Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Fifth Day of Fic-mas …

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Christmas Miracles

Authors’ note – What kind of Demons Run Fic-mas would it be without a recipe to warm you up in the cold? Hopefully this one will be good for your heart and your stomach.

 

“Okay, Kelly, you ready?” Teddy asked, grinning at the way his little brother was dancing from foot to foot in anticipation.

“Ready!” Kelly practically shouted, in full excited preschooler voice, climbing onto his tiptoes and throwing his arms in the air like he was on the downslope of the world’s best roller coaster.

On the counter was a row of various cups and bowls, holding the recipe ingredients in the order they would need them. Ben had told Teddy setting up like that was a chef thing called … it was some German word or something, and with Ben you could never really be sure because he spoke like five or six languages or something … it was very important, though.

He was glad his mom had chilled out about him hanging around with Ben. She thought it was weird that he had a friend who was in college, but Teddy had pointed out Ben was only a few years older, he was Mal’s boyfriend, and he was not just Dr. G’s research assistant, but his roommate, too. It made him feel better about making the phone call to try to get some ideas about something to cook with Kelly this afternoon. Ben had given him the easiest recipe he could think of. And that was good, because Teddy didn’t know much about cooking. These would hopefully turn into Teddy’s favorite Christmas cookie, though he’d never tried making them before. Ben was sure he could do it, he’d said. Kelly was bored, so he sure was going to try.

Kelly started to climb onto the chair Teddy had pushed up to the counter for him and couldn’t quite make it on his own. Teddy grabbed the straps of his blue and white striped overalls and hauled him the rest of the way up, letting him hang in the air over the chair for a minute in the way that always gave him the giggles.

“Snickerdoodle!” he laughed as soon as he had eyes on all the ingredients.

He’d been giggling and saying the word randomly ever since Teddy had suggested making cookies after lunch. He thought the word was hilarious. Even funnier than saying ‘fart’ in front of guests. It made getting him to focus on what they were trying to do come down on the near impossible side of challenging. Kelly had also been running around the kitchen banging everything with a wooden spoon while Teddy tried to set up.

Teddy shook his head, still smiling. The challenges of making cookies with a four and a half-year-old, no matter how hilarious the name of those cookies, paled in comparison to one who wanted to walk up to the Battery and play in the park. “Why are you so mean, Ted? I like the rain! There’ll be puddles!” had been on repeat all morning.

Honestly, Teddy mused, looking out the window again. It isn’t raining that hard. And it is pretty warm for the middle of December … He thought better of it. His mother would murder him. Not just if she caught them in the act, but if she even suspected he’d let Kelly out in the rain on a windy forty-degree day. And his mom was one of the smartest people he knew. No one would ever find the body.

“Kel, buddy, get back here,” Teddy called, as Kelly wandered off again. He caught up with his tiny charge in the living room, face pressed to the glass of the picture window that faced the lake. “Kelly, c’mon. Let’s go make the cookies.”

He didn’t say snickerdoodles. He wanted cooperation, not another giggle fit.

“Teddy, I wanna play outside!”

“I know, kiddo, but Mom says no. But maybe it’ll stop raining if we wait a little. Let’s go make cookies for Santa.”

Kelly turned around, his grey eyes uncertain and his freckled nose wrinkled with concern. “Skyler says Santa’s not real.” He frowned a little, and it morphed into a pout as he thought about Skyler picking on him for drawing a picture for Santa at school before nap time.

“Not real?” Teddy widened his eyes dramatically.

“Uh huh,” he nodded earnestly. “She said only stupid babies believe in Santa.” His lip quivered just a little.

Teddy had hoped Kelly would be a little older before some other kid ruined Santa for him. Teddy remembered all too well what that was like. He wasn’t going to let that happen to Kel. He wasn’t even five! “That’s a pretty mean thing for somebody to say. Especially since she doesn’t know what she’s talking about.”

He reached down to pick Kelly up and carry him back to the kitchen, something he didn’t normally do anymore, but he felt suddenly almost overly protective of his brother. As he settled Kel on his hip and started back to the kitchen, the little boy went on. “She isn’t nice. Not ever. But Beau says she’s right and …”

“I don’t care what Beau says,” he said firmly. “Santa’s real, pal. He’s so real that it’s too big for some people to know.”

Kelly’s eyes got big and round. Teddy knew everything. “He is? Really?”

Teddy nodded earnestly. “Of course he is. And unless little Miss Skyler and Mister Beau can prove otherwise, Santa and I are very good friends.”

Kelly’s gaze took on a worshipful shine as his big brother plopped him down in the chair next to the counter. “You are?”

“You bet we are. And wait until I tell the Big Guy about those meanies at school.” This wasn’t the first time Kelly had trouble with those two. “But, Kelly, you can’t tell anyone,” he said, not wanting him to go back to school and invite more bullying.

“Not even Mom and Dad?”

“Oh, you can tell them. They’re Mom and Dad. You can tell them anything.”

Teddy pulled the first couple of ingredients they needed closer, so Kelly could reach. HIs little brother looked up at him, not necessarily all that interested in cookies anymore, even if they were fun to say. “But how?”

“How what, bud?” Teddy handed Kelly one of the eggs, showing him with his own how to crack it and drop it into the bowl.

“How do you know Santa? Kids can’t see him, right?”

Teddy patiently picked shell fragments out of the egg dish. “Well, yeah, usually we can’t. But one Christmas … before you were born,” he began, starting to stir the butter to soften it up. “Actually, the year you were born … I asked Santa for a friend.” Kelly’s eyes were fixed on Teddy’s face, the snickerdoodles mostly forgotten. “See, I knew some kids like Skyler and Beau …”

“I’m sorry, Teddy,” Kelly said with big eyes and a very sincere voice.

“Now you put the sugar in on top of the butter, Kel,” Teddy prompted. As his brother complied, Teddy continued to spin his story. “Those kids didn’t really matter though, buddy. Because Santa came to me himself, to make sure I was ready.”

“For what?”

“For you, silly.”

“For me?” he asked, confused.

“Well, yeah. I asked Santa for friend. One who was funny, and smart, and who kicked butt at Candy Land. You know, just the very best friend a guy could ever have.”

“So Santa gave you Petra,” he said, nodding knowingly. Petra always beat him at Candy Land.

“No! I knew Petra for a long time before this. And she’s a good friend. But I needed a very best friend. So he gave me you.”

Kelly tilted his head to the side like he just couldn’t figure out how he could be Teddy’s very best friend. Teddy was the coolest, so his best friend had to be the coolest, too. And if Kelly knew anything from Skyler and Beau, it was that he wasn’t even a little bit cool. Teddy could practically read his brother’s thoughts. “Huh?”

“Santa said, from what I described in my letter, what I really was asking for was a little brother. The coolest little brother in the whole world so we could be best friends forever. And he was right. Ooof,” Teddy grunted as Kelly flung himself around his brother’s middle, hugging so tightly it almost hurt. “Oh, boy,” Teddy added, even as he hugged back, because the flailing little limbs had knocked the canister off the counter.

The plastic bin hit the floor with a loud pop, sending the flour into the air in a blinding cloud. After a few seconds it started to settle, covering every surface, including the two brothers. “Whoops,” Kelly said quietly.

From down the hall, Teddy heard the jingling of keys, followed by the clicks of the door opening, then closing. There was the familiar sound of a heavy purse being set on the stand next to the coat rack. “Hey, boys! I’m home! My shift got over early!”

Teddy assessed the scene. Flour still drifted lazily through the air. Everything was white and dusty. “Of course. Of course it did.” He sighed. “Timing is everything,” he said to himself.

His mother stopped in the doorway, her mouth pulling into a surprised ‘O’, then starting to twitch at the corners almost immediately. Her boys were two pale apparitions standing guiltily as the dust settled, their matching grey-green eyes round and slightly scared at what her reaction might be to the destruction in front of her. Their expressions relaxed into relieved grins as their mother started laughing. “Alright, I’m going to go shower and change. You guys be sure to clean up when you’re done.” Her eyes surveyed the carnage that was her kitchen. “And, yeah … Let’s do take out. Talk about what you want. I’m up for Chinese or Chicken Charlie’s, but you decide.” She smiled and left the kids to their mess.

Kelly breathed a sigh of relief. “I thought we were gonna be in big trouble.”

Teddy nodded. “Me, too. But I guess Christmas is a time for miracles,” he grinned. “Now, let’s finish these cookies, pal.”

“Snickerdoodle!”

∞∞∞

 

Snickerdoodles are a Flaherty family favorite, and not just because they’re fun to say. They are as much fun to make and eat as sugar cookies, but a heck of a lot easier. The classic warm cinnamon and sugar flavors on a rich, almost creamy, butter cookie, make them perfect for the winter holidays.

 

Ben’s Snickerdoodle Recipe

Ingredients

2 3/4 cups All Purpose Flour (for a less chewy cookie, you can use Cake Flour)

2 teaspoons Cream of Tartar

1 teaspoon Baking Soda (if you don’t have Cream of Tartar, you can use 2 teaspoons Baking Powder instead of the Baking Soda and Cream of Tartar, but it does change the taste just a little)

3/4 teaspoon Salt

1 3/4 cups Sugar (2 tablespoons of the Sugar should be set aside)

1 cup Unsalted Butter (Some recipes will tell you to use shortening. Throw them out. You don’t need that kind of negativity in your life.)                                                                 2 Eggs

2 tablespoons Heavy Cream

2 teaspoons Vanilla Extract (the good stuff)

1 tablespoon Ground Cinnamon (Mix with the Sugar you set aside on a plate)

Instructions

  1. Preheat your oven to 400°F.
  2. If you didn’t do it already, mix 2 tablespoons of the Sugar with all the Cinnamon on a plate or in a pie tin (I like a pie tin, so I don’t make a huge mess).
  3. Mix the Flour, Cream of Tartar, Baking Soda and Salt in one bowl.  
  4. In another bowl, cream the Butter and Sugar together until it’s light and fluffy (you can do this by hand or with an electric mixer – just make sure the Butter is room temperature or your arm will get tired and you will get frustrated).
  5. Once the Sugar and Butter are well mixed, add the Eggs, Heavy Cream, and Vanilla. Mix until well-blended
  6. Gradually stir in the dry mixture until it’s completely incorporated.
  7. Shape dough into small balls. We always use a small scoop or disher for this.
  8. Roll the balls in the Cinnamon Sugar mixture until they are completely coated.
  9. Place the balls about two inches apart on ungreased cookie sheets.
  10. Bake until lightly brown around the edges, or for a crisper cookie, until the tops are all slightly brown.
  11. Cool in the pan for a couple of minutes to allow the cookies to set.
  12. You can cool them completely on wire racks or eat them warm – Nobody here is going to judge you. And as we all know, holiday treats have no calories.
Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Fourth Day of Fic-mas …

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Ain’t No Party Like … Skipping the Party

Authors’ Note – If you’re already a reader of Always Darkest, or even last year’s Fic-mas stories, you’ve met Petra. She’s never had a story all her own though, and we decided it was time. She’s pretty important in the sequel. If you haven’t yet been introduced to her, this is simply a tale of an unhappy teen at Christmas who has an opportunity to be better than where she comes from. 

