Sympathetic Ears (A Short Story)

“There ya go. First one’s on the house … you look like you could use it”.

The haggard man blinked and shook his head, as if coming up for air from somewhere deep within himself. After looking at the beer for a long time as if it was the most welcome thing he’d ever seen, he looked up at Earl.

Earl was an innocuous sight at a little under five feet, though weighing in at nearly three hundred pounds. Santa Clause hair spilled out of his face and ran up to hide under a worn, woolen beanie. Like jolly old Saint Nick, Earl also had a kind twinkle in his eye.

“What’s the problem, stranger?”

The haggard man leaned back on his stool as if to get his brain around just why this man was being so kind to him. After all that had happened to him lately, he wondered what possible interest the bartender could have in …

… but then he managed a half-hearted smile and realized he was in the place to talk about his problems. Hell, the man behind the bar probably did nothing but listen to people’s problems, day in, day out; strangers pouring out their sorry tales to him.

It maybe even helped a little.

So the haggard man began, thankful the bar was empty, with the exception of himself and Earl; thankful it was so far off the main road that nobody was likely to come in while he let it all out, for that matter.

During it all, Earl merely listened, nodding occasionally as if he had, indeed, heard it all before. The haggard man took solace in this: If his problems weren’t as unique as he thought, he didn’t feel quite so alone with ‘em.

The beer flowed for a good hour or so, and the haggard man – though still haggard – felt at least a little less burdened, having unloaded his woes; no closer to a solution, but a little better.

The beer was obviously going some way towards that. And it awoke a hunger in the haggard man.

“Say, Earl”, for they were now on a first-name basis, “you got anything stronger than beer?”

The corner of Earl’s mouth moved towards the twinkle in his eye, and he began nodding again.

“Yep … I reckon there’s something stronger out the back …

… you wanna come out and help me look for it?”

As if it were the best offer he’d had in a long while, the haggard man climbed down none-too-steadily from his stool and headed for the doorway Earl was gesturing towards.

“Through here?”

Earl just nodded, moving towards the door himself, though pausing until the haggard man had gone through.

The room was dark – a pokey little storeroom – and Earl made no effort to find a light switch. What little light fell through from the bar illuminated only kegs of beer, shelves of something in glass bottles and wooden boxes …

… wooden boxes of something possibly better than beer … ?

“Look over the back there”.

Earl’s voice seemed close.

“What am I looking for?”

In a movie, the haggard man would have heard Earl say something like, “You’ll know it when you see it”, before he saw what he saw. Truth be told, even if Earl had shouted something like that at him, the haggard man wouldn’t have heard it: Blood was pounding in his ears in time to his heartbeat like some sort of wet bass drum.

A sudden inhalation stopped the tattoo as something stabbed into the space between the haggard man’s third and fourth vertebrae. An instant later, he was on the floor.

Knowing nobody would be by, Earl set to work. As he began cutting away, he looked up at the bottles, to the last thing the haggard man had seen …

… and spoke.

“Yep … another Sad Sack tonight. Whining to me like he’s the only one in the world with problems. As if I’m supposed to listen to everyone else’s problems when there’s nobody to listen to mine … ”

As he settled in for a long night of talking about his problems to the only ones who would listen, Earl finished his grisly job and rinsed his trophies under the sink, before adding the haggard man’s ears to his collection.

Copyright © 2008 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
723 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).

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It Shouldn’t Have Happened to a Vet (A Short Story)

With Apologies to James Herriot.

“Ahh … the new bloke. Murphy, wasn’t it? Come on in”.

“Tea … ?”

“Yeah, I don’t take sugar, either. The milk hereabouts makes it sweet enough”.

“Through here … take a seat … ”

“You’ll have to excuse the mess. I know the place looks like a tornado’s hit it, but I haven’t felt much like cleaning up since … ”

“Ahh … it’s all right … no need to walk on eggshells about it. This is just an informal chat, I know; the new bloke seeing if the previous guy has anything to tell him about the job, the region … the people. But I figured we’d get around to that subject, sooner or later. Might as well be sooner … ”

“I figure you’ve probably read all in the papers about it. ‘Journalists’. Huh … ! Couldn’t spell the word ‘truth’, let alone write about it. All sorts of rumours flying around at the college, too, I’ll bet, hmm … ?”

