Dear Diary

I’m participating in a writing challenge this month. The first prompt is, “Put your music player on shuffle. Write 250 words inspired by the first and last lines of the very next song that plays. (Bonus points if you share a link to the song)”.

Below is the result.

The song is Social Distorion, Angels Wings

~ J

check-class-desk-7103

From the journal of Ben Brody …

I never really stopped to give a damn what happened to me, beyond survival.

That’s a Hell of a way to live, right?

Even survival wasn’t always a priority. Some things cut so deep, you don’t care if you come out the other side, I guess. Then, even surviving just became about getting one over on the other guy, outlasting the bullshit, to prove I could.

I mean, I helped people along the way, sure. I’d like to pretend it was altruistic, too, but if I’m honest, it made some meaning out of my pain. And it passed the time. I get bored. You can get bored with suffering, too. Even agony becomes something you don’t feel after a while.

I’ve fought pretty hard to stay on this side of oblivion. I never knew why, never thought there was a much of a reason for the fight, other than its own sake. I think that’s how I knew I’d fallen in love with her. I suddenly knew what the point was, knew I’d stayed in the game for a reason.

Mal is a good reason for a lot of things.

There are days I still feel hopeless. Those days usually come after nights of dreaming what Hell’s got in store for me if they ever catch up to us. She never says much about it, but I know she knows about the dreams. She thinks there’s a way out, totally out.

And when she holds me, I have to believe it.

Read more about Ben’s journey in Always Darkest, Book I of The Arbitratus Trilogy

 

On the twelfth day of Fic-mas, shades of present, future, past, try without success to make an impression that will last …

Boiled in His Own Pudding

The persistent drizzle made the trip back across the lawn about as pleasant as their visit inside had been. Even the spectacular tree and light display that graced the grounds of the edifice could not make the view appear cheery to the three figures plodding toward the sidewalk.

They should have opened a portal closer. All any of them wanted was to get home.

“Can you believe this guy?”

“It’s not like it’s the first time we’ve had an unsuccessful visit to this place, Present,” the young boy with close-cropped hair, dressed like he was auditioning for Newsies, grumbled. “Remember Nixon?”

“Ah, he wasn’t all that bad,” came the muffled response from under a sodden black hood. “His prospects weren’t nearly as depressing.”

The affable, brightly dressed man who’d first spoken sighed in such a defeated way, it made his companions both look at him with concern. “He can’t even see the truth of this moment. How could he possibly learn from the past, or consider the consequences of days yet to come? We should have tried harder.”

“Ah, Present, don’t let it get you down! How are the rest of us supposed to keep the spirit if you get all depressed?” the boy asked with some urgency. “Yettocome, help me out here!”

The hooded figure spoke again, trying to brighten his perpetually dark voice a bit to cheer his companions. “You did a fine job. Both of you. And I gave it all I’ve got. Sometimes you just have to see a brick wall for what it is, and stop running your head into it. You know?”

Present glanced at his companions. They’d only made it a short way from the imposing structure, sloshing as they were over the muddy ground. “Maybe we should go back in there. Give it one more try. All together.”

“Full frontal assault?” the boy asked eagerly.

“Shock and awe?” the specter of hopeless futures suggested, and they could hear his grin.

“Yeah, yeah, let’s do it!” the spirit of the joy of Christmas, of living in the moment, said, managing some of his usual enthusiasm.

The three figures turned, and marched with determination back inside, their invisible presence sending a thrill through the minds of the Secret Service agents they passed along the way.

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

White house xmas

*****

On the tenth day of Fic-mas, someone tries to make a deal, and accidentally his intentions are revealed …

Let’s Make a Deal

The well-worn path through the thick forest was dappled with the fading light of the weakening late autumn sun. The sounds of birds chirruping and flitting from tree to tree filled the air. A bubbling brook burbled away quite loudly in the near distance.

Lucifer sighed. Why any self-respecting “god” would make a home of such a rustic, uncivilized place was beyond his ken. Someone might think the smell of pine needles and decaying leaves was sweet perfume, but it made him wrinkle his nose.

He supposed there might be some charm to those smells on their own, if not for the underlying stink of mold and various sorts of decomposition. As he strode down the path, so packed down that his boots sounded like they were walking on stone, he began to notice the distinct aroma of dirt in the air, and just the barest hint of smoke.

