A Bad Boy for Christmas

By: Jessica Lemmon

“Heck yes! We can’t leave the bottle of Demon Seed unopened.” Pushing herself off the couch, she went to the kitchen and grabbed the corkscrew. Outside, the rain pounded and thunder rumbled in the far, far distance. The storm had blown through and the night was once again quiet.

Charlie and Sofie started talking about shoes and Faith felt herself smile.

She was with friends, in the safety of her sweet little apartment. There was nothing to fear. No madmen. No men at all, actually.

Just the way she liked it.

* * *

The sky growled in protest and Connor jolted awake. Disoriented for a few seconds, he blinked at his surroundings.

White walls. Wood floors. Bare windows.

His apartment.

He reached for the handle on the side of the recliner and dropped the footrest to sit up. He had a bed but rarely slept in it. More often than not, he left the TV on to keep him company, then fell asleep to whatever show he watched last.

Tonight, he had attempted to do the same until the electricity went out. He saw now that the digital clock on the stove blinked the wrong time. 12:02. Must’ve just clicked back on.

Swiping a hand down his face, he abandoned the recliner and went to the refrigerator. He stood in the open light, tipped an orange juice container, and drained the end of it down his throat.

Unwanted images seeped through the cracks of his mind.

He lifted the carton, blinking sleepy eyes. Tropicana. 100% pure. Focusing on the words, he read the side panel. Anything to keep from thinking about Afghanistan.

It was no use. Whenever he woke in the middle of the night, his brain kicked up his worst memories like dust and threw them in his face. They weren’t exactly nightmares; he never woke up in a sweat or a panic like some of the guys in his unit had, but when he woke in the dark, in the quiet, it was with a picture in his head.

The picture was always the same.

A mother’s face frozen in a look of terror as she clutched the toddler against her leg, one arm wrapped around his dirt-streaked face and the other over his back as she cradled him against her skirt.

He squeezed his eyes closed and in the process crushed the cardboard container in his hand.

Five, four, three…

When he got to one, he let out the rest of his breath in a long, even exhalation. Another clatter of thunder shook the windowpanes. Flashes of light bounced off the stacked cardboard boxes in the corner of his living room.

For some reason, the boxes made him think of his buddy. How Donovan had faced his fears, stopped running. He’d come back to the Cove permanently. Let a woman into his house, his life. Meanwhile, Connor was awake, facing down the skeletons of his former life, the packed boxes their bones.

He walked over to one pile—stacked three high—and rested his hand on the top. He could tear open the tape, find out what’s inside. Even as the thought occurred, a sardonic smile curved one side of his lips. He’d been telling himself he would unpack since he came home two years ago. He’d yet to listen to that internal voice.

What was inside was the life of a man who’d left the Cove angry with Maya, fed up with his father for trying to strong-arm him into the family business. What had come back was a man who had survived a spray of machine gun fire at the expense of a mother and her child. In a weird way, that moment mirrored Maya and her pregnancy. He hadn’t been able to save her and the baby from an asshole, either.

Tossing the orange juice container into the trash, he stretched his arms, pulling his palms over his chest, then opened the refrigerator again, this time pulling out a plate of leftover roast chicken, mashed potatoes, and vegetables Sofie had sent home with him. He put the plate in the microwave, hit a button, and stared blankly at the stile turning his dinner.

He’d eaten a lot of meals with Donovan and Sofie over the last year. He’d crashed at the mansion more often than not. In fact, he’d probably stayed there more than he’d stayed in his own apartment over the last six months.

Recently, even in a thirteen-thousand-square-foot house, Connor had begun feeling like he was in the way. Not that Donny or Sofie would ever make him feel unwelcome, but it was clear they had made the mansion their home and were starting their life together there. It made him take a hard look at his own life and realize he hadn’t moved on much. He cast a glance over at the shoebox full of receipts on his kitchen table. Hell, maybe he hadn’t moved on at all. He’d sort of…frozen in time.

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