Christmas Presence

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Authors’ Note: “It’s Christmas Eve Day. Both an eve and a day. It’s a Christmas miracle.” (Couldn’t help myself. It’s a thing I do every Christmas Eve. Pop culture references are my weakness.) Here we are at Day 12 of the Twelve Days of Fic-mas 2019. This is a pre-series story from The Arbitratus Universe. Wee baby Mal and her loving parents getting ready for Mal’s first Christmas. And an off camera sort of cameo from one of our favorite side characters. You can read Ari and Maggie’s origin story in Crimson Endings

Christmas Presence

“Ari! Can you get the door?” Maggie called. “My hands are covered in cookie dough!”

“I’m on it!” Ari hollered back, from his spot on the family room floor. 

Mal’s eyes followed his every move and she tried once again to push up to her knees from her spot on the blanket. At not quite five months, Ari didn’t think there was much danger in her figuring out how to crawl in the space of time it took him to get to the door and back. But since she was already sitting independently and seemed very determined to get mobile, he wasn’t taking any chances. 

He lifted her up and placed her in the nearby pack-n-play. She righted herself into a fairly confident sitting position against the nursing pillow they’d stashed in one corner earlier. She picked up one of the brightly colored teething rings recently added to her repertoire of playthings and started gumming it enthusiastically. 

“Be right back, Baby Girl.”

She gave him a huge, drooly baby smile in return, already confident he’d be there if she needed him. Other parents in their play group said their babies howled the second they were out of sight. Not Mal. She just seemed to trust life would be good. He hoped her infant optimism would survive teething.

Ari could see a delivery truck in their driveway. He checked the peephole. Standing on their steps was a man in the ubiquitous brown uniform, clipboard in one hand, and rather large package under the opposite arm.

“Hi there,” Ari greeted as he opened the door.

“Afternoon, sir. I have a package for you. Just need a signature.” 

The man seemed impatient, but Ari imagined he had a lot to do during the holiday season, and probably got very little in the way of gratitude for it. Ari took the clipboard and signed. “There you go.”

“Thank you, sir.” He handed Ari the box. “You have a Happy Holiday.” 

“You, too. Thank you!”

Ari closed the door. He hefted the package, heavy for its size. He looked it over carefully as he headed into the kitchen with it. No return address. Weird. 

“Who was it?” Maggie asked, not turning away from what she was doing. 

He put the package down on the kitchen table. “Delivery guy. Were you expecting something from your family?” 

“Not that I know of. But you know Daddy.” Maggie went to the sink to wash her hands. “He’s so excited to have a new grandbaby to spoil. I keep telling him if he keeps it up, we’re going to need a bigger house.”

Ari grinned. “And what’s he say to that?”

She shook her head, chuckling affectionately. “That there’s plenty of room at the main house now that Bethany has gone off to Loyola.”  

“That sounds like Paul alright,’ Ari laughed. He fished a utility knife out of their junk drawer. “Well, let’s see what we’ve got.”

Maggie joined him at the table and helped him move the packing materials out of the way.

Inside was a festively wrapped present, festooned with ribbons, a card tucked in on one side. Maggie frowned. “This can’t be from Dad. Everything he wraps looks like a kid did it.

Ari picked the card off the package. Scrawled across the envelope in a flowing, archaic hand was simply, “Merry Christmas.” 

Ari sat down. He didn’t know why a holiday card should give him such a sinking feeling in his stomach, but it did. Perhaps because the handwriting looked all too familiar. And with the familiarity came some unpleasant memories. He desperately hoped he was wrong.

“Are you going to open it?” Maggie sat down across from him, her brow furrowing. Clearly his emotions were apparent to her.

“Um…Yeah.” Ari slit the envelope and drew out a traditional Nativity printed card. He opened it and the writing inside matched the envelope. As his eyes scanned the text, his jaw tightened.

“What’s it say?”  

Ari cleared his throat and swallowed. 

Dear Sinclair Family,

Congratulations on the birth of little Lady Christ. I’m a little late with my felicitations. I’m sure you’ll forgive me. Or not. It really makes no never mind to me. 

Anyway, I hope this here Christmas present makes up for my oversight. Well, not really an oversight. I tried my best, of course, just the moment I heard. But, it’s almost like you folks don’t want to be found. 

Despite the challenges, I think I found the perfect gift. It was no easy task either, mind you. I mean, what does one get for the heir apparent of our good buddy Yeshua Ben Yosef? Yes, sir; it definitely was a challenge. Well, don’t want to keep you all from opening this up and sharing it with the little Miss. You all have yourselves a Merry Christmas and all that.

