It was just after two o'clock in the afternoon when Fred Dunderhill managed to get out of bed. He slipped into his bathrobe. He remembered when his wife bought him this bathrobe, so many Christmases ago. It had been quite fabulous at the time, but in the years since, as Fred found more and more reasons to spend more and more of the day wearing it, the fabulousness was dead and buried.
He fixed himself a cup of instant coffee, which he had done ever since he gave up on having to go through too many steps to make his coffee in the coffee maker his wife bought him so many Christmases ago. It was easier this way. It was much more simple. And Fred didn't have to wait for the coffee to finish brewing.
Fred used the remote control to turn the television in the living room on. He sat down on the edge of the sofa in his robe, clutching his coffee and flipped through the channels. As usual, there was nothing on.
Monotony. Every day was pretty much the same.
Fred had been married, which explained why he still had so many of the Christmas presents his wife had given him over the years. Then he lost his job. It was just a little downsizing on orders from the home office. Nothing to worry about. Fred was starting his own business, anyway.
The business had failed after less than two years, and after Fred went against the advice he'd been given not to sink so much of his own money into the company. He was sure it was going to take off. It was just a matter of time and he had to keep things afloat until the money started rolling in.
The money never started rolling in. And Fred kept trying to keep the business going by sacrificing everything he had. He still had the bathrobe, though. His wife left him a few months before the business collapsed completely. It wasn't the financial problems that drove her to leave Fred. It was the madness that overcame him, slowly at first, and then exploding in perfect harmony with the collapse of the business.
Now Fred was three months behind in paying the mortgage. And he had six hundred dollars left in his checking account. Fred was waiting to die, sitting in his bathrobe, which had once been quite fabulous, drinking instant coffee and clicking through the channels on his television.
It wasn't actually true that Fred had six hundred dollars in his checking account. It had been true at one point, but yesterday he went and withdrew all of it except for twelve dollars. He was certain it was a good idea to leave twelve dollars in his checking account. It wasn't for a rainy day. Every day was a rainy day.
The six hundred dollars was going to last Fred until Christmas Day. Every afternoon, after he found his way out of bed, drank a cup or two of instant coffee, flipped the channels on the television remote to remind him there was nothing worth watching, Fred Dunderhill walked three blocks to the local bar, Flanagan's Pub. There he drank until he could drink no more and stumbled on home to pass out on his bed and prepare to start the whole routine over again.
Eight days until Christmas.
At last it was Christmas Eve. Fred still had a hundred and twenty dollars left from his checking account. It would be enough for one final show down at the bar. He might even buy a round for the other regulars who he imagined were waiting to die, just as he was.
Things seemed different down at the bar. The windows were covered with some kind of glittery white paint and the words "Merry Christmas" in green and red paint, the colors alternating with each letter. A young couple, no more than twenty-five years old by the looks of them, were coming out of the bar laughing and hanging onto each other the way new lovers often do. Fred had never seen them before, and Flanagan's Pub rarely saw any new clientele. It was always those same few somber faces looking down at their glasses of beer, whiskey or whatever their drink of choice was and only looking up to share some select words with each other over something having to do with the local sports teams or to rant aimlessly about politics.
Fred Dunderhill pulled open the front door and walked into the bar. None of the regulars was in attendance. He figured some probably had family or friends and wouldn't be making an appearance on Christmas Eve, but Fred hardly expected no one familiar to be there.
The place wasn't empty by any means. It was packed with unfamiliar faces, most of them young and lively, singing Christmas carols in the corner by the jukebox and raising joyful toasts to each other.
Ted, the usual bartender, wasn't behind the bar. Nor was his usual substitute, Rubber Ritchie, who had gotten his nickname after a night when he was jumped by two hoodlums outside the bar. They had tried to beat Ritchie down and slam his head into the pavement, but Ritchie's head just bounced off the pavement as he laughed at his attackers, so they ran off without even grabbing his wallet.
Not everyone believed that story. Fred did.
"Merry Christmas, Fred," said the man behind the bar. He was a smiling giant of a man with a head of thick, red hair. He seemed to almost be glowing, which Fred figured had something to do with the number of lights on over the bar. It was usually more like permanent dusk at Flanagan's Bar. Fred wasn't happy with the brightness.
