A man embittered by war destroys his family on Christmas
|Kerry's father's shotgun stood in the corner, in all its lethality. The weapon held a terror for Kerry like nothing he had ever felt. One time when he was very young the weapon turned into a menacing, poisonous snake when Kerry looked at it. Kerry screamed, "Snake!", and ran out of the house onto their front yard. Mrs. Armstrong ran out into the yard and grabbed Kerry, furious that he had put on such a display in front of their neighbors. Kerry was so afraid that he couldn't move for a few hours.
Mrs. Armstrong decorated the house in the holiday season. The lights she put up blinked on and off in the night, proclaiming that the people inside were good, upright people. She worked so hard to convince the neighbors they were normal. She put so much faith in appearances. This tired Kerry. They weren't normal. Why did they have to pretend? It had been ten years since the war. John, Kerry's older brother, said they'd had a "war to end all wars", and then they had another one, just to make themselves liars. Kerry had learned to hate all lies, especially the one that said they were a normal family.
Brad Armstrong had fought in the Italian campaign. Now, ten years later, two years longer than Kerry had been alive, he still hated the Germans. Sometimes he got drunk, cradled his shotgun, and muttered about "the Goddamn krauts". His fits were getting worse.
Mary Armstrong worked especially hard during Christmas. She was going to impose her normalcy on her family. Once, it almost worked. Mary made cocoa and Christmas cookies. She played Christmas music while they decorated their beautiful Scotch pine Christmas tree. Then Brad came home drunk. He pissed in the water pan holding up the Christmas tree. Mary soaked up the piss water with a sponge, but she couldn't remove the smell. Kerry wanted her to take the tree down.
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"John, he's drunk again," Kerry said into the phone.
"Call the police," John answered.
"That won't help, John. He is not doing anything illegal. The cops won't do anything," Kerry responded.
"Has he put shells into the shotgun?" John asked.
"I think he has," Kerry answered.
"Kerry, get Mom and get out of the house. Call Reverend Stallworthy and find a place to stay," John said seriously.
"She won't do that, John," Kerry stated.
"Have you asked her?" John queried.
Kerry had a brief but strong feeling about how unfair it was that he was eight years old and had to make such decisions.
Christmas music erupted from the hi-fi.
"O come, o come, Imanuel," rose up in their home.
Brad Armstrong cradled his shotgun with a mad light in his eyes.
"The Goddamn Germans. They got what was coming to them. They spent Christmas at Stalingrad," Brad fumed.
Kerry wanted it to stop. He wanted the madness to end.
"Kerry, there are some cookies in the kitchen. Why don't you show a little Christmas spirit?" Mary asked.
Kerry's mouth fell open. She was as crazy as his dad. That was the way it had always been.
Brad Armstrong stood up with his shotgun.
"I said, 'seig heil, bozo'," Brad Armstrong yelled. A huge boom erupted as he fired his shotgun into the ceiling. Plaster fell down on him, making him look like a large bird had pooped on his head. His eyes flashed madly.
"I left his brains splattered on the wall," he yelled. The shotgun boomed again.
Kerry stared at his father in amazement.
"Mom, let's just get out of here," Kerry said urgently.
A police car pulled up outside, closely followed by another.
"O come all ye faithful," came from the hi-fi.
"Don't come in here! By God, don't come in here!" Kerry's father yelled at the police.
"Brad! Put down your gun!" the policeman yelled at them.
Brad Armstrong fired another shot into the ceiling. Mrs. Armstrong huddled on the corner of the sofa. So, it had finally gotten through to her. Mr. Armstrong was crazy. Then Kerry realized what was really bothering her was that they were making such a spectacle in front of the neighbors.
"God rest ye merry gentlemen," came from the record player.
Mr. Armstrong turned and fired at the machine. There was a burst of static, followed by silence.
"Oh Brad, don't you know what that cost us?" Mary Armstrong asked quietly.
"Shut up! Shut up! Shut up!" her husband yelled at her.
By now Kerry could see at least six patrol cars in front of their house. The lawmen had their guns out. They huddled behind their cars. They looked at each other questioningly, like they weren't sure if they should rush the house. As Kerry looked at his dad he realized there was such a thing as evil. There was such a thing as pure, unreasoning hate. Kerry suddenly felt a wave of pity for his mother. She wanted the world to make sense, and the world didn't make sense. Kerry thought he could probably sneak out the back door, but something kept him where he was.
Brad Armstrong turned his gaze on his son.
"You, you gold brick, you panty waist. You think you can go through life la-te-da," Mr. Armstrong said.
Kerry felt a sudden surge of courage born of desperation.
"What if I do want to go through life like that, it's better than what you're doing!" Kerry shouted at his dad.
"The world isn't safe. It won't be safe unless we make it safe," Brad stated.
"Mr. Armstrong, let your wife and son go. We can talk," a policeman shouted at them.
"We're not gonna talk!" Brad Armstrong yelled back.
"Let your wife and son go," the officer yelled again.
"They're mine! They don't belong to you!" Brad yelled back.
Kerry and his mother huddled together.
"Don't hurt your family, Brad!" a policeman shouted.
"You're going to hurt them, not me. I'm protecting them," Kerry's dad yelled back.
Kerry knew that he was seeing the last shred's of reason leave his father. Mr. Armstrong never had been really in touch with reality.
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When the blasting started the police rushed the house with their guns drawn. They were too late. A sudden burst of shotgun fire had killed all three of them. They carried the bodies out - Kerry, Mrs. Armstrong, and Mr. Armstrong.
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John Armstrong came home to bury his parents and his brother. He more than anyone knew how the war had affected his dad. He'd known his father before the war. Brad Armstrong came home a decorated soldier, eager to get on with the business of raising a family. Mr. Armstrong drank a lot, but he had always done that. John sensed how horrifying the war had been for his father, but John left home after a couple of years. His father deteriorated, but there was nothing John could do about it.
Brad Armstrong had been obsessed with the Wermacht and the different campaigns they had fought. He studied the brilliance of their generals and the depravity of their atrocities. Brad was particularly interested in the Battle of Stalingrad. He often commented on what a cold and bitter Christmas it must have been for the Germans at Stalingrad in 1943. Brad believed that there was such a thing as irredeemable evil. It was an abyss he often gazed into, and it became a madness that infected his mind.
At the funeral Reverend Stallworthy said that the ways of God were incrutable, and that we had to have faith that things had somehow worked out for the best, if not in this world, then in the next. The reverend's words comforted John, but he couldn't avoid the thought that the preacher was trading one form of irrationality for another. Some philosopher once said that "hell was the impossibility of reason". John saw the entire world as incapable of reason. There was such a thing as irredeemable evil, and, too often, it made us evil when we had to touch it.