Warmest regards,

Cain

P.S. Tell Lady Christ Senior I love the new hair. It really works for her.

Ari set aside the letter. He was breathing too fast and his face felt hot. He took a deep breath and let it out slowly through pursed lips.

“I take it he’s not a friend of yours.” Maggie’s tone was the sort of worried saved for middle of the night fevers. 

“He’s no one’s friend.” Ari eyed the package warily, looking like he was expecting it to start ticking.

Maggie picked up the card. “Funny name, Cain. That’s an unusual Bible name to go for.” 

“No, Maggie, it’s not like a name from the Bible. This is like actual Cain from the Bible.” 

Her eyes widened and her mouth dropped open in a perfect surprised ‘O’. “Wait. Cain is a real person?” 

Ari nodded slowly. “He is.” Mal started to fuss softly in the other room. It sounded like maybe she’d tipped over and was frustrated with her efforts to right herself. “And he has no love or even respect for anyone from the Line. Probably especially you and Mal.”

Mal fussed again, louder. That meant she was sleepy. Ari rose and started down the hall to the family room to pick her up. He suddenly wanted to hold her anyway. Maggie followed, still holding the card and glancing at it with something like horror peppered with disbelief.

“Do the Knights know about him?” she asked, now genuinely distressed.

Ari scooped Mal up out of her playpen and her tears stopped instantly. He held her protectively to his chest. 

“They do. The Church actually shelters him now from what I understand.” He sighed. “Afraid he’ll cause trouble if he’s unsupervised, I expect. Although seems to me like they need to keep a better eye on him.”

“I guess maybe they should!” Mal whimpered at her mother’s anxious tone. “Here give her to me. She’s ready for a nap.” Maggie stretched out her hands to take their daughter. “Who’s Mama’s hungry girl?” 

Ari retrieved the nursing pillow from the playpen and helped the pair settle in the rocking chair by the Christmas tree. “All set? Want some tea?” Ari asked, hoping to ease some of Maggie’s anxiety by doing something comforting from their usual routine.

She shook her head, chewing her lip. “Ari, how did he find us?”

He sighed. “Who knows? But it’s not good. I’m going to go call the Templars.” 

“Do you think we’ll need to move?” Maggie’s worried look deepened. 

“I don’t know. Let’s see what the Knights think. You know they’d love to move us anyway.”

“I know, that’s why I hate involving them. But I guess we have to.” Mal was starting to doze already, but wasn’t quite out enough to move. Ari offered a reassuring smile, and started back toward the kitchen to make the necessary phone calls. Maggie stopped him. “Should we open the box?” 

“Knowing Cain? Almost definitely not.” 

“Okay. Let me know what they say.”

“I will.” 

Ari went to the kitchen, finally allowing some of the anger and fear he’d been trying to keep a lid on show on his face now that it wouldn’t worry Maggie more or upset Mal.

He started to pick up the phone, but set it back down almost immediately.

He picked up the box instead and walked it out to the container at the curb, dumping it in, and shuddering a little at the noise it made when it hit the bottom of the barrel. 

By the time he got back inside, the cool air had helped settle his mind, and he dialed the number to make arrangements to keep his family safe.

His anger and frustration grew as he listened to the ringing. He knew she wouldn’t remember it, but Ari hated that simple family associations might ruin his little girl’s first Christmas. 

Things went from bad to worse once the call was picked up. 

“We’re aware of the delivery, Mr. Sinclair. A security team has already been dispatched to your location to evaluate the situation.”

“Thanks.”

He hung up, dreading relaying the conversation to Maggie. 

“Merry Christmas, Cain,” he growled as he headed back down the hall, trying to regain his composure. 

*****

It’s a Celebration!

“It was strange being surrounded by the glory of Heaven, knowing you had nothing, but trying to hang onto it anyway.” ~ From Always Darkest

Feathers

It’s a special day for Demons Run Lit.

Always Darkest is having a birthday!

You can visit our social media to enter to win a signed copy, here:

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If you want to celebrate with us here, we thought an excerpt from the sequel would be a fun way to do that.