 

“Petra! What have you done?”

Petra looked up from her phone with an expression that said she’d as likely been disturbed by a buzzing mosquito as her irate mother.

When Petra didn’t immediately respond, her mother went on with furious determination. “Our guests will be here any minute, and you … you … You’re ruining it already!”

Petra blinked slowly, then forced a bright smile. “Whatever do you mean, Mother?”

“Your appearance! Go to your room right now and change! And …” Her mother snatched a white-tasseled red felt hat off one of the servants scurrying by and thrust it at her daughter. “Put this on!”

“Pass,” Petra said blandly, taking her feet down off the coffee table, rising, and brushing past her mother, exchanging a wink with Mary, their current housekeeper and Petra’s former nanny. Her mother huffed several times, clearly at a loss for words, which had been Petra’s goal all along.

The last thing she wanted was to be at some stuffy professional “networking” holiday party. Petra certainly had no intention of being the demanded Norman Rockwell family portrait poster girl either. When she was younger, they’d sort of forced it on her, but not anymore. Not this year.

She’d shaved her head for the occasion. Well, sort of shaved. The sides anyway. She’d bleached the stubble and dyed it a festive bright red. The top was dyed forest green and waxed up into liberty spikes. Mal had helped her attach jingling silver bells to the ends this afternoon and they tinkled pleasantly every time she moved. She’d purposely dressed in all black, donning her most distressed ripped black skinny jeans over equally ripped and worn out fishnet stockings. Her shoes sort of matched her hair though. They were oversized elf shoes in bright green and red stripes with bells like the ones in her hair, but bigger. Louder.

Her shirt was the piece de resistance, she thought. She’d had it custom painted in the place over at the University Mall. It was black, too, but it also featured a jacked and angry Rudolph standing over the bloody lifeless corpse of another reindeer. The caption said, ‘They Used to Laugh and Call Him Names. Used to.’ Petra was very satisfied with the picture she’d created.

Her mother trailed after her, a litany of all the ways she was failing as a daughter bouncing off her harmlessly. This was what her mother was like around her work friends. Petra preferred the usual benevolent neglect she typically experienced, especially since Alex left for college, but she wasn’t surprised that tonight her mother was being a ninety mile an hour bitch.

As if to prove the lecture wasn’t troubling her, Petra paused by the sixteen-foot-tall gargantuan blue spruce that dominated their main hallway, its star reaching the top of the grand staircase. “Oooo, shiny,” Petra said, plucking off one of the small bright silver balls. She took out her septum ring, slipped it into her jeans pocket, and replaced it with the ornament. She was not altogether thrilled with how it felt or the smell, but was pretty happy with the disgust that wrinkled her mother’s face.

“Young lady,” her mother snapped.

Hot damn, she hated being called young lady. Sister Margaret who taught her English class never seemed to call the girls anything else. Mal had solidified their budding friendship by explaining that ‘lady’ was a term of oppression perpetuated by the patriarchy during the first week of class. Petra had thought for sure that was worth about a year’s worth of detentions, but the sister had just given her a clenched-jaw smile and said that was an interesting point. Petra had nearly pissed herself trying not to laugh. Even the memory of it was enough to put a smirk on her face which just seem to irk her mother even more.

“I said, ‘young lady’!”

“What?”

“I’ve been speaking to you!”

“And I’ve been ignoring you. Your point?”

Her mother sighed dramatically, looking extremely put upon. “I don’t deserve this. After everything I’ve done for you!”

“Everything you’ve … Look, I told you I had plans, but no, because Alex is off at school, you need me around to sell the big lie.”

“Lie?”

“That this family isn’t falling apart. Cuz that’d be bad for business. We can pretend you guys aren’t always about one extra martini away from a messy divorce, that Mary didn’t have more to do with my potty training than you, that any of us can stand being in the room together anymore! Jesus Fucking Christ I miss Alex. At least he gives a shit. Without him around this whole facade of us being one big happy family is complete bullshit!”

Her mother looked like she’d been slapped. Then she looked like maybe she wanted to do some slapping. “Don’t you dare …”

“Oh, I dare, alright. You haven’t bothered to say ten words to me since Thanksgiving that weren’t you bitching about my grades … which are actually pretty stellar, by the way. Then, suddenly yesterday you tried kissing my ass and when that didn’t work you demand I show up as underaged eye candy at your sham of a Christmas party! No thank you!”

“What’s all the fuss about in here?” Petra’s father asked, as he came in from the connecting hallway. “I could hear you in the kitchen.”

Petra’s mother gave him an exasperated ‘are you kidding me?’ look, then puffed out a theatrical sigh. “You deal with her. I’m going to check on the help.” She stomped off noisily on sharp heels.

“By which she means go grope the bartender who’s maybe got five years on me,” Petra said darkly, rolling her eyes in disgust.

“Petra, that’s enough,” her father said gently. “Now, what’s this all about?”

She took a deep breath. Her father was the calm one. Not better, but more relaxed. He hadn’t even batted an eye at her appearance. “I don’t want to be here. You guys will introduce me to everyone as part of your show, then you’ll ignore me while Creepy Jim from mom’s office who’s older than you flirts with me and tries to cop a feel. I’m here as a piece of furniture … No, it’s worse. I’m a decoration that gets thrown out when you’re through with it!”

He seemed to think about that for a minute. “Okay. Any chance you’re going to just go change like your mother asked you and not make a scene here tonight?”

Petra noted that her father didn’t disagree with anything she’d said. He didn’t even look sorry about it. She really did miss Alex. She hoped he’d change his mind about coming home for a weekend at some point soon. It was maddening with his dorm being only a few blocks away, but once he’d gotten out of the house, he’d mostly stayed gone.

“Not a snowball’s chance in Hell. Sorry not sorry.”

Petra’s father reached into his suit coat and pulled out his money clip, peeling off several large bills and holding them out to her. “Here you go. Have fun, and I’ll see you tomorrow at the charity breakfast.” He held the bills away for a second. “Just do something about your hair before then.”

“I will,” she said with a practiced sweet smile. He let her have the cash. “Thanks, Daddy!” she said cheerfully, leaning in to give him a peck on the cheek. “I’ll figure out how not to shock Gran and Papa, I promise,” she laughed.

“Good. Now get out of here before your mother comes back. She’ll need at least three drinks in her before she’s tolerable to be around again and three more will put her back in ‘avoid at all costs’ territory.”

“Good call,” she agreed, heading out immediately. She stopped in the foyer long enough to pull on her long coat and grab the bag she always left in the hall closet for when she needed to bail at the last minute, whether for a party or to avoid her bickering parents.

Her mother came back into the hallway just as she was about to close the door. The shrill whine of her responding as predicted followed Petra out onto the stoop. Thankfully, closing the door muffled the ensuing argument that would turn off like a faucet the minute the first guest rang the bell. Petra started up the street with hardly a care. She was too grateful to not be stuck in that house with them fake not-fighting, or being cornered by Creepy Jim, to give even a sliver of a damn. She hoped Teddy was home. They could hang out, or maybe go kick around Church Street a little.

She pulled out her phone and tapped his name at the top of her Recents. “Hey, Teddy … Yeah, totally got out of it. I owe you and Mal big time for helping with the hair. Em too for the shoes. I thought Mom was gonna have a stroke … You still gonna be around tonight? … Dude, yeah, that sounds like way more fun. Elsie’s parties are even better than mine. Wonder if we can talk Mal into it? … Of course she is. What about Emily? … Cool. I’m gonna walk up around the block and just … I don’t know … Shake off the stink of fake way-too-early Christmas … It’s so not funny … Okay, cool. See you in a few.”

Petra headed up the side street that, while it would take her well out of her way in getting to Teddy’s, would also provide the fifteen or so extra minutes she wanted to get in a good mood. Elsie throwing a last-minute party was a pleasant surprise. When she’d told her mother she had plans it was more I-have-plans-to-not-be-currency-in-your-office than any real agenda to go do something. Now, she had a pocket full of cash and a bounce in her step.

A Friday night party with friends, even if they couldn’t pry Mal off her couch, where she was supposedly helping Ben with some required math crap, would be preferable to smiling until her face hurt and rejecting the advances of some old creep who just because he was related to the president of the company felt like he had some … some claim on her, and had since she was maybe fourteen. And her parents didn’t seem to be bothered by it. What the hell? Who was okay with their kid being reduced to an object? Worse, who reduced that kid to an object themselves? One to be trotted out to preserve the illusion of family?

Petra stopped at the corner and took out the money to count it. Jesus, he really did want to get rid of her tonight. That was quite a pile. Being a fly in their ointment pays a hell of a lot better than being a party decoration, she thought to herself. She shivered a little, telling herself it was entirely the cold. It had been an unusually chilly fall. The lead up to winter hadn’t been especially promising either. She glanced around. Snow littered the edges of the sideway in grimy little piles and everything looked kind of grey in the fading light.

The sky was clear of any promise of fresh snow to cover up the dirty run-down appearance the icy crumbling mess gave the city. Of course, this little neighborhood, so close to her own more exclusive one, was dirty and ramshackle on a good day. Maybe there was more snow in the forecast; she hadn’t looked. Or warm weather to melt it all would be okay, too. In fact, she thought as her ears began to tingle with the cold, warm weather would be better. She shuffled along, slowed by the elf shoes for another few minutes, but as the tingling turned to burning, she took them off and stuffed them into her shoulder bag in favor of the doc martens they’d been pulled on over.