“Ah, well … bear with me …

… and I’ll tell you what really happened”.

“She’s strugglin’”.

“Yeah, mate … I knew you wouldn’t have called me if it was just a normal birth”.

And I did know. For Jim McGrove – and every other farmer in the area – a cow giving birth was nothing to ring the vet about. Even if the cow was having trouble – the unborn calf not having turned properly, for instance – most farmers (and I’m talking third- and fourth-generation folks, out here) think nothing of getting in there and turning it themselves.
I was only called out when there was something they couldn’t handle … and that was rare enough that I hadn’t done an outcall since I first moved here and started my practice, going around to introduce myself to everyone; a fair while previous …

Anyway … as I knelt down beside the cow, for some strange reason my mind flashed back to when I was first learning my skills. Our job for an entire semester was to dissect a horse.

(You’d remember that … wasn’t that long ago for you, was it?)

Funny thing … in the cold of the dissection room, the horse’s coat always looked wet, somehow. And McGrove’s cow had that same sheen to her.

I put my bag down with my 100 watt lamp so I could glove up. It was late enough (or early enough depending on how you looked at it) that the field we were in had already started to dew up, and stray blades of grass used that moisture to stick to the sides of my bag.

I don’t know why I notice little things like that. The way my mind works, I suppose. Still, times like this – even when I’m about to stuff my arm up a cow – I’m glad I do. It was about ten past two in the morning, the sky was so black the stars almost seemed to provide more than enough light on their own. The Milky Way was more than a dusting of stars above us – it was a storm of them. The air was crisp and hard in my lungs, but I like it brisk.

We were so far out from McGrove’s farmhouse I couldn’t even see the light he still had on back in the kitchen, where he’d sat waiting for me after he’d called. When I arrived, he’d been standing outside the door, though, so – even if he hadn’t told me anything about how hard a time his cow was having trying to give birth – I could’ve guessed, because he didn’t even offer me a cuppa.

(You’re from the city, originally, right? Anyone living in the country would know that – unless something is really wrong – you offer a guest a cuppa before anything else).

Anyway, all this went through my mind as I gloved up and got into it.

My hand was about halfway up when I felt the calf …

… or so I thought.

Normally, you find the head, check the umbilical hasn’t wrapped around its neck, then work your way back from there and find the back legs. You know the rest: You grab ‘em and muscle the calf around so it’s turned properly. Watch the hooves don’t tear the placenta … all that. And then you let nature take care of the rest.

But when I tried to identify the head – feeling for the umbilical – I couldn’t feel what I was expecting …

Even through the gloves, you get a sense of the animal waiting to be born. You can feel the shape through the placenta of the ears, the nose …

I felt …

… I felt this …

… dome …

If McGrove’s cow hadn’t been on her side, nearly exhausted, with low vitals, she might’ve bolted – calving or not – when I jumped back.

At first I thought, “This must be something artificial … !” Thoughts bounced around making me wonder if some other vet had been doing some sort of experiment – implanting some sort of sensor, or something. But three things chased those thoughts away:

One, I knew that McGrove wouldn’t have allowed any such thing.

Two, I knew I was the only vet in the area.

And, Three, I’d never heard of any such thing! Implants in cows … ?

But … that’s what it felt like to me … something …

… artificial … !

I should mention that – yes – there’s often times when unborn calves are deformed – you’ll feel odd bumps and lumps. But … you can identify them …

… I had no idea what this was.

McGrove couldn’t see my face from his angle – he was just behind and to my left, holding the lantern. And he must have figured that my ‘jump’ when I touched the thing was probably just me trying to turn the calf.

Still … his presence served to remind me … in front of these lifelong farmers, you don’t show any sense that you don’t know what’s going on. Even if you’re the only vet around, if you make a mistake, or seem as though you don’t know what’s going on … word gets around. Some farmers in the area would rather lose stock than subject their animals to a vet they didn’t think was what they deserved.

So …

… I didn’t withdraw my hand.

By this time, the cow was moaning. Yes, it’s normal …

… but not like this.

