Tears filled his eyes as Mark looked at the last of his mother's things. He still didn't understand it, what she actually did. How could he? Growing up, living under her roof, he suffered through more than one conversation—more like sermons, really—about the Bible and all of its lessons, about how he should live, and about what were sins and what were not. And wasn't one of those so-called sins the taking of your own life? A one-way ticket to hell, she had told him. Do not pass Go. Do not collect a hundred dollars. But she had apparently done just that, hadn't she? It was in the police report. There may not have been an suicide letter, but all the evidence pointed to it.
She had taken out Mr. Tibbs first, the report noted. Whether or not the cat suffered, the detectives could not say, but it was a foregone conclusion the animal was dead because of Mark's mother. After all, how does a cat turn on the oven and then jump into it, closing the door behind itself? He'd asked if it was possible that she had killed the cat before throwing it in the oven. The two detectives simply stared at him for a moment. They looked like they were fresh out of the military, their hair cut so short, their all-business expressions. Then one of them shrugged his big shoulder.
"Mr. Patterson," he had said, "I really can't say one way or the other." He patted Mark on the shoulder, a strange and gentle jester. "I'm sorry for your loss."
That his mother did everything had been clear in their minds, though. That much they could say. According to the report, after she placed the cat in the oven (dead or alive), she then tied a rope to one of the garage rafters and, using a white plastic step ladder, hung herself.
Mark stared at the last of her things now littering the living room floor of his own house. He shook his head and closed his eyes, once again asking how she could have done it. And so close to the holidays, too.
He took a deep breath and pressed on. This stuff wouldn't take care of itself. It had taken him a couple of months just to reach this point. Most of the items would end up like the rest, donations to United Way or some such organization, though some things he might keep for himself, memories of much better times. Sorting through her things, his eyes spotted one box that looked out of the ordinary. In fact, it didn't look like it belonged to his mother at all. It was something that had apparently been delivered to her in the mail. On the outside, images of alien spacecrafts flittered around cratered moons. Little green triangular heads, with black orbs for eyes, filled the glass canopies of each craft. On the lid, he saw a message: Don't Open Until Christmas.
Mark frowned. A Christmas gift? In the mail?
He pulled the lid off the box. Green vapors slithered out and wrapped around his fingers, his wrists, his arms. Inside a wrinkled face stared back at him. It looked sort of like... an alien? It was hard to say, but it certainly had the same triangular shape as the faces on the outside of the box. And those eyes...
A high-pitched ringing filled his head. A voice, buried deep within his brain, spoke to him.
Kill them all.
He looked from the face in the box to the faces in the photos above the fireplace mantel. A woman and three children. His family.
Mark's face went slack as he stared back into the box.
"All of them?" he asked.
It repeated its order.
Kill them all.
Slowly, Mark nodded his assent. He placed the open box on the floor and walked down the hallway. There was a gun in the back bedroom. Yes, that would do it.
Sergeant Joseph Buchler, "Joe" to all the men in the department, stared at the items placed on the counter. A pistol. A box of cartridges. A strange box with flying aliens printed on the side.
The aging police officer on the other side of the counter gave him a dismissive look, as if to say, What's it look like?
"Evidence in the Patterson murders," the officer said, his tone sounding bored with life in general.
"The Patterson murders?"
"You know, the one who went nutso after his mother hung herself, and then he offs his whole family? Didn't do so good on himself, though. The doctors say he could make it, but the odds aren't that good, so the detectives asked me to bring this stuff here. 'Just in case the looney-bird pulls through,' they said."
Joe nodded. He'd heard the story. Then he shook his head.
"What's this world coming to?" Joe said.
"You ask me, it's going to all the nutters and crazies. Pretty soon, there'll be none of us left."
Joe looked down at the box. He read the label on the lid: Don't Open Until Christmas.
"What's inside?" he asked.
"Beats me." The old officer turned and walked away. "The suits tell me to bring it to evidence, I bring it. I don't ask questions, and I don't look inside boxes."
Joe continued to stare at the box. Don't open until Christmas? He looked left and then right, a silly thing to do since there was nobody else around. It was just him and all the knives and guns and ammo collected from various crime scenes. He looked at the box again, at the label. Finally, he gripped the sides of the lid.
Really, what could it hurt?