Taking the roundabout route to blow off some steam before she got to the Sullivans had seemed like a great idea. But now not only her ears, but her fingers, were red and starting to hurt. Time to pick up the pace, she thought. As she turned a corner to head back down to the waterfront, she found herself on a street she didn’t immediately recognize. It was a long row of neglected houses and flickering street lights trying to sputter to life in the gathering dusk. She didn’t usually venture too far onto any of these side streets. She realized she’d sort of been conditioned to avoid them. Her parents seemed to have some sort of weird dread of people less well-off than they were. But Mary lived over here somewhere, so how bad could it be?

She decided to duck into the little mom and pop store with the faded sign on the closest corner in hopes that they’d have some coffee or hot chocolate to warm her up until she made her way to Teddy’s building. The bell on the door jingled as she went inside, but the proprietor didn’t look up. He was too focused on the two kids in front of him.

The little boy was maybe four. He looked about Kelly Sullivan’s age. The girl was probably nine or ten. It was hard to tell. They were both small, too thin, and bundled up in winter clothes that were too big, and while she had the round cheeks of a kid not quite approaching adolescence, Petra thought she had some of the oldest eyes she’d ever seen.

The dumpy, balding man behind the counter still hadn’t acknowledged that he had a new customer. He was too busy glaring down at the little kids in front of him. “Look, kid, you just don’t have enough money. I ain’t a charity.”

The little girl sighed quietly. “Yes, Mr. Carrey I know. I’m sorry, Mr. Carrey.” She turned and tugged the little boy’s hand and they shuffled out of the store. As they slipped past Petra, making themselves as small as possible, she saw silent tears sliding down the little girl’s face into her scarf. At least they were dressed warm.

The door closed behind the kids and Petra’s gaze settled on the scruffy disgruntled Mr. Carrey. She cleared her throat. He finally acknowledged her presence with an irritated sniff. “What is this, freaks and losers on parade?”

She let her eyes travel slowly over the parts of him that were visible above the level of the counter. Her expression said she’d taken his measure and found him wanting. “It definitely is,” she replied. She turned and walked out, ignoring the shower of profanity and complaints about ‘kids these days’ just like she’d ignored her mother’s piercing clucking of disapproval.

Out on the curb, under the streetlight that was going to become necessary before very long, the little girl sat with her arm around her brother who was sobbing inconsolably, but not loudly or particularly noticeably. She was comforting him like it was something she’s needed to do before. “I know, Billy. I know. Mama will be home soon. She might have some more money.”

Petra stood for a minute, watching them. She called out, “Hey, kid! Come here a minute.”

The little girl looked fearfully her way. “Um … no … um … I’m not s’posed to talk to strangers.”

Petra walked over to them. “I’m Petra. I might look pretty strange, but I’m really pretty much just a kid like you.”

“Oh … um … I’m Theresa,” she said softly.

Petra reached into her pocket. She held out the money her father had paid her off with to the little girl. “Take this.”

The little girl got up and eyed the wad of cash. She reached out her hand, then stopped. “I … I can’t.”

“Sure you can. I don’t need it. I have my bank card. It’s Christmas money.”

“I really can’t,” the little girl said, shaking her head.

Petra chewed her lip. Then she grinned and opened her shoulder bag, showing the little girl the shoes inside. “Of course you can. Look, I’m not supposed to tell, but I’m an elf. Like from the North Pole. You know who sends elves from the North Pole don’t you?”

The little girl gave her a worldly smirk that was definitely too old for whatever her chronological age was. “Santa’s not real, lady.”

“You sure?” Petra took the shoes out of her bag and pulled them back on, careful to keep the cash pinned between two of her fingers the whole time. “Would anybody who doesn’t work for Santa walk around town looking like I do right now?”

A small giggle escaped Theresa’s lips. “I guess maybe not.”

“See, so you can take Santa money.” She held it out again, then hesitated. “But this Christmas present has one condition.”

“What’s that?”

“You can’t spend it in this store here. That guy is on the Naughty List.”

Theresa smiled and for the first time looked her age as she reached out and took the money. “Thank you, lady. A lot.”

“It’s Petra, and don’t mention it.”

She started to walk away. Theresa called out, “Petra! Hey, Petra the Elf! This is too much!” Theresa had never even seen a hundred-dollar bill before, but she knew what they were, and she was currently holding five of them.

“No, it isn’t. It’s just right. Merry Christmas!”

The little girl was crying quietly again, but she was grinning from ear to ear around her tears. “Okay! Okay, thanks! Merry Christmas, Elf Lady!”

As she walked away, Petra heard Billy’s tiny sniffly voice ask, “Sissy, we eat now?”

“You bet, Billy. We can eat. Right now.”

Petra headed back toward the waterfront, happily whistling We Wish You a Merry Christmas.

She was very glad her ears had gotten cold.

 

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Third Day of Fic-mas …

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Ghosts of Yuletide Past

Aife made her way silently down the stone path leading to her family home. She couldn’t stop smiling. It felt like she’d been away forever. The chance to see them all again was such a precious gift. She could hardly credit the peace and contentment that had settled into her chest the moment she’d started recognizing the landmarks that said she was on the road home. She’d never dared hope to feel this way again.

Her breath caught in her throat when the squat little grey field stone dwelling came into view as she crested the final hill. A lazy tendril of smoke curled up from the chimney. She imagined she could smell the mulling spices in the kettle on the hearth. She could almost hear the crackle of the warming stones at its edge that would sizzle when they were dropped into full mugs to warm hands when everyone came inside.

She paused to watch her grandchildren for a moment. They were playing in the light snow that had collected in front of the house, darting in and out of the nearby woods, engaged in some sort of game. She wasn’t sure exactly what it was they were playing. It involved a lot of running, flinging bits of snow at each other. They screamed like it might be the end of the world, then laughed themselves into tumbling, breathless, onto the ground. She laughed, too, but, of course, they paid her no mind. The smallest of them seemed to meet her eyes for a moment, but then she squealed and ran back into the trees after one of the boys.

Aife hugged her elbows with a fond sigh. Being lost in play, why do we lose that as we age, I wonder.  She knew at least one soul who seemed to have kept that irreverent sense of finding fun wherever he went, but then again, she supposed he was quite young, too, in his own way. Humming softly to herself, a tune she couldn’t quite place, Aife went inside, leaving the children to their games.

She took a deep breath of the heavy warm air inside the cozy little home. A pot of what was likely cider bubbled merrily, hissing and spitting as steam condensed and droplets hit the logs below. It sounded like home. It smelled as good as she’d imagined, too, maybe even better, with the added savory aroma of a nicely roasting rabbit over the flames.

Her eldest daughter, Rowan, chided one of the younger siblings, about how she was turning the spit. “Ye want te keep it even, don’t ye, now?” When the turning didn’t improve, she huffed a little in frustration, and stopped what she was doing to demonstrate the proper way to turn the spit. “Like this, Morag, before you burn the back an’ leave the belly raw!”

Aife laughed quietly, feeling no small amount of pride at how Rowan was handling overseeing the Yule feast preparations for the first time, like the captain of a well-run ship. All those years at Aife’s elbow. She’d clearly attended to every lesson. She’d be a right terror in battle if she was ever called to it, Aife thought. But like her mother, and her mother before her, she commanded her household troops with warmth and a light amusement dancing in her green eyes. Aife’s admiration for Rowan’s skill didn’t stop her from wanting to help.

Instead, Aife took a seat next to the holiday fire, stretching her hands out to warm them in the comforting blaze. The Yule log burned merrily, the coals dancing in their familiar ashy red glow that never ceased it’s mesmerizing movement. She felt the flames warming her face pleasantly as soon as she sat down. A moment later she was almost startled as a shawl brushed her arm and a thin hand patted her shoulder.

She glanced at her new companion. “Hello,” she greeted softly.

“Ah, Aife, mo leanbh, I hoped you’d be able to come. It’s good to see you, child.”

“It’s good to see you too, Mama. I hope you’ve been well.”

“Passably well, child. How’s it with you?”

Aife swallowed. “It hasn’t been easy …” She swallowed again. She was not going to talk about that now, not here. “But just look at our family … growing, thriving. Strong and happy.” She sniffed a bit, but she was smiling again.

“They are that,” her mother agreed. An’ yer Liam did such a fine job with the Yule log. ‘Tis the finest fire I’ve seen in many a year. It’s so lovely to come here and be warmed by it, enjoying my family. I’ll bless this fire that it brought you here for a chat, too, lovie.”

Aife gazed into the fire. It was a good one, and the log looked to burn for days. She’d never been much of an enthusiast. She’d always been more of a practical cook-fire sort of woman (and flaming arrows certainly had their place) but today she appreciated the Yule fire, more than she could ever have known. She felt the same sort of pride she had seeing how Rowan was handling her role as matriarch when she looked at the fire her boy had kindled. She’d probably never admit it out loud to anyone, but Liam and Rowan had always been her favorites among her large and well-loved family.

A crackling pop from the log brought Aife back to the present. “Where’s Da?”

“Ach, you know how he is. Has to pop in on everyone’s fire today. I expect he’s at Diarmuid’s hearth just now. You know how he always was about his baby brother.”

“Mmm. Do you think he’ll be by soon?”

“Ye have other plans, do ye?” her mother asked gently.

“I …” Aife began, but was interrupted by the loud crash of shattering pottery. Rowan let loose with a string of words that Aife was quite certain she had not learned from her mother (since she’d never had to follow her into battle). “Rowan! Such language!” she snapped, not really thinking.

Rowan continued to mumble random curses and wishes for the feast to be on someone else’s shoulders as she drafted another one of the younger girls to pick up the shards little Donal had scattered, running through the house, in through the front and out the back.

“I bet you’d like to jump in and sort that all out for yer girl,” Aife’s mother smiled knowingly. “It’s hard, love. Believe me I understand. Letting go is the most difficult part of sitting at the fire each year, but … She’s rising to the occasion. She is. And she’ll continue to do so. She’s her mother’s child through and through.”

“I know … I just wish …”

A large warm hand settled on her other shoulder. “Hey, Aife. I let myself in.” She glanced up and bit her lip. “I’m sorry, but we’ve got to be getting back.”

“And who might this handsome and strapping lad be,” her mother asked, raising one of her grey brows.