In the couple of seconds that I was there trying to figure out what to do next, the cow’s moans grew louder and louder …

… and turned into screams.

I don’t know if anyone else had heard a cow scream, but I’ve … I mean … I was a vet for over a decade, and I’ve never heard anything like it. Couple that with the fact that it was just me and McGrove out there – seemingly in the middle of nowhere – and you can understand why the hairs on the back of my neck stood up straight enough to push against my collar.

“Jesus Christ!”

“Just hold the lamp still … there’s … ”

I was about to say, “Something … ”, but I didn’t have to.

McGrove got to see it all for himself …

That poor cow …

Sorry …

It’s just …

… nothing should have to suffer like that …

Anyway …

… I fell back. All in one go, my arm was out and I was suddenly on my arse. And just as well, too, because that’s what saved my life.

That poor cow kicked like she was having a seizure. I’d never seen anything as violent, though. I remember seeing McGrove out of the corner of my eye jumping as I scrambled back, too, fast as I could.

Didn’t save him, though. But it did save me.

The … legs, I guess you’d call ‘em … the legs tore out through that poor cow’s side, instead of coming out through the birth canal. McGrove was nearest that side, and I was where I was expecting a calf to be delivered, so that’s why he got …

… sorry …

… all right … I’m all right …

… it’s just … I’ve never seen anything like …

… sip o’ me tea, here …

… anyway …

… those … legs … they tore her open like … like meat going through a grinder … ! You know those hand-winding meat grinders … ? Just like that. Only this was bone, tendons … flesh! And it all happened instantly. It was like whatever was inside her just … flexed.

Chunks of that poor cow hit me and I ended up flat on my back. I was trying to wipe the blood and meat out of my eyes when I saw this shadow … six or eight legs … some sort of dome shape for a head … rise up out of what was left of that poor cow …

… next thing I know, McGrove was screaming.

I thought the cow’s screams were bad …

It didn’t last long, and when I finally wiped enough bits of the Bessie out of my face to see properly, that … thing … had disappeared. And all that was left of McGrove was … ribbons, I guess. Ribbons of meat. Ribbons of bone.

The blood … the bits … the cow’s and McGrove’s … on me, it felt like they were as warm as if I’d poured kerosine on myself.

I don’t know what it was. I can’t even remember what happened in the next couple of hours, actually. Doctors said shock. Police said a neighbour had heard the screams even from a couple of hundred acres away! Thought them chilling enough to ring the coppers. Coppers found me and what was left of McGrove … and that poor cow … up on that hill. I was in shock, or something, like I said …

Took a couple of days before the coroner determined that I couldn’t have done what had been done to McGrove. No … human could have …

During that time, I was in custody in the hospital … doped up on something for the shock.

But … like I said … I don’t know what it was. I do know it was enough to make me retire. Even though I’ve got a good couple of decades ahead of me in this job, I don’t want it anymore … not if there’s ever the chance I’ll see anything like what I saw that night …

Of course, I’ve done some research since then. Trying to figure out what was going on. What the hell was in that poor cow. How it got there. I’ve got some loose theories. You know those stories about cattle mutilations? What if they really were caused by aliens? But what if the aliens weren’t trying to kill the cows, but study them … work out how to breed with ‘em, or something … ?

Anyway …

“Huh … ! Lookin’ a bit pale, there, Murphy. Drink yer tea … “

… plenty of good cow’s milk in it … !”

Copyright © 2007 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
1,872 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).

By the Chimney with Care (A Short Story)

Janine had loved her great-grandfather, even though their time together had been far too short. A lifetime of experience had made Earl James Bowart wise, and that wisdom had manifested itself into a considered kindness. Moreover, he always listened to her when nobody else she knew seemed to.

The fact that she now owned the house he had built said something about how much the feeling had been reciprocated.

Earl James Bowart had always known the importance of looking after family. Even after his death, he knew it was important they be cared for. And Janine was one example of that.

They’d only met on Janine’s sixteenth birthday. Earl had been – until then – living in another part of the country. Still, age catching up to him, Earl had found that he couldn’t maintain his independence as much as he would have liked, and outback Australia was an unforgiving locale.

Janine had been amazed to hear that she even had a great grandfather, let alone her mother’s news that he’d be coming to stay with them.