He must be close. Yes … He could just make out the sounds of a fight coming from over the next ridge. He was just cresting the hill when the unmistakable crash and grunt of someone or something being throw heavily to the ground reached his ears.

“Who’s next?” boomed a great deep voice. “Come along! You can’t all be tired yet!”

Mumbled protests and pained groans rumbled through a crowd like distant thunder as Lucifer entered the clearing. “I would offer my services, Majesty, if you so desire,” Lucifer called out, a playful note in his voice and a sparkle in his striking eyes.

The gargantuan creature, who appeared as though he were hewn from solid oak turned and sized up the volunteer. When he took in who it was, he sneered. “I’m in no mood for your games, Morning Star. Leave this place at once. We’ve been clear that you are not welcome here. You never have been. And now you reek of your exile. The stench of Sulphur has no place on the wind of the Great Wood.”

He punctuated his pronouncement by spitting at Lucifer’s feet.

“Come now, Majesty. Is that any way to treat an angel in your midst? Especially one who comes bearing gifts?”

“I want no part of your gifts, or of angering your Father by trafficking with you. Now, off with you! If I’ve worn out my followers, there is nothing further to do here. And it is nearly my time. I must be ready.”

Lucifer waved a dismissive hand. “Very well then. If you’re really not interested …” He paused, allowing everyone present to hear the offer, as yet unspoken, start to evaporate. “I suppose the Holly King will be the one to benefit.”

A derisive snort practically echoed around the clearing.

“Go on with you! But I expect you’ll get about as warm a reception from him.”

A soft subdued laughter rippled through the other beings still dusting themselves off and licking their wounds around them.

Lucifer nodded, as though considering the words. “Perhaps you are right … But then, who knows? He’s ambitious … And the chance to rule the full year may be to his liking.”

Lucifer turned to go.

“You play a dangerous game, Angel. But you have captured my attention.”

“What unfortunate timing for you. I’ve been insulted and disregarded.” Lucifer drew himself up to his full height and squared his shoulders with a haughty tilt of his chin. “Good day.”

He turned as if to leave, more to hide his smile than anything else, as the subservient trees moved to block his path. Schooling his features, he gave an exaggerated sigh and turned back to face the Oak King.

“Very well,” he said, an air of longsuffering settling over his manner. “If you insist.”

“I believe that I do,” the Oak King said with dark menace. “What is it you were so eager to propose that you would now offer my enemy?”

Lucifer held out open hands, as if to say the Oak King was his preference for the offer anyway. “I wish to offer you my assistance in your upcoming battle for supremacy in the wheel of the year.”

The Oak King harrumphed impressively. “I need no help from any angel, man, or god. This time I will be supreme.”

“Really?” Lucifer asked with heavy skepticism.

“Yes, really.” The Oak King’s strange eyes narrowed. “I am ready this year. My reign will be unbroken.”

“Come now, Majesty,” Lucifer cajoled. “You cannot really believe that. It is the same every year. Each Winter Solstice is the same tired story; the Holly King will beat you and send you off to tend your wounds … Which you will do, biding your time until the dawn of summer, when you will return the favor.”

“What are you saying?”

“I am saying, Majesty, that this has been the same since time began. This has been your lot … Ebb and flow, dark and light, Yule and Litha, splitting the year and the power. This year will be no different …”

“Unless?”

“Unless you have help. My help.”

The Oak King seemed to consider the angel for a moment. Then he gave a short nod. “What are your terms?”

Lucifer blinked. This was going better than he hoped.

“Simple quid pro quo.”

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

Oak and Holly Kings

*****

 

 

 

On the ninth day of Fic-mas, a festival in Rome, sees a soldier choosing field or home …

All Wounds

“Is the meat almost done?” the young man called into the kitchen, doing his best to remember that he was home and not in the field.

“I only have two hands, Cartaphilis,” came the flippant reply.

He choked back a sharp rebuke. You’re home. You’re home and it’s a holiday, he reminded himself. His mother had scolded him lightly just this morning when one of the servants used his given name this morning and he’d shouted.