"Uh, hello. How did you know my name?"
"I make a point to know everyone who comes into my bar. It is a pleasure to finally meet you. I'm Shamus Flanagan."
"I thought Shamus Flanagan died in 1978."
"Well, I may have, but I figured I'd make a special point to drop in tonight. See, the way the dice were rolling, we were only going to have two customers tonight. You and Old Murphy. He's down at the end of the bar."
Fred glanced down to the end of the bar and saw Old Murphy, a man who practically lived at Flanagan's. He was a withered old husk of a man and he never spoke to anyone unless it was to mumble something no one could understand. Old Murphy was sitting at the bar the way he always did and seemed not to notice the noisy celebrations going on all around him. As usual, Old Murphy was in his own little world. It was said that if a bomb went off inside Flanagan's, Old Murphy wouldn't even blink.
Fred turned back to look at the man who claimed to be Shamus Flanagan just as a beer was placed down in front of him.
"Your usual. Or did you want something special on account of the holiday?"
"Uh, this is... fine." Fred took a sip of the beer and put the glass back down. He threw a five dollar bill on the bar and started towards the door.
"Where you headed, Fred?" Shamus Flanagan called out to him.
Fred turned around and faced the bartender. "I was expecting something a bit more quiet tonight. Too noisy and bright in here."
"But Fred, tonight is the night you planned to die."
Fred Dunderhill turned around and stepped back towards the bar. "What did you say?"
"Tonight is the night you planned to die. Am I wrong?" The man claimed to be Shamus Flanagan was still smiling.
"Maybe," Fred mumbled. He turned around again and pushed his way angrily through the crowd towards the door. From behind him he heard a most curious sound. It was a loud and obnoxious cackling, and it was coming from Old Murphy.
It was within the same moment Fred realized it was Old Murphy that was cackling like a madman that he also realized there was a brick wall up in front of the exit.
"What the fuck?"
Fred pushed people aside and made his way to the brick wall. It was solid. And not only did it cover the door, it also blocked the plate glass window that had so recently been painted over with the words "Merry Christmas" in letters that alternated between red and green.
Fred turned around.
"What the fuck is going on?"
Much to his surprise, Shamus Flanagan was standing right behind him, and when he turned around, he was face to face with the supposedly long dead former owner of the bar.
"Let me out of this place, whoever the fuck you are."
"Why don't you come back to the bar, sit down, relax and drink your beer. Everything is on the house tonight."
Fred Dunderhill walked quietly back through the crowd towards the bar. No one seemed to even notice him, and the same people he had pushed out of the way when he tried to make his exit were now quietly stepping out of his way and he strolled back to his usual stool at the bar.
"You intended to come down here tonight and drink yourself into a stupor, didn't you? Why change horses in midstream?"
"I told you. I expected it to be quiet and, well, like it usually is. I'm not in the mood to be around all these people."
"They're having a good time," Shamus Flanagan said, stretching his arm out towards the crowd. "It is a good holiday crowd. Way back when, it used to be like this quite often, especially on Christmas Eve. I guess the current owners are satisfied with letting the place be a tomb, but that doesn't mean I have to like it."
"Who are you, really, and what the hell is going on?"
"Have you looked at any of the faces in the crowd tonight?" Shamus asked, ignoring Fred's question. "You might see some familiar ones."
"I'd rather just drink my beer in peace."
Shamus leaned forward across the bar and whispered, "I think there is someone here to see you."
There was a woman to Fred's left. She was looking at him as if she were seeing a ghost.
"Freddie Dunderhill? Is that you?" she asked.
Fred's eyes took a moment to adjust and focus on her face. "Carrie? Carrie White?"
"Yeah, it's me silly. What happened to you? Forgive me for saying so, but you look like shit."
"Hasn't been a good couple of years for me," sighed Fred. "You look the same as I remember you. I'd swear you haven't aged a day since--"
"Since you left me? That was twenty years ago. You are still the flatterer, though, aren't you?"
"I'm serious, Carrie. You still look like you're in your twenties. Looks like the years have been good to you."
"I'm still the way you remember me, silly. Why would I look any different?"
Carrie waved to Shamus Flanagan. "Vodka and tonic, Shamus. Double tall."
