto the floor. Blood muffled the sound.

"And there you have it," I said to the blonde woman behind me. I could feel her gun pointed at the back of my skull. "Now we both have unspeakable secrets to hold over one another." I wiped my face, inadvertently smearing the man's blood across my lips. "Is that enough to let me live?"

Now you see why the Valium's not sufficient.

The bleach blocked a few hours of memory, but unfortunately, I still woke up. I'm going to mix it with ammonia in hopes that the mixture will be potent enough to erase awareness of what I am.

If it doesn't work, I'll finish telling about my experience.

I ᴡᴀs ʜᴇʟᴅ ʜᴏsᴛᴀɢᴇ ᴏᴠᴇʀ Cʜʀɪsᴛᴍᴀs. I ᴡɪʟʟ ɴᴇᴠᴇʀ ʀᴇᴄᴏᴠᴇʀ.

"And there you have it," I said to the blonde woman behind me. I could feel her gun pointed at the back of my skull. "Now we both have unspeakable secrets to hold over one another." I wiped my face, inadvertently smearing the man's blood across my lips. "Is that enough to let me live?"

I wish I could have said that I stood with dignity as she decided my fate, staring stoically into a space where entire galaxies rise and fall without our awareness. Barring that, I would have liked to say that I held a newfound appreciation for a life after coming face-to-face with my own mortality, enlightened with the knowledge of just how precious and fleeting existence truly is.

But all I could think about was the mouthfoam and twitching and shitting the man before me had gone through before collapsing into an undignified puddle that was rapidly approaching room temperature. I knew it was shitty of me, but all I cared about was ensuring that I didn't sink so low.

I took in halting breaths, wondering if a bullet against my skull would feel more like a wasp or a crowbar, pissing just a little, trying to prevent it from being a lot. My nose ran freely.

After a few seconds, I was willing to take any sort of resolution, provided I didn't have to continue waiting.

But I was too much of a coward to move.

The blonde woman sighed. Without looking behind me, I felt her relax. "Fine," she breathed. "You've at least earned a reprieve for the amount of time it takes to walk outside."

My breath shuttered as my nose and bladder released a little more.

I struggled to speak.

"If you've got something to say, out with it," she groaned, the tension rising.

Fearing the silence, I forced myself to talk. "It's - it's almost funny… Santa's been gone for a while now, but I think - um - I think that this is the scariest part." I turned around.

I recognized the look in her face then: she was just as afraid of me as I was of her. Nothing is so terrifying as what a normal person can become.

Side by side, we walked through the sticky mess of blood, hair, and viscera that used to be our three companions.

She opened the door, and we stepped into the world.

The sun was shining despite the fact that I felt like it had no right to do so. I blinked, trying to understand why I was seeing something familiar. A sign above the exit door read "1913 xxxx Street." I looked behind me and saw the familiar landscape of Garfield Park.

My house was just three blocks away.

"This is my home," the blonde woman offered in a weaker voice than I'd thought possible. "I live in that apartment."

Discomfort curdled in my stomach as I realized that all five of us had probably resided nearby. Dirty Santa wanted us to suffer close to home.

And so we faced a split path. The cloudless sky was the brightest I'd seen it after a week of slate-gray clouds. It was exactly the sort of thing I'd taken for granted when it was easier to look down and get pissed at an untied shoe or a flat tire, because we focus on the transient at the expense of any bigger picture. Three people would never again experience a bright blue sky, while I had decades of them before me, even if it would never look quite the same. In the end, it was the mundane things I feared losing most when I made the decision to take a man's life in the hopes of sparing my own.

"This moment," I responded in a trembling voice, "is everything. After that experience, we'll never see life the same way again. We'll take this with us for as long as we live." I ran a hand through my hair with shaking fingers.

She looked at me without blinking. Concrete silence stiffened between us.

"You're right," she answered.

Adrenaline flared in my stomach as she flexed the hand that still held a pistol.

Then she raised the barrel to her temple and pulled the trigger.

For the fourth time in an hour, I witnessed a death that was far less dignified than I would have believed. Her jaw flapped, one leg jittered, and more blood poured from her skull crater than I thought a person could hold. She foamed at the mouth and vomited while pissing and shitting.

The kids in the park screamed. I marveled, distantly, at the years of therapy that would inevitably spawn from this brief moment. We suffer because we want to believe that life isn't fragile.

The blonde woman's eyes stayed open the whole time. When they finished twitching, they were staring at me.

The police said that I was lucky to be the only one of five who lived.

But Santa also lived, and he got everything he wanted. I suppose he was the luckiest of all. They have no realistic hope of finding him.

The District Attorney told me that she won't prosecute me for the man I killed. But his sister screamed that she'll never forgive me, that I'll never put this behind me, and she'll never be whole again.

In the end, we gave Dirty Santa everything he wanted: we killed each other and ourselves. He did very little compared to our own actions. I doubt he even had a gun. Our phones and means of escape were with us the entire time.

I wanted so badly to live.

Which forced me to ask myself why.

I found the answer: the life I had before this guilt was pretty good. Not great, but certainly worth appreciating. I'll never, ever have it again. Everything will be different until I die. No amount of drugs or therapy will erase it.

So I'm giving the man's sister her wish. I can't live with the guilt of being a murderer. I'm going to post this and then kill myself. I think I'll use a knife in my throat.

I deserve it.