From Before the Dawn (Coming Soon) …

Teddy made his shuffling slippered way down the hall, rubbing his eyes. It wasn’t so much sleep stickiness now; they were beginning to burn. Awful smells started to overpower his mom’s good cooking. One smelled mechanical like when Mal’s catalytic converter went on the fritz a while ago, one smelled kind of like the stink of the grill on the patio the morning after a cookout, and the other was a sickly metallic smell that made Teddy feel as though he’d eaten ten pennies.

He was stopped cold by the tableau he witnessed as he entered the dining room, and fell to his knees retching and weeping, remembering all at once that this couldn’t be real, remembering what had happened, and realizing that it didn’t matter if it wasn’t real, he was really here.

Spread out over the dining room table was his father’s dismembered and smoking corpse. It was arranged carefully on various platters, as though this was some kind of nightmare holiday. In serving bowls tucked neatly in between the plates were dishes with big spoons and ladles containing what could only be blood, brains, and ugh, Teddy didn’t even know, but probably other inside parts. Teddy saw that Kelly’s highchair was empty but there was a split down the middle of its back and a long, curved blade rested in the wood of it, blood pooled in the seat, turning black and sticky as he looked on.

In front of the empty chair was a large platter covered with a silver dome, a gleaming carving knife resting on its edge. Teddy prayed under his breath that no one would open it. Then he thought about what would be there if they did and he immediately threw up all over his mom’s favorite cream-colored carpet. This was all terrible enough, he didn’t want any of that all over him. He struggled to his feet, using the door frame for leverage to compensate for his shaking legs and he leaned against it heavily, pretty sure he was going to pass out any second.

He glanced to the side and out on the terrace, the smoking wreckage of the waterfront as its backdrop, Teddy saw his friends, dangling by their ankles from the balcony of the apartment above like some sort of perverse wind chime. It looked like they were dead, but in the silence of the dining room he could hear whimpering and weeping. One of the voices he could hear was distinctly Mal’s. His knees nearly buckled again.

As he started sliding back down the door frame into the stinking mess he’d made, he saw an even greater horror at the head of the table. His legs froze, and he straightened almost against his will. At the head of the table sat the monster from Petra’s, the monster from his dreams.

The Handsome Man, for that was how Teddy thought of him in the long hours he spent thinking of him every day, was sitting in Teddy’s father’s chair comfortably, his beautiful monstrous face split into a wicked grin, a newspaper he was clearly not reading held up in front of him as a prop for the scene he had created.

Behind the Handsome Man stood Teddy’s mom, his no-nonsense heart surgeon mom, dressed like someone out of a 1950’s TV show and looking down at The Handsome Man with blank affection while calmly rubbing his shoulders. Teddy tried not to let it happen, but he bent over at the waist, throwing up again, more violently this time. His stomach muscles were starting to feel a little sprung already. Maybe they’d just let him stand here and throw up until he was so dehydrated that he’d die. That sounded pretty good.

The Handsome Man folded the paper and put it down on the table next to Teddy’s father’s head and looked at him reproachfully. “Come now, Theodore, is that anyway to greet your new daddy?” …

National Novel Writing Month

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I’m not normally one for pressure or deadlines on creativity, but this year I’m embracing NaNoWriMo, not as a means to write one fifty thousand word novel, but as a motivation to finish Book II, Before the Dawn, our sequel to Always Darkest. We have roughly that many words to go based on our best estimates. I’ve been a bit stalled due to an injury that makes sitting at the computer a bit of a challenge, but hurt or not, Ben and Mal won’t wait forever.

I just needed the right encouragement to get back at the keyboard, saddled up, ready to ride the wild software. So, if you’re thinking of writing, whether it’s for this November challenge or not, I want to offer you some encouragement as well.

Just write. If it’s crap, delete it afterward. Nobody is watching. Write smutty fan fic, write a poem or a pithy little haiku, write about your day and the guy who pissed you off by walking like a drunk turtle in front of you at the market.

It doesn’t matter.

Just do it. Do it until it’s an addiction. Do it until you can’t live without it.

Write until you can’t stop.

Then get up tomorrow, and do it again.

~ J

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

*****

Coming soon to bookstores near you…

Amazing news, everyone!

Jess and Keith Flaherty are pleased (ecstatic, over-the-moon, thrilled) to announce that we have just signed with Crimson Cloak Publishing for our debut novel Always Darkest.

More news (and maybe a little taste of our book) coming soon.

Thank you again to all of you who have been so supportive as we’ve worked to get this off the ground. And thank you to our publisher Carly McCracken for bringing us into the fold.

This is the next step in an exciting journey, and we are delighted that you are all coming with us.