“Not now, Mama,” Aife mumbled. She protested, “You said … The feast hasn’t started, Ben … And my da’ …”

He squeezed her shoulder. “I know and I’m sorry. But we’ve got to leave. Like five minutes ago. Gareth can only keep up appearances for us for so long and … We need to go.”

She sighed. “Alright. At least let me say goodbye.”

He hesitated, but then he nodded. “Of course. But be as quick as you can.” He nodded at the old woman by the fire. “A blessed Yule to you, ma’am.” She smiled at him. He touched Aife’s arm. “I’ll be outside.” He left the house to give her the moment free from the demands his presence implied.

Aife squeezed her mother’s hand. Then she moved around the house to each of her children in turn, uttering promises to return whenever she could, patting the heads of the grandchildren who were starting to crowd into the house to warm up and try to sneak bites of food. She stood in the doorway for a moment, giving a last smile and a fond wave, taking one last look at the frantic, but homey, pace of her family.

She stepped outside into the cold that no longer touched her, wiping absently at a tear and suppressing the others that were trying to fall, not that it mattered. She turned to Ben, torn between gratitude that he’d given her this opportunity and fury that he was now snatching it away before she’d seen everyone. “Why?” she asked, her unshed tears constricting her voice. “Why give me this and then cut it so short?”

“I said I’m sorry,” he began. He put an arm around her shoulders and started leading her away. “I thought it would help, seeing them, I mean. Knowing they’re well and your family is … still here and still growing. Carrying on for you.” His voice sounded momentarily tight, too, but though he’d released her shoulders and was now just walking next to her, she detected no change in his face or posture.

“I appreciate it, Ben. I do … I don’t mean to seem ungrateful, it’s just … I would have liked more time.”

“Wouldn’t we all?” he said so quietly she almost didn’t hear it. “And I wish I could have given it to you. I meant to … But we’ve been summoned. As annoying and incompetent as the King of Hell is, he’s still the king.” He held out his hands like he’d try to explain more. This was all still new for her, still a fresh wound. Unable to think of anything adequate, he shrugged.

“Why Yule though? Of all the times, Ben …” She trailed off, near tears again. “I didn’t get to see all of them,” she finished after a minute.

Another shrug. “I knew we couldn’t be away for long, even at the best of times, and I just thought more of them would be here for you. Especially the kids. I know that’s important to you.”

He sounded so bleak. He’d tried to do something so truly wonderful for her, she wanted him to know that even in her disappointment, she was still grateful. “Seeing my mother was such a lovely surprise. I didn’t expect it. It’s been so long.”

“The Yule fire is a funny place,” Ben mused.

“It … I felt so strange, Ben. Every sensation, every smell. I felt I could have picked up a cup and tasted the cider. We’re not really totally even on this plain of existence. I shouldn’t have been able …”

“Did you not think our own traditions and stories had at least a kernel of truth, Aife?” he asked, smiling a little. “It’s half of why our people light the Yule log every year; so our ancestors can come and warm themselves by that fire, if they like.”

“Always seemed made up to me,” she said managing a small chuckle.

“I always believed, or at least, I wanted to. I had a bit of a mind for the magical side of things though. I have Daira to thank for that. She was the wise woman in my village. Took quite a shine to me,” he smiled. “And then, you know, demon, so … I’ve definitely embraced my more whimsical side.”

As he hoped, she chuckled again and her smile stayed in place. “It was wonderful to see them. It does help. It does.” She stopped walking and turned toward him. “Have you ever visited your family?”

Pain sparked briefly in his eyes, but he just gave the barest shake of his head. “Nah, never managed it.”

Aife realized too late why that might be. Oh, the poor boy. All of them. No wonder he struck her as such a lonely soul. “Thank you, Ben. For everything.”

He nodded, his jaw tightening for a moment, before flashing one of his dazzling distracting smiles at her. “Happy Yule, Aife,” he said simply.

Quite unable to stop herself, she pulled him into a hug. “Happy Yule, Ben.”

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

The Second Day of Fic-mas …

bottle-celebration-crowd-948199

Eat, Drink, and Be Miserable

 

Author’s Note: For readers of Always Darkest, in case you were wondering why Ben couldn’t spent Christmas Eve with Mal, this ought to clear things up. For those of you new to our universe, this is what happens when Hell throws a holiday office party.

“Ben! You made it!” the graceful hostess called with enthusiasm and more than a little surprise. She hadn’t seen him come in, and her two assistants had been taking bets on whether or not he’d show up. She eyed him up and down. “You’re looking … very … um …”

“Save it, Aife. I’m in no mood for games or pleasantries.” She thought he might be frowning or glaring at her, but at present it was difficult to tell. “Besides, we’re fighting.”

“Fighting? Over this? Come on, it’s not that bad.” She reached down, clapping him on his uncharacteristically meaty shoulder. “And it’s traditional!”

The eye roll was more obvious than his previous expression. “Yeah, that’s me. Mr. Tradition.”

He started shouldering his way through the crowd, toward the decorative seat on the raised platform at the center of the room. The sooner he sat down and got this started, the sooner he could change and get the hell out of here. He was glad going home no longer meant just the hundred feet or so to his old apartment above the bar. Soon this would be over and he could catch a cab across town to his new digs.

And shower.

For about a week.

Undeterred by his sour mood, Aife followed, trying to pull him out of whatever was behind his current funk. She knew he wouldn’t be happy about this, but she hadn’t expected his near total silence since she’d reminded him of the obligation.

To be fair he’d kind of bared his soul to her, at least as much as Ben ever did with anyone, and when all was said and done she’d said, essentially, ‘Thanks for trusting me with all this, but, by the way, I need you to do a thing you’re really going to hate in a few days’.

But it wasn’t like Ben to pull the silent treatment bit, even if he was furious. Something major had to be happening. Still, he had an obligation here tonight, no matter what else was going on with him. In fact, based on the little he’d revealed of what he’d been up to over the last year, and especially the last few months, keeping up appearances, keeping his cover intact, was especially important. She decided to subtly remind him of that in a way that would be safe if someone happened to get close enough to eavesdrop.

“You, of all demons, know how important it is, for those of us saddled with peripheral, less important Offices, to stick to the regulations,” she admonished. When he rolled his eyes at her a second time, she started quoting the rule book. “At the time of year when all earthly eyes are on the heavens, it is critical that Hell do its part to stay a presence literally and figuratively to advance our mission. The senior ranking noble or Agent will act as ceremonial host on the eve of …”

“I’m familiar with the regs,” he interrupted. “Why the hell do you think I’ve avoided being anywhere near an Office on Christmas since … always?” he groused. “How are demons even supposed to celebrate Christmas?” came out as more of a growl.

She grinned, hoping an attempt at humor would relax him a little. “Ironically, I think.”

He sighed. “Ironically?” He tugged at his coat awkwardly, unaccustomed to clothes not fitting exactly the way they were meant to.

Aife looked him over, letting her gaze linger like she was about to flirt. Then she cocked an amused eyebrow. “Yeah, definitely ironically.”

“Oh, screw you, Aife,” he snapped, then started laughing in spite of himself, though his amusement was short lived.

He was glad The Pit wasn’t one of those bars with mirrors everywhere. He didn’t need to be reminded what a ridiculous figure he cut in this crowd of demons and humans decked out in their finest, or at least their most festive. Since custom demanded that he appear in his demonic form, say nothing about the ubiquitous Santa suit, he wasn’t interested in the visual. This was a form he avoided at all costs; he hadn’t been forced into it in centuries. And the suit was about as awful as he expected. But it was kind of funny. Probably. From the outside.

He fidgeted in discomfort again and the pat Aife gave him this time was less amused and more genuinely consoling. She led him to the bar and gestured for Ciara to pour them a couple of their usual drinks. She knew the short, round, hairy appearance (forget the goat legs and cloven hooves that came with the package) didn’t exactly match up with how Ben saw himself. She really should have expected this reaction.

When he’d first come to her over a year ago, looking for a place to stay, they’d been sitting in his apartment flipping through channels one night and had come across the Disney version of Hercules. She’d made the offhand comment that he reminded her of a character in the film. He’d grinned and said he’d always thought he was decent enough in the looks department, but he’d never have given himself Greek god status. Aife had smiled wickedly and told him she meant Hercules’s friend, Philoctetes. Because of, you know, the whole goat-y thing. “He’s the spit of your demon form, lovey.” He’d glared for a while, then stomped off to bed, leaving her to let herself out.

She knew how miserable he had to be tonight with that bumpy, lumpy, short, asymmetrical body crammed into a cheap Santa suit. It wasn’t quite as bad as a rental, but very nearly. She’d never seen anyone fit into it properly and that was definitely true tonight. Ben pulled at some part of it self-consciously every time he moved. It was somehow both too big and too small all at once.

The arms had to be rolled up with fabric bunching awkwardly at the wrists. His demonically-shortened stature also meant, even rolled up, the pants trailed under his hooves so he kept treading on the cuffs and half tripping.

Despite its length, the breadth of the suit wasn’t proportional. Or adequate. The buttons strained across the considerable girth at his midsection in an over-taxed effort to contain him. She nearly laughed at the thought of them putting out someone’s eye if they let go. She’d never let him live it down.

Ben stretched the stiff fabric on the waist of his pants yet again, wishing he could breathe properly. He was trying to find real humor in this, but was just too damned uncomfortable. His sour tone belied the amused smirk he was trying on. “Honestly Aife, I look like Tim Burton got tapped for a reboot of The Grinch and decided to cast Danny Devito in the lead role.”

Given her memory of just a moment ago it took a herculean effort not to burst out laughing. Oh, that nearly did it. She snorted a little giggle, but clamped down on it. “You only look about half as ridiculous as you think you do. Besides, I thought I’d be the one wearing the costume this year. No one else has been around and you’re usually so good at avoiding this stuff.”

“If you’d reminded me sooner, I would have again,” he said, shooting her a dark look.

“Maybe I mentioned it back when you were still showing up for work here. Not my fault you’ve been off …” She stopped when his brow creased. She had promised not to mention school, or his other job, or the fact that he had apparently made friends with some humans. Not where anyone else might overhear it anyway. She’d have to get the rest of the story out of him at some point, but tonight was not the time for it. “And maybe this finally makes us square for Boston,” she said archly.

