This is the conclusion of a two-part story. Read the first part here. Copyright is held by the author.
When Ron awoke he was sitting at a table inside the dining hall of the East Street Mission. His head was resting face down in the crook of his elbow. There was an explosion of pain as he tried to raise it. He lifted his hand and felt a rather large bump on his forehead. He tried to focus his eyes, and with disbelief he saw that he was wearing surgical scrubs.
“Hello, Mr. Spicer. My, my, that’s quite a nasty bump on your head, isn’t it?” It was Jingle, standing directly behind him.
“Why are you doing this to me?” pleaded Ron. “What do you want from me?”
“I’ve told you. I’m here to help you,” replied Jingle. “After all, I was the one who picked you up off the hospital floor and brought you back here. You had a terrible fall, Mr. Spicer. I hope you’re feeling better now.”
“I feel like shit, and I don’t want your help. Please, just leave me alone.”
“Come, come now. Let’s get going, shall we? Our time together will be over soon. Just one more visit, I promise.”
Ron tried to stand, wincing in pain as he moved his bruised legs. “Please Sasha, Mr. Jingle, whatever your name is, just let me be.”
“Soon, Mr. Spicer, soon. Besides, this is for your own good, you know. Now let’s go, we don’t want to do this the hard way now, do we?”
Ron stood up and took a step toward Jingle. He lost his balance and fell forward. He reached out to break his fall and grabbed the key ring on Jingle’s belt. The ring was as hot as a branding iron. Ron’s hand began to burn, the smell of smouldering skin singing his nostrils. He let go of the key ring and screamed; the palm of his hand was blackened and throbbing.
“Oh, you shouldn’t have done that, Mr. Spicer,” remarked Jingle. “The keys are not yours to touch. Not to worry though, your hand will heal soon enough.” Mr. Jingle bent down and picked up Ron with ease. “This way please.”
Cradling his burnt hand, Ron felt too weak to resist and quietly allowed Jingle to steer him out of the dining hall and towards the door marked NO ADMITTANCE.
Once inside, Ron found himself shuffling through the strange corridor again. This time, however, it was illuminated by a sickly green glow. The floor was tilted and the walls were of uneven height, reminding him of those disorienting fun house exhibits at summer carnivals.
They stopped in front of an elaborate leather-bound door. From the ring, Mr. Jingle selected a key and thrust it into the door lock. As he slowly turned the key the lighting in the hall intensified and the hum of the fluorescents grew louder. As if coming to life, the door bulged, the leather stretching to its ripping point. Ron looked up at Mr. Jingle in amazement and was blinded by the bright light. Suddenly the door flew open, from which emanated a fog of green vapour.
“Please enter, and have a good time,” said Mr. Jingle.
Ron felt an invisible force pulling him forward and into the room. He rubbed his eyes and blinked, trying to focus on what lay ahead. Darkness at first, then a dawning warm light. The sound of voices could be heard, growing in strength with the light. Edging closer, Ron could hear laughter, the chatter of happy people: a party. He looked down at his injured hand, the burn had healed and the pain was gone. He was now wearing a tuxedo.
“Ron old buddy. How ya doing, pal?” A stranger, also dressed in a tux, put an arm around Ron’s shoulder and pumped his hand. “Come on in, man, let me buy you a drink.”
Ron was immediately hooked by the offer and followed the stranger without protest.
He was led into a lavishly decorated ballroom. Crystal chandeliers hung from the ceiling, fine artwork adorned the oak-panelled walls. In the corner a musical quartet played spirited music. And to the right was the piece de resistance, an extravagant bar, which ran the entire length of the room.
“Come on, this way,” said the stranger. They approached the bar and mingled through a cheerful crowd.
Everyone seemed to know Ron, and they greeted him with open arms. They flattered him with praise, cajoled him with admiration. An exceptionally well-endowed woman pressed herself against him. She reached up and kissed Ron warmly on the cheek, leaving behind a generous amount of deep red lipstick.
Ron, the apparent man of honour, finally reached the bar and his jaw dropped. He had never seen such an extraordinary assortment of alcohol. He nearly drooled as his eyes drank in the countless bottles of fine liquor: whiskeys, vodkas, rums, cognacs, spirits of every variety. To one side he spotted a large collection of rare single malt scotch, most of which were labelled 30-year-old. Behind the bar a large refrigerated glass door displayed a bevy of chilled beer: pilsners, lagers, ales, and stouts. An impressive wine list rounded out the inventory.