Ellen had been writing to Earl on and off for years. Naturally, when she heard about his situation, she asked him to come and stay with them.

Earl agreed, on the proviso that he was able to still contribute – to provide – however he could.

And when Janine and Earl had first met, they’d become inseparable.

Earl had been there for Janine when his grand-daughter (her mother) had died from the cancer just after Janine had turned seventeen. Ellen still had nearly a year’s contract on their place, and wise investments had meant that it was easy for Earl to continue paying the rent after she was gone, so they both had somewhere to live.

Still, Earl was concerned about Janine. He knew that – before too long – she was going to be put into a position where she would have to forego her studies in order to find whatever work she could, just to make ends meet, which was an intolerable situation to him, because he could see her potential.

Yes, he could pay the rent now – and did, happily, brooking no argument from Janine – but he knew that he wouldn’t be around himself for very much longer.

So he organized his will a little more, adding a strange request.

Plans were drawn up and land was bought. Upon his death, construction would begin on a house for Janine to be solely owned by her. He arranged to have any rent required on the old palce continue to be paid until either the contract on the rental expired, or until construction of the house was completed (whereupon the contract in the rental could be broken, since Earl had also arranged that any future rent through to the end of the contract be paid). He also arranged a stipend so that Janine wouldn’t need to find even a part-time job to make ends meet, and could completely devote herself to her studies.

When he told Janine about the strange request in the will, she reacted better than he thought she might. A lot of people might have thought it macabre – and some in the council even considered trying to block it (but didn’t) – but Janine liked the idea, in an Angelina Jolie/Billy-Bob Thornton wear-a-drop-of-each-other’s-blood-in-a-pendant-around-the-neck kind of way (back when they’d been together, at least). Although not as obvious as the celebrities’ notion, Earl’s idea guaranteed that he’d always be near her.

And the thought was never more comforting than on the evening of the day she first moved in.

Mark could tell just by looking at the chimney that it was the perfect way in. For a start, it was huge, taking up nearly a third of the side of the house it was on. Because of this, the flue cap was easily large enough to get through. In addition, there were plenty of good, sturdy places to get a grip (from what he could see as he drove past casing the place that morning). And it was obviously large enough that he wouldn’t get stuck at the damper halfway down.

Still, he took a few tools with him when he came back that night (just in case). As it was, though, things turned out better than he’d hoped.

At around two o’clock, he quietly exited the car he’d parked behind the large bushes on the council reserve up the street earlier that evening. Although it had been a good place for a ‘stakeout’ – both out of the way of any neighbours who might see him, and where, through the gaps in the bushes, he could keep an eye on his intended target – Mark was still glad to stretch his legs.

Shaking his head in wonder at just how good a target the place was (a single lamp down at the other end of the street meant nobody could see him), Mark made his way to the chimney.

A couple of little niggling doubts tickled the back of his mind as he found some quick handholds (a drainpipe, some lattice). One was the usual – if he knew how to get into a house through a door or window without making noise, this sort of thing would be much easier. But he didn’t, and was saddled with having to find houses with chimneys for his attempted B & Es.

The second one was that – despite having watched the place all night and not seen any sign of people (no lights, no cars, no automatic sprinklers) – he still realized he couldn’t see every angle of the place from where he’d sat in his car.

It was obvious that the place wasn’t empty, given the modest Christmas decorations in the yard and over the windows and door. But Mark didn’t think anyone was there …

“Maybe they’ve gone away for the holidays”, he thought to himself.

Unable to hold a thought for too long, Mark stepped onto the roof, focusing only on what came next.

A strong grip had allowed him to get to the roof without a problem. The lattice had been firmly fixed to the beams which were firmly fixed to the house, and the spaces between them were easily large enough for the toes of his sneakers to fit through, meaning that his climb had been silent. With the same dearth of sound, Mark made his way across the tiles until he came to the chimney itself.

He nodded silent approval as he noticed that – up close – the chimney was exactly as he’d hoped. Even better, from the absolute lack of soot it had either been cleaned recently, or had never been used.

He poked his head through the ample space of the flue liner and looked down, shining a pocket torch as he did so.