“Boston? Are you serious? This is about Boston?” he asked incredulously, gesturing at his horror-inducing appearance. “C’mon, Aife, that was literally centuries ago! And it was not my fault!”

“It was a little your fault,” she said with a smirk.

“How can you ..? I didn’t do …” he sputtered.

“You set the mince sniffers on me. You have to own that part at least.”

He sighed. “Okay, maybe … so that part could have been my fault, but …” His whole face became a frown. At least she thought it did; it was tough to tell with all those bulldog worthy wrinkles. “But we’re even?”

She tipped him a wink. “I said maybe.”

Ben rolled his eyes. He picked up the generous shot of her best scotch off the bar, downed it, then closed his eyes for a couple of seconds, setting the glass down with a thud. “Fine. Hand me the beard, would you?”

Mirth danced in her green eyes as she passed the finishing touch for the Santa suit to him. He fixed it over his ears, using her reactions, rather than the mirror over the bar, to decide if he had it arranged correctly. He could deal with this, so long as he didn’t have to look at it. Her nod told him it was on straight, but … what was that ..? Ugh.

“Aife … um … why does this smell like … I don’t know … bad?” he asked when he couldn’t come up with anything to compare the aroma to.

Aife’s eyes went round and innocent. “I can’t imagine,” she said sweetly. “It’s natural fiber. Wool, I think.”

“Okay, sure, but from what part of the sheep?”

She laughed. It was such a normal Ben thing to say. She took a step closer and sniffed. “Oh, oh honey, I’m … About that …”

“Aife,” he warned, an almost imperious note creeping into his voice. “What is it? What am I ..? Just … what?”

“You may have heard about … last year Stolas was the lucky noble in town.”

“And?”

“Well … he had quite a bit to drink, and got spectacularly ill …”

“How does a demon get sick from drinking unenchanted Earth booze?” he demanded.

“How should I know?” she returned indignantly. “Maybe giant demonic raven’s have fussy stomachs! Besides … I did wash it …” she assured him.

“In what? Musk ox urine and broken dreams?”

“Oh, it’s not that bad, Ben. Just a little musty.” She patted him again. “You’re just crabby.”

Ben decided to let it go. He was crabby. Downright pissy even. And it wasn’t Aife’s fault he couldn’t just leave town. He would have last week when she’d reminded him about this little shindig, but he’d promised Mal he’d be there for Christmas, promised he’d meet her dad and uncle. Shit. What was he thinking? Meeting a couple of angels after all this … He almost wished he could get sick-drunk tonight. “Yeah,” he sighed.

Ben finally hazarded a look in the mirror and finished adjusting his beard. He pulled the tasseled hat back on as far as it would go over his abnormally round head, and walked wordlessly past Aife to take his place on the raised dais so the formal part of the evening’s festivities could commence.

∞∞∞

The party was, as Ben expected, a vulgar and garrish affair, featuring a who’s who of Burlington’s damned, and their guests. The crowd was mostly made up of connected, and more importantly, contracted, souls, not to mention a handful of local-ish demons, mostly in human form, or wearing a human body. At least the Fallen hadn’t shown up. That was a small consolation, but as the smelly Santa suit started to itch in addition to being aromatic, Ben decided he’d count his blessings where he could find them.

“Ah, Lord Ronoven, I don’t believe I’ve had the pleasure before.”

He glanced up from where he’d been staring at the ice in the bottom of the glass Aife had kept full all evening. He found himself faced with a woman of early middle age, wearing too much make-up and a smart red dress. “Good evening, Margaret,” he greeted mildly.

“You know my name?” the woman asked with a startled laugh.

He dipped his chin in a nod that was as close to dignified as his demon guise allowed. “It’s my business to know. I trust your son is doing well under the new arrangement.”

“Oh yes, quite well, my Lord,” she gushed. The form of address and her tone made him twitch. He forced the cringe inward and continued to meet her eye as though he were really interested in her answer. “He’s just been made the youngest partner in the history of his firm … and more importantly, his name has been coming up a lot in certain political circles, just as promised.”

Another semi-regal nod. “Very good. I like to know the contracts made in my territory are being adequately kept up. How are you finding the party, Margaret?”

“Nice,” she hedged. “But confusing. I keep wondering how demons celebrate this sort of a holiday.”

“Ironically,” Ben returned with a smirk. She gave the appropriate polite laugh, but still looked out of sorts. “Although I suppose that’s not what you meant.”

“Well, no, actually … Why does Hell have a Christmas party?”

“This isn’t really a Christmas party, Margaret.”

She laughed again. “Could have fooled me.”

Warming to the opportunity, Ben sat forward a bit. “And apparently we did,” he observed. “You see, Margaret, the invitations may have said Christmas, but those who are more informed know it is that in name only.” He paused letting that sink in for a moment. “Here we honor the old holiday of Yule, after a fashion. The traditions we hold harken to a time before the Church co-opted it for their own purposes. We celebrate Earth’s longest night,” he said, laying on an ominous tone and forcing his expression to stay serious even as he wanted to crack up at the fear behind her eyes. “Of course, since we’re from Hell, we like to put our own spin on things.”

“W-what sort of spin?” she stammered.

“Oh, about what you’d expect. There’s the fire in the hearth there with logs stolen from groves some people still hold sacred. The fertility celebrations that will come later. I’m sure you’d enjoy those.” He winked mischievously, glad for the first time that that he looked as grotesque as he felt tonight. “And there’s the traditional pig roast that ought to get going sometime soon …”

“Oh, I do enjoy a good pig roast,” Margaret said, trying to get back into the spirit of the evening.

Ben raised his shaggy eyebrows. “Ever had long pig?”

He nearly broke out laughing as Margaret blanched paper white. She knew what that was. But she regained her composure and assumed a game faced expression. “I … um … no, but I suppose I might try …”

Good grief. She probably would too. Fortunately, this was Aife’s Office and the worst thing on the menu tonight was probably the weird Vienna sausages the local state congresswoman favored. “Yes, indeed,” Ben grinned. “Things should get very interesting around here come midnight.”

She cleared her throat and squared her shoulders, pretending he hadn’t absolutely given her the shivers. “Well, I do need to get going shortly anyway, so I suppose I’ll miss out. You were my last stop this evening. I just had to see for myself.”

“Pardon?” he asked with feigned polite interest.

“My friend Nancy said you’d know my name and about my arrangement, just like you knew me personally. And you did! What do you do, study up before these things?”

“I read minds,” he lied smoothly. “And not that it’s any of my business, but when good ole Nance dropped by a little bit ago, it became pressingly clear that the reason your young Dale has been visiting so frequently these last few months is she’s been playing Mrs. Robinson to his Benjamin Braddock. Enthusiastically.”

Margaret turned very red, and without another word, but with a very loud huff, she stormed off, probably to look for her “friend” Nancy. Judging by the crashing from one of the back rooms that followed a few minutes later, Ben guessed she’d found her.

“That wasn’t very nice,” Aife chidded, appearing at his elbow.

“I didn’t like her. Didn’t care much for Nancy either.” Ben put down his glass on the small side table Aife had provided for drinks and whatever little gifts the humans brought as tribute. He’d passed the latter on to other demons quickly, rather than having to touch or look at the items much. He fished a small button-shaped receiver out of his ear. “Was that everyone?”

She squinted around the room. “Just about. You might want to leave that in for a bit though.”

She raised her eyebrows at him as he dropped the earpiece into the glass and handed it to her.

“No need. It’s just about midnight. My ass is sore from kissing and there’s no obligation to stay for anything else once the hour chimes. I’m done.” He did manage a smile. “Nice work with the radio. Made me seem informed, like spooky informed. That’s always good for making an appropriately hellish impression. And making some of them squirm was more fun than I expected to have tonight.” He got up and unhooked the beard, dropping it into the chair, along with the hat, and tried unsuccessfully to yank the coat down. “I’m out of here.”

“You can’t go. You have to come out to the private party room. We’re just about to break out the baby oil and start the …”

“Nope.” He shook his head emphatically. “I don’t have to anything. Especially that.”

“You’ve been living like a monk for months now. What’s going on with you, Ben?” she asked critically. She knew he was working on that prophecy, knew he’d made human friends, but he’d been so out of character lately. “You used to live for the more Bacchanal aspects of these little get togethers.”

He shrugged. Something told her, without even being able to see it, that he was blushing. “Yeah, well, not tonight.”

He didn’t hang around for her to say anything else, just made his way to her small office out back where he’d changed when he arrived. With his back to the door, he performed the spell to call back his human form. He wished there was a shower here, but also just wanted to get the Hell out of Dodge as fast as possible. He shucked off the Santa suit and picked up his boxers off the neatly folded pile of clothes he’d left on Aife’s desk.

He was focused on getting home as quickly as he could manage. So he didn’t hear the door open and softly close behind him. “You just have to tease me before you leave, don’t you?” Aife asked lightly, raising her eyebrow when he startled and half turned.

His ears were almost as red as the Santa suit as he finished pulling on his underwear and hastily grabbed his jeans. “Aife, please.”

She leaned against the desk, smirking. “Okay, but one of these days, you’re going to have to really tell me about her.”

“Who?” he asked absently, donning the grey thermal henley he’d practically been living in every time it was clean lately. Damn, he couldn’t seem to get used to the cold.

“The woman who’s making you want to miss an orgy. You love a good …”

“Good night,” he interrupted. He plastered on his fakest, most obsequious smile. “It’s been a terrible evening and fuck you for having me.”

“Ben, why don’t you stay for a bit and …”

“Aife … just … Okay?” She grinned at how flustered he seemed, but didn’t say anything else. He zipped his heavy hoodie, and pulled the hood up for good measure. She couldn’t see his face, but he sounded a little friendlier when he turned to the door and added, “Maybe I will tell you about her. When I’m speaking to you again.”

“Suit yourself,” she chuckled. Then she called out to him as he let himself out into the back alley. “We’re definitely even!”

“Even?” he called back, trying to remember what she was pissed off at him about. Tonight had been too stressful to keep much in his head for long.

“Yeah, for Boston. Asshole.”

Aife’s laughter followed him into the cold winter’s night.

“That was not my fault,” he mumbled under his breath.

 

 

 

 

 

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Fic-mas Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Merry Fic-mas Eve!

ficmas

It’s that time of year again. Our favorite holiday tradition is here.

Can you call something you’ve only done once before a tradition?