“It’s Saturnalia, my love,” Aquilla had chided softly. “You know during the revels a servant may use your name, even talk back without fear of retribution. Besides, darling, these people raised you with us. They remember the little boy who grew up here, not this hard and handsome soldier you’ve become.”

He’d nodded grudgingly, and then accepted his father’s suggestion that in the festive spirit of the holiday, he should see to the servants, reacquaint himself with them, and give his mother a day of rest and wine while he led the brigade of servants to complete the feast. Spirit of the holiday. That stunk like the stables, as far as Cartiphilis was concerned. Exactly like horseshit. A great lot of it, too.

“Why so glum, son?” his father teased as he entered the room. “Did Ophelia cancel?”

He just frowned in response. “How does Mother do this every day? She makes it all look so easy, so effortless. I lead men into battle. Why is this so difficult?”

His father gave a rich laugh. “I’m sure building an encampment is much more difficult that putting together a little dinner party.”

“Not hardly,” he groused. “In the field, my word is law.” His shoulders squared unconsciously.

His father nearly smiled at that. His son had always been a rather bookish child, much more interested in study than anything else, and he’d often been chastised for slouching at the table, forgetting to eat, and reading some scroll or map until it was burned into his brain. Now, the studious slender boy had transformed into a solid, competent man of action. “As it is here in this house, my boy,” he said with humor. “The servants are doing your bidding in preparing the meal. I could smell it in the courtyard.”

“I would never tolerate the insolence, the familiar language, much less the laziness I’ve endured from the help in this house, both free and bound, this day, Father.”

His father chuckled. “The beauty of Saturnalia, son, apart from the obvious honor we pay our gods in hopes they will see to our empire’s continued increase in all things, is that it’s meant to remind us all, and especially the powerful to keep some humility, and to respect those who serve them.”

“I’m sorry, Father,” Cartaphilis said with a wry smirk. “I must have missed that with all the drunken debauchery going on.”

“Be sour if you must, now, but get it out of your system. Tonight, we celebrate! My son has come home. Alive!”

Cartaphilis accepted his father’s warm embrace. He smiled when he thought of his family’s faces when he’d come through the door, not too long ago. The Legion had not been his father’s first choice, or his last, for that matter.

His father wanted his only son to work for him, if not in the mercantile trade where most of their money came from, then on the estate. Make wine, boy, he’d said. You like wine, don’t you? Or perhaps grow crops. Maybe in due time, enter politics. And most certainly take the lovely Ophelia for a wife and have as many fat babies as you can afford servants to chase after them.

This night was, to Maximus, at least, a night to celebrate his wayward son’s return, his exit from service, and perhaps turn him toward worthier pursuits if he could. Cartaphilis sensed that’s what the evening’s meal would be about, directing him where the family decided he should go. And with an audience, no less. He wrestled with the choice before him; tell his father now or make his plans known tonight at dinner.

“Wait until you see Ophelia, my boy,” his father enthused, releasing him finally from the tight hug that had threatened to bruise them both.

“I can’t wait.” Cartaphilis managed a smile. He’d wait until tomorrow to bring it up. He didn’t want any clouds gathering over his reunion with Ophelia. Besides, he hadn’t yet committed. Perhaps when he saw her, he would really change his mind as his father hoped.

He cast a slightly desperate eye at the kitchen, thinking once again that battle plans were a nursery game compared to going anywhere near a kitchen. His father grinned. “Now, son, why don’t you go get ready for this evening? I’ll see to all this.” He tipped his chin at the kitchen and gave his son a wink.

Cartaphilis smiled warmly. “Thank you, Father.”

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

 

Roman tapestry

*****

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On the eighth day of Fic-mas, an angel makes his case, disappointment sets up an eternal chase …

ScalesThe Letter of the Law

Lucifer’s patience drained away more rapidly as the hour drew nearer. Everyone he had gathered together could sense his building tension, and the danger that came with it. When his fingers started to drum impatiently on the armrest of his throne, even those in his inner circle who usually kept close, edged casually away, hoping to put some distance between themselves and his inevitable wrath, without drawing the Archangel’s notice.

The rich sounds of the choir he had assembled to mimic his true home echoed throughout the gleaming hall. But underneath those soothing layers of sound, stood an unmistakable silence of some sort. Everyone could hear it, after a fashion, but not one would have dared draw attention to it.