“What’s your pleasure, Mr. Spicer?” said a familiar voice. From a shadow behind the bar emerged Mr. Jingle, his wide golden grin beaming down on Ron. Jingle, wearing a bartender’s apron, opened his arms and motioned at the multitude of bottles at his disposal. Ron licked his lips and was about to speak when he suddenly felt a tapping on his back.
He turned and saw a beautiful young woman. She looked up at him with enticing eyes and smiled. She was vaguely familiar to Ron but he couldn’t place her.
“Come on, Ronny, let’s dance.” She grabbed his hand and tried to pull him away. Her alluring frame leaned towards the dance floor. Certain this was all one crazy dream, Ron was only too happy to oblige.
As they stepped onto the dance floor the band, as if on cue, began to play slow, romantic music.
The young lady eased herself into Ron’s arms. She raised her lips to his ear and whispered something obscene. He was intoxicated by the sweet smell of her hair, the touch of her skin, and her sinful words. In a passionate embrace they danced and twirled to the music.
“What’s your name, gorgeous?” he asked her.
“Don’t you remember? It’s Cindy.”
Cindy? I don’t know anyone named Cindy, thought Ron. Unless . . . Thinking back he recalled his first girlfriend. Her name was Cindy. They were just kids back then but he’d never forgotten — she had given him his very first drink, taken from her father’s liquor cabinet on a night when her parents were out. How he regretted that very first drink.
He glanced away and noticed a large mirror hanging from the far wall. A strange reflection in the mirror caught his eye and he danced their way towards it. A closer look into the mirror shattered the last remains of Ron’s sanity. He looked at the reflection and was horrified to see a decomposing corpse draped in his arms. He quickly looked down at Cindy. She was as beautiful as before. But looking back in the mirror, quite the opposite appeared. A horribly decayed creature, clutching him with skeletal fingers, was staring at Ron with one dangling eyeball. Rotting flesh stretched across her glistening jawbone while a spider flittered in and out of her vacant eye socket.
Stricken with terror, Ron couldn’t pull his gaze away from the mirror. He saw the reflection of the once cheerful crowd in the background. Their elegant evening gowns and fine tuxedos were reduced to bloody rags that hung limply from oozing flesh and protruding bones. They danced and they swayed, a gruesome collection of cavorting cadavers.
Ron broke free from the Cindy-creature and began to back away. He turned and ran for the bar. Jingle is at the bar, he thought, he’ll get me out of this place. Shielding his eyes from the crowd, Ron managed to reach Mr. Jingle, who waiting behind the bar.
“You look like you can use a drink, Mr. Spicer.” Jingle poured a full glass of single malt scotch, neat.
With trembling hands Ron grasped the glass and quickly gulped it down. The taste was pure evil. He grabbed the bottle from Mr. Jingle’s hand and looked at the label. The fancy label proclaiming 30 years of aging was gone. It was replaced by a tattered warning sign. A large skull and crossbones sign, the universal symbol for poison, was the only marking on it now.
“Care for another?” asked Mr. Jingle.
Ron looked up and noticed all the bottles displayed behind the bar had the identical warning label. His mouth began to burn, soon followed by a nauseating pain deep in his gut. The nausea grew quickly and he began to heave uncontrollably. Vomit erupting from his mouth with violent force. He doubled over as acrid discharge burned his throat, pungent bile dripping from his nose. He collapsed to the floor clutching his stomach and writhed in pain.
The ghoulish crowd slowly gathered around Ron and looked down at him. From across the room the band started playing and the crowd began to sing “For He’s a Jolly Good Fellow.”
Mercifully, Ron blacked out.
Ron slowly regained consciousness. He was draped over a filthy toilet in the East Street Mission men’s room. Ron had an awful taste in his mouth and his head was pounding. He rubbed his temples to ease his headache. A terrifying nightmare lingered in his mind. Upon lowering his hands he noticed a smear of lipstick on his fingers. He wiped his cheek and found more lipstick. He thought of the lady in the ballroom who kissed him and he shook his head in denial. This can’t be true, thought Ron. Just another crazy nightmare, that’s all.