Just as he’d hoped – enough space at the damper that he could get through. In fact, it looked as though it was open!

Mark chuckled to himself as he squeezed past the flue cap and into the chimney proper. Powerful muscles on a lithe frame pushed out against the sides, holding him in place. By allowing himself to sink down crosswise to the width of the chimney, then pushing out sideways with his feet against the sides, Mark silently descended. The lack of soot meant that nothing fell down ahead of him to alert anyone who might be inside.

And it wasn’t long before Mark found himself looking out from the empty fireplace onto a well-furnished lounge room …

As always happened when she woke up in the middle of the night, Janine spent a good few minutes wondering what the time was. She refused to have an alarm clock near her bed, and the only clock in this part of the house was out in the hall – her great-grandfather’s wonderful antique … grandfather clock.

She smiled to herself as she thought of her beloved great-grandfather again. He’d done so much for her. She …

… what was that noise … ?

Somewhere else in the house, something had fallen. She knew it. It wasn’t the house settling, or anything like that. She hadn’t been there long, but she knew the sounds of the place. A sound like that could only have come if …

… someone was in the house … !

“Shit”, Mark thought, trying to put the painting of some old guy down in one piece. For some reason, it had fallen out of its frame and the canvas had first hit the wall, then fallen to the tiled floor.

And Mark looked disdainfully at the clean, smooth wall where it once had hung.

“Okay … no safe behind the painting for these folks … ”

Setting the whole mess down, Mark listened carefully for a minute or so until – sure he hadn’t been heard by anyone …

“ … I still don’t know if anyone’s in this house … ”

… he continued.

There were some nice crystal Christmas decorations over the fireplace. On the floor-to-ceiling shelves opposite rested some nice-looking odds and ends. Some looked silver, some gold. There was a widescreen TV in the corner of the room with a DVD recorder which might fetch a couple of bucks at the hock shop, if he could convince the manager to give him money for ‘em without ID.

Given the general look of the room, Mark figured that whomever owned the place was fairly well off. If he was careful, he could do very well out of this.

Chuckling to himself, Mark took the rolled-up sack out of his pocket. An image had come to mind of himself as a ‘Bizarro’ Santa … taking things in his sack instead of giving.

“Me am here for Christmas presents … ”

Figuring to move to the next room, Mark reached for the handle of the closed door …

… just as it opened … !

Janine was looking to the left when she opened the door, and didn’t see Mark until it was too late. All that alerted her to his presence was the whispered, “Shit” …

… and then something hit her.

The woman slammed back into the door jamb and bounced forward. Her head struck the tiles before Mark – operating on instinct – could jump forward to stop her.

“Shit!”

He hadn’t wanted to kill the woman … just stop her before she saw him and screamed, or something.

Shaking, Mark reached forward and tried to move her into a recovery position. It was a while since he’d been taught first aid in high school, but he remembered something about checking airways, and moved her head back where she lay.

“Damn!”

Knowing there was nothing more he could do for her, Mark knew he had to either leave or check the rest of the house for other people.

“And what the hell happened when I hit her … ? The whole house seemed to shudder … !”

Frozen with indecision, Mark looked down at the woman’s unconscious form, knowing that a lot of B & E people would try to take advantage of such a moment. She was helpless, after all.

But not him.

He was no rapist.

He just didn’t want her in his hair while he sacked the joint.

Finally coming to a decision, Mark knew he’d better check the house for anyone else before he got out of there. If he had time to grab some loot, fine. If not, it was still better than getting done for assault.

With one quick look back at the unconscious woman, Mark headed into the other parts of the house. He wasn’t too worried about being quiet now. Time was of the essence. However, he soon found that the woman had been alone.

Breathing a huge sign of relief, he headed back to the lounge. Maybe he could tie her up or something, give an anonymous call to the police later so they could come rescue her.

These and more thoughts raced through his mind. What had started out as such a good target for a quick break-in had degenerated into a nightmare.

And it was a nightmare which was only getting worse, because – when he got back to the lounge, Mark found that the woman …

… was gone … !

“ … off to call the coppers, no doubt. Must’ve dragged herself into the kitchen”.

And that decided it. Loot or no, Mark was getting out of there.