Hell’s most powerful Fallen, dressed in their finest, milled about, growing more and more uncomfortable as their host’s mood darkened. But, like any self-respecting underbeings with some sense of self-preservation, they all plastered on the appropriate expressions, mimed the appropriate behavior, and did their best to show the public face their Master expected.

“Well, I do appreciate a good show as much as the next multi-dimensional being, Old Son.”

Lucifer jumped at the voice on his elbow, turning to face the guest of honor with a subdued fire already in his deep shining eyes.

“But if it’s meant to influence me, you must know by now that it’s a wasted effort.”

The fire became somewhat less subdued. “You’re late, Asher, and rude. Why not use the door like decent beings?” Lucifer asked with a feigned smile, wishing he’d left off assembling his coterie since he was now overly conscious of his audience and the almost bored expression on the Keeper’s face.

“Doors,” Asher scoffed. “I’ve little use for doors, and even less use for your judgement on whether or not a being is decent.” He paused and gave Lucifer a look that made the Arch shift slightly in his seat. “And while we’re on the subject of things I have no use for, we might come around to how I feel about being summoned.”

“Your presence is required …”

“Required?” his voice rose. “I am here as a courtesy. Do not forget that. You hold no dominion over me or my work, in this realm or any other.” Asher’s voice was commanding. And loud. Almost stern.

True silence rippled through the assembled Host. Even the choir wavered.

Lucifer stood. “Everyone out,” he ordered, his voice ringing with his authority in this place. Though his voice was level, pleasant even, white hot rage burned in his eyes. He was at his most dangerous when his superiority was challenged, and the Keeper was a being for whom it wasn’t even a question.

The Fallen knew which side their bread was buttered on. And they also knew the sort of expression that usually saw heads rolling. Literally. An almost panicked air settled over them as they practically fought for the exit. The doormen nearly closed the doors on the slowest in their own hurry to not be the mortal beings left in the room when Lucifer was done speaking with Asher.

Lucifer resumed his seat, taking a moment to arrange himself comfortably on his throne. With a measured breath and a supreme effort to smooth the anger from his features, he began, “Lord Asher, I do thank you for coming. I appreciate your willingness to hear my claim. As a courtesy.”

He paused, expecting some sort of response, but Asher just looked at him. Lucifer was put in the mind of the way an owl might look at an interesting bug it spies crawling up a tree trunk on Earth. He breathed deeply again and went on.

“I have a grievance, and ask for your judgement as the Keeper of the Scales and Arbiter of Treaties between the realms.”

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

*****

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

*****

On the sixth day of Fic-mas, we meet a man alone, traveling to fight the darkness far from home …

That the Lord May Love Thee

No one seemed particularly inclined to worry about the conditions out here. He hadn’t seen a single plow or salt truck on his long drive back. Maybe they were over budget, he thought. The snow had fallen all afternoon in that soft gently lulling way that could make you forget the hazards of commuting in an area prone to inclement weather. Until a dog ran out in front of you and you tapped your breaks anyway.

The fishtailing of the old sedan made the driver realize that he was, perhaps, still a little too focused on how he had spent his day rather than attending to the basic tasks of survival. Speaking of survival, he was really pretty hungry. And damned if he couldn’t use a drink.

Caleb eased into a semi-snow free space close to his motel room door. At least it looked like someone did snow removal for the fleabag he was staying in. So, he could probably get out in the morning.

He glanced at the interview notes on the passenger seat. Reviewing and writing up the report promised to take up most of his evening. His first solo mission had him excited enough that he didn’t even mind that it was Christmas Eve, or that what he was being asked to do was pretty low stakes. It was almost make-work in the grand scheme of the things the Order typically concerned themselves with, but it was his.

He knew that everyone assigned to the Direct Action Corps of the Templars started out like this. It was a proving ground, he supposed. But given the level of training Knights like him received, before they were even allowed to take the Holy Orders of the Warrior Priest, it was a relatively safe one. Investigate suspicious activity. Observe and report. It was, for all intents and purposes, a low-level demon stakeout.