“Hello, Mr. Spicer. Feeling better? I hope you’ve learned something today.”
Ron spun around and saw Mr. Jingle grinning down at him sparkling his gold tooth. “You bastard, Jingle. Let me out of this goddamn nightmare. Why do you keep torturing me?”
“To show you the error of your ways, of course.”
“Error?” asked Ron, almost laughing. “What you’ve shown me is heart-wrenching grief and sorrow. You’ve put me through a shitload of horrors. You’ve even tried to poison me. Haven’t I suffered enough? I’ve already lost everything. I’m just a fucking alcoholic, I don’t need you to show me that.”
“Perhaps you’d like to reconsider your past.”
“What do you want me to say, that I’ll quit drinking? Even if I did, what’s done is done. There’s no going back.” Ron gave Mr. Jingle a questioning glance. “Is there?”
“Perhaps there is, Mr. Spicer, perhaps there is. I can be of some assistance in this matter, but it’s really up to you. This time, you possess the key.”
Mr. Jingle stared deeply into Ron’s eyes and with a booming voice he said, “This is your last call, Mr. Spicer. What will it be?” The words echoed in Ron’s head, and in an instant Jingle had vanished.
Ron was alone again as darkness crept in and surrounded him. He felt as if he was at the bottom of a deep abyss, hopelessly lost. Too weak and too frightened to move, Ron sat cross-legged on the floor. He tried to make sense of Jingle’s cryptic message: This is your last call . . . what will it be? And so, for the first time in a long time, he prayed. He prayed and he wept, until overcome by complete exhaustion.
Dream-like, Ron was floating, weightlessly drifting through an endless corridor, through oddly shaped doors. Iridescent keys floated all around him as a blinding light beckoned him forward. He could hear Mr. Jingle’s eerie laugh echoing in his head. For Ron, the passage of time and space had lost its meaning. Finally, he felt himself crashing back to earth.
Ron smelled cinnamon. He felt warm and cozy, well rested. He opened his eyes and found himself in a bed — a familiar bed, in a familiar bedroom. To Ron’s surprise he was back in his family home, the one he had lost so many years ago.
“Wake up, Ron. Are you going to sleep all day? It’s Christmas.” His wife Pamela entered the room.
Pam, my beautiful Pam is back.
“Come on, Tommy’s waiting for us downstairs,” she said. “He can’t wait to open his presents.”
“Tommy’s here? Downstairs?” asked Ron, his voice cracking with emotion.
“Of course silly, where would you expect our son to be on Christmas morning?”
“How old is he?” he blurted out, realizing how stupid this question must sound to Pam.
“You’re acting strange this morning,” she said with a laugh. “He’s seven, remember?”
Seven years old. Six years have gone by since he’d left Pamela and Tommy. But still, it’s not too late to start over, to be happy again. Ron jumped out of bed and gave his once-lost wife an affectionate kiss, embracing her tightly.
“Not now, you’ll get your Christmas present later,” said Pam with a smile. “Now, come on downstairs. I’ve got cinnamon rolls in the oven.”
“Merry Christmas, Dad.” Tommy came running over as Ron entered the living room and lept into his father’s arms. Ron hugged him closely, not wanting to let go.
“Put me down, Dad, I’ve got something for you.” Ron let him down and the boy ran to a nearby table. Tommy returned with something in his hand and showed it to his dad. It was a Santa’s elf doll he had made himself.
“Isn’t it cute, Ron?” asked Pam. “Tommy’s made over a dozen of those dolls.”
“They’re not dolls, Mom, they’re action figures,” protested Tommy.
“Sorry dear. Yes, action figures. Anyway, Tommy’s even sold a bunch of them to the kids at school. Quite the entrepreneur, isn’t he?”
Entrepreneur? If you only knew, thought Ron. He picked up the doll for a closer look.
“Wow,” exclaimed Ron. “Did you really make this all by yourself?” It was a typical doll but with a tiny dab of gold paint in its smile, like a tooth. It was dressed in a Santa suit with small bells attached to its hat and shoes.
“I call him Mr. Jingle,” said Tommy. “Do you like him Dad? It’s your Christmas gift.”
Tears welled up in Ron’s eyes. He hugged his son again, looked up at Pam, then back to Tommy.
“I just love it Tommy, I really do. Mr. Jingle is the most wonderful gift I could ever ask for.”