He made his way into the hallway and over to the front door. Grabbing the handle and expecting it to open, his momentum nearly ran him into the door when …

… it didn’t.

Panic set in. He shook the handle furiously, looking for some sort of latch. But there was none, and the door resolutely refused to open.
“Fine … I’ll break a window”.

Right next to the door was a large picture window of thin, frosted glass. Knowing he’d be picking glass out of his clothes for hours, he nevertheless kicked out. A kick, a step back to let it fall, and he could easily step through and be gone …

… except …

… the glass didn’t break …

“What the hell is going on around here … ?”

At a run, Mark tried the other windows in the nearby rooms, keeping a quick lookout for the woman (who was nowhere to be seen). He didn’t know how long it had been since she’d woken up and moved, but he knew she’d had ample time to call the coppers …

Kicking out furiously – even grabbing a chair at one stage and throwing it at a window – Mark nevertheless found himself in an impossible situation …

“None of the doors work! None of the windows break! The woman’s disappeared … ”

“What the hell is going on around this place?”

Then he saw it …

… the chimney.

“Fine … I’ll go back out the way I came in … !”

Sweat dripping from his face and arms, Mark found climbing it harder than descending it. Nevertheless, he was almost halfway up …

… when he began to smell the wisp of smoke.

He hadn’t heard her come back into the room – he couldn’t hear much of anything from inside the chimney – but he knew …

“The bitch is trying to start a fire!”

He almost laughed out loud with relief as he continued to climb, knowing he’d have plenty of time to get out of the chimney before she got it going.

Still, he looked down to see if he could see her looking up at him. He wanted to show her his laughing face so she could realize just how ineffectual she was …

… but she wasn’t there.

“But …

… where’s the smoke coming from?”

Because it was plain – even in the dim lighting – that there was no fire starting below.

And no evidence that there ever had been …

“What the … ?”

And then Mark inexplicably knew that the woman had not, in fact, come back into the lounge room.

He also knew (somehow, and with more certainty than he’d ever known anything in his life) …

… that something beyond his understanding …

… was wrong.

The temperature inside the chimney suddenly plummeted – impossibly fast and impossibly low for summer in this part of the country. In an instant, Mark could swear that it was so cold, he should be seeing his breath.

But he wasn’t.

Because he then knew that the cold wasn’t something he could feel physically …

And he knew …

… knew …

… that something was in the chimney with him.

Something that assaulted the flue with an incomprehensible eruption of terrible, flameless heat. For the brief moment of its existence, it was – impossibly – hotter than the surface of the sun, yet – inexplicably – completely contained within the chimney.

The only concession to the unspeakable ignition was a microsecond burst of illumination that flashed furniture shadows into the walls. Despite this – once it was gone – the shadows rapidly faded away, almost as if the walls had … healed.

And of Mark, not a particle remained.

Not even ash.

Janine woke in her bedroom, knowing everything was well. There was a bump on the back of her head where she’d hit the door jamb, and a cut and bruise on her cheek where the thief had struck her …

… but she knew those things would heal.

And that everything was fine.

She smiled to herself, thinking about her great-grandfather, and the unusual request he’d placed in his will.

She remembered that many considered it an unorthodox request at the time, to be sure, but the local council had ultimately granted permission for it due to Earl’s contributions to the community, and, thus, it was done.

And so it eventuated that anywhere there was masonry, Earl’s ashes had been mixed into the mortar. Earl became – quite literally – part of the house.

After all, Earl knew the importance of protecting his family …

… even after his death.

Janine drifted back into sleep, knowing her great-grandfather he was still there, looking after her, whenever she needed it.

“Thank you”, she whispered as she drifted off.

The house exuded a feeling of love.

Copyright © 2008 by David Scott Aubrey
All Rights Reserved
2,870 Words

This short story is a work of fiction. Any and all names, characters and/or incidents are either products of my imagination or are used fictitiously. Where any such resemblance may exist to actual persons (living or dead), actual events or locales, it is purely coincidental.

Please don’t assume that my characters speak for me or carry my own opinions on various matters in any way, shape or form (though some might – you never can tell).

MC_Garland_In_Da_House

MERRY CHRISTMAS!