Sure. Why not?

We had so much fun challenging ourselves with last year’s Twelve Days of Fic-mas, we decided to make it a thing. Which as our favorite Time Lord will tell you is like a plan, but with more greyness.

So, the Twelve Days of Fic-mas is back! Twelve original stories (we are literally writing as you read this) that celebrate the festive spirit of the holidays, hearth and home, and occasionally the darker side of the season. This year you’ll see familiar faces if you’re a fan of the Always Darkest Universe, some friends returning from last Fic-mas, and maybe a few surprises. We hope you’ll join us on this year’s fictional adventure.

If you’d like to check out last year’s Twelve Days, the rough drafts are still up here on the blog, or you can pick up a copy of our polished up collection (lovingly beta read by some of the universe’s biggest super heroes and best friends) over on Amazon at http://mybook.to/12daysoffic-mas.

New readers, welcome! Old friends, welcome back! And Merry Fic-mas!

Categories
Book News Uncategorized

Book Talk Radio Interview

Check out our latest interview with Claire Perkins of Book Talk Radio!

 

cropped-co-author-picBook Talk Radio Interview – Jess & Keith Flaherty on Their Book Always Darkest

Categories
Arbitratus Short Fiction Short Fiction Uncategorized Writing Challenges

Nightmare

Another writing challenge prompt inspired me. This one happens in the universe of Always Darkest, sometime in the late spring.

Think of a word (any word you want) and search it on google images. Write something inspired by the 7th image. The word I chose was ‘nightmare’. This was the seventh image.

nightmare

He woke in the total dark of his bedroom and puffed out a sigh. He was probably up for the day now, if how heavily his heart was hammering away was any indication. The last wisps of the half-remembered nightmare still vying for his attention kept him from realizing how cold it was for a moment or two. Then, as he came more fully awake he shivered.

His blankets were probably all on the floor again. Thrashing himself into a state of no blankets had become all too common in the last few months. This had been one hell of a bad dream, too. At least the little flashes still dancing behind his closed eyes told him it must have been. He’d have to find his blankets and knew once he turned on the light, sleep was all over. He sighed again.

He rolled onto his back, pried his eyes open, and froze in instant horror.

His room was pitch black, not even the sparest light from the nightlight Chris always left on in the bathroom was cutting the velvety blackness around him. It was, however, being pierced by two laser points of reddish yellow light. They were unmistakably (to someone who had spent two thousand years in Hell anyway) the glowing eyes of an Ahemait.

The Ahemait were like the hunting dogs of Hell, seeking out and devouring those with hearts deemed unworthy. Ben was never sure who got to make that particular call, but to him it always seemed the Ahemait went after souls who were just trying to be decent in spite of being condemned to Hell. He’d worried they’d send one after him at some point for a while now.

He’d told himself a hundred times that the fear was ridiculous, that as far as Hell knew he was still their loyal soldier, sworn to execute his assigned duties to grow Hell’s numbers, and more recently to chase down the subject of the prophecy. But … But, but, but … He knew Bhaal suspected him. And it wasn’t below the god to go behind Lucifer’s back to rid himself of an annoyance.

He had a split second where he was glad that tonight was not one of the nights Mal had decided to stay. At least she was safe, in her bed, miles away.

When his eyes locked with the creature’s, it started to glow faintly. That’s when he could see it’s teeth for the first time. His hammering heart seemed to seize in his chest and he couldn’t catch his breath. He wondered if the dagger sitting on his nightstand would have any effect on this beast, wondered if it was possible to fight his way out. But at that moment he didn’t really believe he could move.

The beast took a lumbering step closer to the foot of his bed and blistering hot saliva dripped onto Ben’s exposed foot. The sizzle and immediate stinging pain was enough to break his paralysis and he reached out blindly in the dark, his hand closing over the cold handle almost instantly.

Unfortunately, even his demonically enhanced reflexes were tempered by his human form and the beast was on him before he could turn the knife toward it. He realized as its teeth tore into his flesh that it wasn’t here to extinguish him. It would keep him alive in the agony of being consumed for as long as it entertained it. After a while his own screams faded into the pain and even sound was just part of the tapestry of agony that could go on forever.

Ben bolted upright in bed, gasping. He realized he was in the larger bed they’d been sharing at Mal’s house. Then the rest of the evening came back to him and drove back the dream a little, let him start to catch his breath. Mal shifted next to him.

“Hey, are you okay?”

She was wide awake. He swallowed, feeling badly. She was already used to his nightmares disrupting her sleep and they hadn’t even been sharing a bed for all that long. “Mmmhmm,” he said, not trusting his voice to convince her it was true.

She sat up and turned on her light. “Nice try.”

He managed a slightly sheepish grin. “Okay … How about, I will be in a minute?”

She moved closer to him and put and arm around him, resting her head on his shoulder. “Mostly honest, I guess. I like Honest Ben.” She paused for a second. “What was this one about?”

He shivered. “I don’t want to talk about it.”

She nodded. “Okay. Do you want to go downstairs, and I’ll start the coffee, or do you want to try to go back to sleep?”

Ben glanced across the room at his phone on the charging station on Mal’s dresser. It was only about 3 a.m. “We can go back to sleep.” he said. “I’m fine,” he added sounding less certain than he would have liked.

She pulled away a little so she could look at his face and gave him a small smile.

“I doubt it,” she said. Then she echoed his words back to him. “But you will be in a minute.”

She got up and got the extra quilt off the chest at the foot of her bed and spread it over Ben, then climbed back in and waited until he lay back down, finally smiling a little as he looked up at her. She snuggled as close as it was physically possible to be and wrapped an arm around him, resting her head against the shoulder of the arm he slid underneath her.

“You don’t have to leave the light on.”

“I know … But sometimes it’s better when I do.”

He kissed the top of her head.

She knew.

She always knew when to leave the light on. He said so and she squeezed him tight. He was never going to have to deal with the dark alone again. Not if she had anything to say about it. She was going to say so, but she realized from the softening of his breath that he had already started to doze off.

“I love you,” she whispered.

She didn’t see it, because her face was pressed against his chest, but even in his sleep, even after the terror of that dream, those words made him smile.

~ End ~

 

For more of Mal and Ben, click here.

Categories
Short Fiction Uncategorized

On the seventh day of Fic-mas, a little something sweet, prepare for merry gatherings wherever you meet …

Kitchen Witch

Eye of Newt

It was the night of the new moon, the perfect time to begin her work.

The witch bounded up the steps of her home, an almost wicked smile on her lips, and all the necessary ingredients in her bag. She couldn’t wait to work her magic and present her intended with a gift that she was certain would make him love her for life. Well, it would seal the deal, anyway.

She prepared her space carefully, wiping everything down, and starting the fire with the reverence she brought to all tasks she’d set her heart to. Each bit of spice, each little herb was set carefully out in its own ceramic container. Every necessary component at the ready for the perfect moment to add it to the pot.

She murmured the words written on the old, stained, reverently passed-down piece of paper in front of her as she set to each step in her unfamiliar but promising task. This was her first time attempting this concoction, although the women in her family had sworn by it for generations.

It wasn’t exactly like other things she’d let bubble in a pot in her little apartment for the purposes of enchantment, but the currants it called for were a step up from eye of newt, she supposed. And her little home was infused with the smells of it, exotic and familiar, warm and inviting. It told the tale of pleasures yet to come.

From simmering pot, she gave it one last reverent stir and tipped it into the pan to set in her oven, a little ring of seductive perfection.

When it was done curing and setting she tool it out and set it on an iron ring on her counter. “Now,” she smiled, “I’ll just infuse you with most powerful spirits.”

Her task accomplished, she laughed to herself. “I believe I’ll infuse myself too!” and she tipped the bottle into a waiting glass.

A whole month her creation waited. Infused each night of the waxing moon with more of the spirits that would make it great, make it perfect, make it last. Finally, on the eve of the Solstice, the moon full and round above her, she knocked on he beloved’s door, her work wrapped in festive silver paper and tied with a red and white bow.

He invited her in, grinning, thrilled that she had made it, and eager to share her holiday with her, as she had promised to join he and his family for Christmas in a few days.

She led him by the hand into his kitchen and set his gift on the counter. He opened it and though he was smiling, he raised a skeptical eyebrow at the strange looking lumpy contents of the beautifully wrapped box.

“Is this some kind of weird witch thing?” he asked, laughter in his voice.

“It’s my grandmother’s fruitcake recipe. It’s the first time I’ve ever made it,” she answered. “I thought it would be nice to share for dessert tonight. And we could take some slices to your folks this weekend. It’ll last for months,” she beamed.

“I mean, you know because this is … Yule?” he asked, wanting to get it right.

“Ummhmm,” she nodded, encouraging him.

“I meant is it, like, magic?”

She laughed and moved to cut them each a slice. “Well, if how buzzed you’re going to get from a little taste of it is any indication, then probably.”

He took the proffered bite, eyes rolling in pleasure. “Yeah, this is definitely witchcraft, of the very best kind.”

Get the recipe for Real Magic Fruit Cake in

The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I

*****

Categories
Short Fiction Uncategorized

On the fifth day of Fic-mas, we travel to the past, to ancient places, origins, and peace that can’t last …

Author’s note:

Some of you know Ben Brody as the demon with a heart of gold in Always Darkest. But Ben wasn’t always a demon. He wasn’t even always a warrior. In the deep of winter long ago, he was only a little boy with a restless spirit. Just like it would centuries later, it sometimes led him into danger, and it almost always led him to magic.

Caraid is pronounced Key-er-aid. Beathan is pronounced Bay’en; and Bean is a nickname for it. Teasag is pronounced Ch-eh-za. Hin is a Gaelic word for honey/sweetie. The rest you can get from context.

 

Winter’s Sleep

The little boy, wrapped in his winter clothes, bearing his family’s colors, against the cold and damp, sat swinging his feet, smiling to himself, and having another little talk with the cat he had, once again, followed up here.

It wasn’t his cat.

But it could be. It had told him so. Not in so many words. But with its big golden eyes that were so much like his own. If those eyes marked him as something special like the village wise woman said, well then, they marked this cat, too.

He was going to call her Caraid. So far it felt like a fitting name. She’d been a lovely, loyal friend. He reached out to stoke her back, her bushy black tail. When he touched her, she glanced over the edge, looked at him with deep, wide eyes, and made a noise that was less a hiss and more a warning.