"Of course, sweetheart."
"You know this guy?" Fred asked her. "He claims to be Shamus Flanagan, but I know Shamus Flanagan is dead. There used to be a plaque up behind the bar with the date he died and everything. Kind of a memorial. Doesn't seem to be there now, though."
"I'm sure there was, everyone always loved Shamus. He has a kind of shine to him, don't you think?" Carrie asked with a giggle to accompany the question mark at the end of her sentence.
"Yeah, it is because of all the lights. Way too bright in here for a bar. Feels like a damned airport runway."
"I guess it is. In a way."
As his conversation with Carrie continued and the drinks continued to arrive on the house, Fred found himself seeing other familiar faces in the crowd. They were all people he had known and lost contact with over the years, and they all looked just as he remembered them. He was certain he was dreaming, especially when he saw Michael Rose, still wearing the uniform from the garage where he worked in 1982, the year he had been killed in a car accident on his way home from work.
Carrie nudged him. "You're not dreaming, Freddie."
Fred Dunderhill continued staring at Michael Rose while listening to the sound of Carrie's voice. After a moment, Michael looked back at him, smiled and began walking towards him.
"What's shakin', Freddie?" he asked with a smile. "Quite a party you've got going on in here."
"I don't believe it," Fred said as he reached out and touched Michael's arm. "You've been dead for like twenty-five years."
"Yeah, so they tell me. It was quick and painless. I don't remember a thing. That's the past, though. What's going on with you, Freddie?"
"I have no idea. I seem to be trapped in here and I keep seeing people I haven't seen in--"
"Yeah, it is supposed to be like that, or so they tell me. Old Shamus can fill you in. I'll be over with Mitch and Vicky. I haven't seen those guys since I died. Catch up with you later, Freddie."
Fred Dunderhill watched his old friend walk away, back to a table where he was entertaining Mitch Peabody and Vicky Lee, two other old friends Fred hadn't seen in close to twenty years. He wanted to go over and talk to them, but the more familiar faces he saw, the more uncomfortable he started to feel. His gaze drifted around the room, slowly at first, but then his eyes moved so quickly he began to feel queasy and turned back to the bartender.
"What the hell is going on?" Fred asked while staring down at his beer. "Why are all these people here? Michael isn't the only one I see who is dead, either."
"You wanted to die tonight," Shamus said plainly.
Fred looked up at him. "Okay, so what is this, one of those It's a Wonderful Life things where you show me how much of an impact I had on the world and then I go running through the streets like Jimmy Stewart kissing things and singing about how great life is?"
Shamus Flanagan laughed. "No, nothing like that, really. Even if you wanted to change your mind about dying tonight, you couldn't. You have a tumor the size of a hard-boiled egg in your brain. Sometimes when you spend enough time wishing for things you reach the point of no return."
"So, you're saying I can't change anything? I'm going to die tonight no matter what I do? Great. Merry Fucking Christmas to you, too."
Shamus Flanagan laughed louder than he had before, and slapped his hands down on the bar. "My friend, you have so much anger built up inside of you. Don't you ever want to let it go and be free?"
"Free from what? I have every right to be angry."
"Anger is a choice," Shamus told him. "You don't have a choice any longer about whether or not you die tonight. I can tell you, in no uncertain terms, that you will die tonight."
"That's just wonderful. What a wonderful Christmas. Why don't you just give me a gun so I can blow my head off and get it over with!"
"This is what you wanted, to die tonight, on Christmas Eve. I know the people that keep records on these things. They aren't bad people, by any stretch of the imagination. They decided to give you a gift, and I suggest you embrace the gift you have been given."
"Gift? What gift? Death?"
Shamus shook his head. "You have a few hours before closing time. Why don't you make the best of the time you have been given." Shamus looked out across the crowd. "Maybe you'd rather be visiting with old friends than standing here arguing with the bartender?"
Carrie put her hand on Fred's shoulder. "You always had a lot of trouble letting go, Freddie. It was one of the things I thought was sweet about you when we were together, but it was also hard to handle when it got out of control."
Fred stood up and looked out over the crowd. The lights grew brighter and for the first time since he had skinned his knee in the fourth grade, Fred began to cry.