After his own eyes registered her communication, she scampered back from the edge, hiding behind the stone chimney in the middle of their round roof.

His mother stood on the ground far below him, hands on her hips, looking upset.

“Uh, oh,” slipped out of his mouth; that look said she might shout. He hated shouting.

Instead, she called up in a patient, almost cajoling voice, “Beathan, hin, what’re you doin’ up there, lad?”

He felt himself shrug, even though she was probably too far below to see it. “Talkin’ to Caraid,” he said simply.

She swallowed. “And who’s that, my love?”

He shrugged again. “My cat … Well, she’s her own cat. But she likes to let me pretend she’s mine. Sometimes.”

“Well, lovie … If she’s gone, whyn’t ye come on down then?” she asked, trying to keep from sounding too desperate, and almost succeeding.

“Well, I was lookin’ for Drustan, and Da’, and the boys from up here,” he answered matter-of-factly. “I wanted to know where they went.” He shifted closer to the edge, so he could see her face better.

From far up on his perch, he heard his mother gasp. He had forgotten again that she didn’t like the tall places. That was so silly, he thought. Tall places were where the fun was. “I won’t fall, Mama,” he called down to assure her in his small, almost musical little voice.

“Good lad!” his mother encouraged. “You weren’t thinkin’ a followin’ the boys, if you could see ’em, now were ya?”

He thought about how to answer.

“Um … Nnn … No, ma’am,” he said, not even believing it himself when he heard his own voice.

Now his mother truly frowned at him. “You get right down here now, Bean-ma-lad. You need to move the goat.”

He huffed in irritation and a little bit of dread. “Ach, Ma’, she don’ like me though.”

“She likes you just fine. C’mon now, my love. Come down.”

She reached up her hands as though she could actually catch him from that height and he grinned down at her. Then, ignoring her completely, he flipped over on his belly, like he did when no one was down below and lowered himself off the thatch bundles until his arms felt the strain of his weight. Thoughtlessly, without concern for the fall, he dropped to the ground from there, all the way down, tucked into a roll to absorb the impact, and hopped up at his mother’s feet.

“See, Mama,” he crowed. “Tall places are fun!”

Her eyes flashed at his reckless disregard for his own slender neck. In the event that the look meant she was wondering about whether or not she ought to beat some sense into him, he started off toward where the goat was tied up grazing on what was left of the grass, laughing a little and talking to himself about that ridiculous cat that had been lurking around. If Donal didn’t think the cat was a good omen, she’d have chased it off weeks ago.

Despite her youngest, and most likely last, little boy having just given her another heart-rending scare (the fourth one already this day, she thought, if she was keeping an accurate count), she smiled fondly at his retreating form. “When you’re done with the goat, you can come in and help me make the up the mulling spices!”

“Hooray!” he shouted and took off running. Getting to help in the kitchen meant extra food. Beathan was always happy for a chance at extra food. Especially when it was all cold out. He hated the cold something fierce.

His mother’s eyes widened again as she saw him pounding across the frosted ground in his bare feet. She shouted after him, “Beany, hin, where are your boots?”

He called back over his shoulder, “I traded them with Rabbie for his honey sweets!” he called back over his shoulder.

“Again!?!” she shouted in pure exasperation as he disappeared around the curved wall of their little house, running full tilt.

A slender blond woman came around the corner, shawl around her shoulders, and baby tucked in her arms. Beathan’s mother smiled at her daughter-in-law and newest granddaughter. “Ah, Cinnie, what will I do with him?”

Cinnie laughed. “Was our little Bean up on the roof again?”

“What do you think?”

The young woman with the profusion of curling hair and light brown eyes that twinkled whenever she thought of her husband’s little brother, shook her head as she saw the small bare footprints in the frost and dirt, thinking you had to love a lad who so effortlessly confounded his mother in her attempts to remind him he was just a wee little thing, and not ready for the wide world just yet.

She smiled at her mother-in-law. “What do I think? I think he’s bored spitless. Our Bean hates the winter, especially the dark of it before winter’s sleep ends and the sun returns.”

“That’s only a few days away,” the older woman replied.

“Tis at that,” Cinnie said. “But I also think Drus’ and the boys should have taken him on the hunt with them.”

“But he’s so small, he hasn’t really hit his growth yet and …”

“And you an’ Donal place to much stock in what the Seer says about our Bean. Just let him be a boy. He’s going to find a way anyway.”

She nodded. “I suppose you’re right. He might have liked to go looking for the Midwinter feast’s kill with his father and the rest of the lads. Drustan offered to take him, look after him, but we …”

“Drus and I are always happy to have him with us. House full o’ girls so far. Bean keeps Drus on his toes. Me, too.”

“He was awfully upset when they left … He didn’t say so … But it did set him lookin’ for that cat again. He was up there talkin’ to her, I believe.”

Cinnie teased, “Best watch out for ‘im. He’ll wind up running off with the Wise Ones if he keeps on like that. Talkin’ to animals and the like. There’s magic about our Bean.”

His mother shook her head ruefully. “He magically turns my hair grey! He’s so keen to go join the hunt, to go into battle … This is only his sixth Midwinter, Cinnie!”

“But he’s already got the spirit of the rest of the men in the family, Mother,” she replied, shifting the baby in her arms. “If they’d give him a little training, it might settle him some.”

“I’m afraid he’s just going to chase after them anyway,” she sighed. “He’s such a restless little thing.”

Cinnie nodded, thoughtful. “I’ll talk to ‘im if you like,” she offered.

“That would be wonderful. He listens to you and Drus.” She held out her hands. “Here, give me my granddaughter.”

Cinnie handed off the baby, wrapped her shawl more closely around her shoulders, and made her way to where the goat had been tethered earlier. The boy was right where she expected. The tow-headed little fellow was just about eye-level with the big goat.

“Don’t do it, Nanny!” he ordered, his voice sounding deeper than usual. He was mimicking his older brother Drustan’s commanding tone. “Don’t!”

Cinnie almost laughed when the goat gave a toss of her head and butted him, almost gently, in the stomach, sending him over onto his back. He glared at the goat and spat, “Fackin’ ‘ell. I’d roast you fer the feast in a minute! But nobody wants to eat ornery goat!”

“Such a mouth on such a sweet boy!” Cinnie pretended to be shocked.

He looked up at her and gave her a sideways grin. “Drus says it.”

“And that makes it gold. I know how you are,” she smiled down at him and offered a hand.

He took it and leapt back up, dusting himself off. He looked at the goat and sighed, then his jaw took on a familiar stubborn set and he seemed prepared to dive back in and try to get close enough to un-stake her tether again.

Cinnie dropped down into a crouch so they’d be eye to eye. “Don’t worry about the goat, little Bean. I’ll move her for you.”

He frowned, “It got it. Ma said it was my job.”

“But I have something so much more important for you to do, mo a bhobain.”

He shook his head. “I’m not a rascal!” He tried to sound indignant, but anyone could hear that he sounded more flattered than anything.

“But you are my darling,” she said, and he ducked his head, clearly very pleased. “I need you to do something, or we can’t have the Midwinter Feast.”

His bright golden eyes were wide. “What?”

“I need you to go find and cut some mistletoe.”

“Oh,” his face fell. “I can’t do it. I don’t have my own knife yet.”

She grinned and took a smallish package out of the folds of her dress. It was wrapped in linen and tied with string. She held it out for him to see, but didn’t offer it to him just yet.

“This was going to be your present after the feast, you see. Drus and I thought it was time you had your own. I’ve seen the way you eye those snares Osh sets. And you’ll be joining the hunt before you know it.”

He smiled hugely, anticipating what was in the package from its size and shape. He started bouncing on the balls of his bare feet, just a little. “I hope so,” he breathed. The hunt was all he’d been thinking about since the men started talking over this one days ago.

“No one remembered that we needed the mistletoe when they left this morning. And Mother is busy preparing for the feast, I’ve got little Teasag on the breast from dawn to dusk … You’re the only one around for the job, Bean.”

He grinned again, squaring his small shoulders proudly and holding out his hand. She handed him the package and sat down on the cold ground, crisscrossing her legs and inviting him into her lap. He plopped down and let her wrap her shawl around him as he untied the string.

“Oh!” he gasped as the linen wrapping fell away. “It’s beautiful,” he whispered, turning the perfectly sharp, straight little blade over in his hands. He fingered the sun-bleached cord that made up the handle, and grinned. “I love it!”

He gave her an enthusiastic one-armed hug, that was more to keep the knife in his other hand that it was any kind of reserve in dolling out affection. “Use it wisely and carefully, hin,” she admonished, letting him get to his feet, and climbing to her own.

“Oh, I will,” he promised seriously.

She suppressed her smile at the idea that her little rascal could do anything carefully. “I know you will, lad. Now off with ya!” She patted his little blond head and gave him a gentle push in the direction of the forest.

He took off running like the lives of everyone in the village depended on it.

Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I

Caraid

*****

Categories
Excerpts Short Fiction

On the third day of Fic-mas, you get a little more, Always Darkest Christmas, friends, and some lore …

Santas sleighAuthor’s Note:

This story takes place the week before St. Augustine School’s holiday break, in our novel Always Darkest, and features Mal, Ben, Petra, and Teddy, as well as a freckle-faced kid named Kelly.

 Yes, Virginia

“Teddy … Hello … Earth to Ted.”

When the redhead didn’t even glance up from his coffee, she reached out and pinched the back of his hand that was resting next to his mug.

“Hey! Ow!” he whined, in wide-eyed surprise. “What the shit, Petra?”

She gave an impish grin that made her look even more like a wood sprite than usual as she deftly caught the cookie he chucked across the table at her head. She took an unconcerned bite and grinned at their other companions.

Those two were sitting so close together they were practically sharing a chair, advertising the newly-minted nature of their relationship with their almost constantly linked hands. The girl used her free hand to pick up her coffee cup and pretend to offer it to Ted.

“Nice of you to join us. Maybe you should think about upping your caffeination game,” she laughed.

Her boyfriend got in the spirit of the group’s teasing banter by piling on with, “Don’t wake him up too much, Mal. I’m hungry and I’m kinda wondering what it would take to get him mad enough to throw a burger my way.”

“Haha, Ben; you’re a funny guy,” Teddy rolled his eyes and then glared at Petra. “That really hurt,” he protested, still rubbing his hand. “And oh look, I’m getting a bruise. Witch.”

“Hey,” she said with mock-indignation. “You leave my religion out of this.”

Ben grinned mischievously. “I don’t think he meant it that way, Petes. Ted’s just too nice to use the word he was thinking in the middle of a crowded café. I, on the other hand …”

“Knock it off, Brody,” Petra said with a little head shake.

He snickered, but shut his mouth. When she defaulted to last names, it usually meant she was annoyed.

“I’m sorry, Ted,” Petra said, looking appropriately sheepish for having pinched him that hard. “I know I went a little overboard, but you’ve been staring into deep space since you got here, completely ignoring us. I can tell something’s bugging you. What gives?”

He shrugged and Mal gave him a long speculative look. “Teddy, if something’s bothering you, you know we’ll try to help.”

Teddy just gave another noncommittal shrug. “It’s nothing guys, really.” He glanced around the table. No one was buying it. “It’s … it’s just silly.”

Ben could see his young friend doing the thing Ben knew was a bad road; the kid was getting up in his own head something awful. He was too young, too innocent to start developing that particular bad habit, he thought. He tipped the boy a grin and began sincerely, “Ted, c’mon, if you can’t tell your friends, your teammates what’s bothering you, who can you tell?”

Teddy looked almost like he was ready to talk, but was chewing his lip instead. Ben went on, his grin widening, advertising loudly, he hoped, that he was teasing.

“Speaking of teammates, maybe after we get done here, we should go for a run … ’Cause you do look fat in those jeans,” he teased. Then he put up both hands like he was ready to catch something. “So … burger?”

“Seriously, Ben?” Mal asked in a tone to perfectly match Teddy and Petra’s eyerolls. Then she winked. “Picking on friends is no way to make it one the Nice List. And getting on the Nice List will be worth your while,” Mal said with an arched eyebrow.

Teddy blushed, and Petra almost spit out her coffee. Ben pursed his lips, willing his own face not to color with little success, so he just grinned at her. “No fair using Christmas against me. Besides, you already know me well enough to know I’m more supportive when I’m well fed,” he replied, bringing the focus back to their efforts to draw Ted out of himself.

Mal bumped her shoulder into his and looked at Teddy. “Moving on then, before you boys faint from all that blood rushing to your head to make that pretty plum color. You can trust us, Ted. No more teasing, we promise.”

She looked at Ben emphasizing the ‘trust’ and ‘promise’. He just smiled and held up his hands innocently. “Sure, we.”

Teddy sighed. “Okay, but I have to warn you … This is a Santa thing.”

Ben almost made another joke, but the look he was now being given by Mal, and worse, Petra made him think twice. Their friend was finally opening up; play time was over. Ben just looked at Ted with polite interest.

“So, this year I’m getting stuck babysitting on Christmas Eve. I mean, not that I mind having my little brother, but my parents and some of their grad school friends are going to the Christmas party at the ski lodge near the townhouse they booked. We’re sharing the place with my dad’s college roommate and his family, so I’ll have Kel, and four other rug rats, all under the age of eight, cooped up in what’s basically a hotel room with nothing other than a TV and whatever gets brought for toys. No cell service. And no Wi-Fi,” he added darkly.

“Man, that sucks,” Ben commiserated. “But what’s that have to do with Santa?”

Teddy made a face like he’d tasted something sour. “It’s Brad and Joyce, my parents friends …  They’re like super rational. They don’t really have any use for religion. They don’t like myths or legends. And they don’t really celebrate Christmas … I mean they sort of do, but like for its historical significance and ‘because it’s easier to observe than abstain’. Their words.”

“Jeez, they sound like a blast to have around for the holidays,” Petra said with a deep roll of her eyes.

Teddy shrugged. “I mean, they’re really great people mostly … But we’ve spent Christmas with them before. And it was so dry. Everything they did came with this big explanation and was so cold and intentional. For me, Christmas without the magic just isn’t the same.” He flushed a little, embarrassed to sound so much a like a kid, but everyone was smiling at him in an understanding way, so he continued. “And Kelly is still at the age where he really believes in Santa Claus. I just don’t want to see Christmas ruined for him.”

“I’m sure Kelly’ll be fine, Teddy,” Mal offered, garnering encouraging nods from Ben and Petra.

“Yeah,” Ben said with a shrug. “Just do the ‘Yes, Virginia’ thing. It’ll all come out in the wash.”

“The what?” Petra asked, looking annoyed. Ben had a habit of knowing things nobody else knew and then looking at them like they were crazy when he had to explain himself.

“You know, ‘Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus’. Chicago Sun Times editorial from the 1890’s.” He glanced around. “Guys, c’mon. It’s like super famous. There’ve been movies and cartoons and plays?”

Mal raised both eyebrows at him and smirked. “You are such a dork.”

He laughed. “Me? What’s the chemical formula for glucose?”

“C6H12O6,” she rattled off.

“Yeah,” Ben grinned. “I’m the dork.”

She laughed and leaned against his arm, twining her fingers with his.

Teddy puffed out a long dramatic breath through his cheeks. “But see the Atherton’s have an older kid, too. She’s a sophomore in college now, but … When I was in kindergarten, like five or six years old, our families did the ski weekend for the holidays thing for the first time. That was the year Jenn told me there was no Santa.” Teddy paused. “And you know, maybe a little bit older kid being a jerk wouldn’t have been a big deal, but when I ran crying to the adults, Joyce jumped in before anyone else could say anything and … That was the day Santa died for me.”

Ben shook his head. What kind of adult did that to a little kid? “Wow, man. That’s rough.”

“Holy shit! I remember you coming back to school and telling me about that bitch!” Petra said, way too loudly, drawing stares from some neighboring tables in the café. She covered her mouth for a second. “Sorry … It’s just, well … So, Jenn is a real person that really did that … I’d always thought …”

“Always thought what, Petra Catherine Knapp?” Teddy demanded.

“That she was like, you know, one of those girls you just … made up.”

Ben whistled and Mal looked very uncomfortable. Ted stood up and walked out the door without a backward glance or another word. Petra moved to stand up but Mal reached out and grabbed the tail of the jacket she was slipping on. “I’d let him go. He’s being a little weird today and you know Ted … He goes full ginger temper at the drop of a hat, but he’ll cool off. He always does.”

Petra took her coat off and dropped back into her chair. They started talking casually about holiday plans to pass the time. Petra grinned at how Ben’s ears colored when Mal asked, “So you’re really going to come over?”

He fidgeted with his napkin and gave her a shy smile, “If your dad is really inviting me.”

They moved on to which dumb Christmas movie they could all watch as a group and the relative merits of various types of eggnog, which Ben claimed was ridiculous. All eggnog was equally awesome and should be consumed in buckets not cups.

None of them noticed Teddy return until he cleared his throat and telegraphed his toss of a foil wrapped packet at Petra. She caught it and raised an eyebrow at him.

Ben recognized the smell immediately. “No way! Five Guys! You shouldn’t reward her behavior with that, Ted. I was way meaner.”

“It’s their veggie sandwich. I only throw food my intended target will actually eat,” Ted explained with a wink.

“Ugh. Never mind. She’s definitely the one who sucks then.”

“You little shit!” Petra said, face breaking into a smile anyway as she unwrapped her favorite burger substitute in all of downtown. She loved a place that catered to carnivores but didn’t forget that people like her existed. “I actually felt bad and you were just doing a storm off as a bit! Unbelievable!”

Ben chuckled. “At least I know where the line is now. But if I manage to piss you off, I like a double with bacon.”

“I’ll file that away for future reference.” Teddy sat back down with a grin. “Anyhow … before I had my honesty questioned …” Petra stuck out her tongue at him before taking a gargantuan bite out of her sandwich. “I was about to say that I just want to find a way to my brother’s Christmas, no … that’s not what I mean. I guess I don’t want him to lose … I want him to hang on to that … what the word …” Teddy fished around in his mind for the right turn of phrase, but couldn’t seem to come up with it.

“His sense of childlike wonder?” Ben offered.

“Yeah, something like that.” Teddy nodded thoughtfully before he continued. “The Santa thing is going to come up … And my parents are going to handle it poorly.”

“Have you tried talking to them?”

“I did, Petra, but it went exactly like I thought it would. They got all, ‘He’ll have to hear it sometime, son’ and ‘He probably already knows from other kids’. It was so frus …” Teddy was interrupted by the chirruping of his phone as his friends shared incredulous looks that Ted’s parents could be so dismissive of him trying to protect his little brother.

“Hey, Mom,” Teddy said into his phone. “Okay … Yeah, no, it’s fine. I’m on my way.” He sighed. “Yes, really.” Teddy stood up, looking around the table at his friends’ expressions. “Half hour,” he said. “No, I need the half hour. I have to make a quick stop … Don’t worry about it, Mom, I’m already packed, and I took care of Kel’s toy bag stuff before the sitter got there. Yeah,” he finished and ended the call. “Sorry guys, I’ve been summoned. I won’t see you before break so, have a merry, okay?”

Mal frowned, “But there’s still two days of class.”

“I know, but I guess we’re leaving earlier than we had planned. Somebody’s surgery got canceled so my mom’s calendar opened up.”

“Sorry we didn’t help more, Ted,” Ben said as he stood up, offering Teddy a handshake and being wrapped in a quick hug instead. “Merry Christmas, man.”

“Merry Christmas. And you did help. You really did. Talking about it, joking around with you guys, it made it better. Thanks.”

Ben grinned, stepping out of the way so Mal and Petra could get their own round of Ted’s enthusiastic Christmas hugs. The kid was like hugging a bear. You could almost forget he was an even better wrestler than he was a runner until he did something like shake your hand or throw his arms around you.

“Glad we could help, although I’m not sure I understand how …” Ben trailed off.

“I think I have a really good idea,” Teddy smiled. “This is up to me, and I’m gonna keep Christmas for Kel if it kills me.”

“Let us know if we can do anything from here,” Mal offered, hugging him a second time.

“I will. I gotta get going; I wasn’t making it up when I said I have to make a stop.” Teddy turned to leave the shop, then called back over his shoulder from the door, “Hey, I’m back on the 27th, let’s get coffee.”

Read the rest in The Twelve Days of Fic-mas – Holiday Tales With a Twist Vol. I

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