Caleb, at twenty-two, was the youngest ever to take the Oath, and was known to be bright, inventive, and ambitious. He had a tendency to throw himself completely into the task at hand, frequently disregarding his own best interests. Father-Captain Michaels had gone out of his way to remind him that, in the heat of battle that was a good thing, but going about your day to day living, or even completing a less obviously dangerous assignment, it was a tendency he might want to work on curtailing a bit.

He was reminded of that light bit of lecturing as he set down his notes on the small cluttered desk in his room. His stomach grumbled obstinately, drawing attention to the fact that he’d been so passionately pursuing his mission, he hadn’t eaten since … lunch yesterday, was it? Damn.

Caleb reasoned that his formal reports could wait for a bit while he went and grabbed a bite. Loren Michaels, the de facto father figure to most of the young men and women in his unit, had been very clear. He had said in so many words, “Yes, I want you to accomplish your basic assignment, but I also want you to remember that disregarding your own safety can make a poor soldier of you. You have to be not just alive, but alert, and in good health, to keep up the work of the Order.”

Caleb organized his notes, then grabbed a shower. He felt like maybe he was done leaving the room for the night and just slipped into his bathrobe. He hunted around for the take-out menus he’d picked up over the course of the week, but found none. Housekeeping must have been a little too thorough. He supposed he’d have to go out. He changed back into his work clothes, since he hadn’t even emptied the pockets yet, and prepared to find some place that was open this evening.

Fishing his phone out of his pocket, he dialed, and tucked it between his ear and his shoulder, so he could speak while he locked up his room. Caleb was never late with his check-in.

As he headed back out into the increasingly bitter cold, he fished for his car keys. “Good evening,” he said with polite formality. “This is Caleb. Five-two-seven.”

“Five-two-seven, acknowledged. Hold please.”

Caleb fumbled around for the key to the sedan.

“Five-two-seven, this is Control. Status report.”

“Interviews completed at fifteen hundred hours. All the effected cattle had their left eyes, tongues, and hearts removed with surgical precision. The night following the organ harvest incident, the ranchers all reported strange lights, specifically like lighting in a clear sky.”

“Preliminary findings, Five-two-seven?”

“Preliminaries confirm demon activity. Probable summoning gate activation. Full report with recommendations will be submitted in the a.m. Oh-six-hundred at the latest.”

“Take your time, Five-two-seven,” Control’s Operator of the Watch said, her voice lightly amused. The young ones were always so gung-ho. “No one will be here to read mission reports tomorrow. It’s Christmas Day.”

“Oh, yes, I suppose it is,” he agreed distractedly, trying to remember what places he’d seen on his way back that might offer a meal this late on a holiday.

“However, I can tell you that based on your preliminary report, Control will record the confirmation and mobilize a ground team to sanitize the area.”

Not bad. Not bad at all, first time out. A mobilization based on his intel. That might grease the wheels for something more engaging in his near future. His broad grin was in his voice when he replied, “Very good, Control. Have a good night.”

“You, too, Five-two-seven. And Merry Christmas to you.”

“Merry Christmas.”

He slipped his phone back into his pocket with a satisfied nod to himself. With a ground team activated, his work here was done. He’d still file his report tomorrow and brief the team, but he could count on orders to move to another town coming down the pike in the next forty-eight hours. And, he was hopeful, it would be something more interesting.

“Shit,” Caleb grumbled as his cold hands let his keys drop into a pile of snow. For the first time since closing the door of his motel room, he really took in the state of the parking lot.

It was snowing again, and getting pretty serious about it. He’d been in his room less than an hour and better than an inch had already collected. It was the icy mealy sort of precipitation that made driving particularly treacherous.

He stooped and fished his keys out of the snow, grumbling to himself. His best friend in the Order, and bunkmate from their training days, was looking at a series of animal mutilations, too. In Hawaii.

Caleb sighed. Of course he’d scored the assignment in the northern sector of God’s Half-Acre. He detested the cold. But he supposed the point of early assignments being a bit of a slog was to help a Knight develop some grit.

As he stood, he nearly slipped and went over backwards in the icy parking lot. Well, that made the decision of where to go for dinner and easy one. The seedy looking bar across the street served food. It was bound to be mostly fried crap, but he could tell from the lights and sounds traveling across the deserted road that it was open for business.

As depressing as he expected spending Christmas Eve in a dive bar in the middle of nowhere to be, it felt like a better, smarter option than driving the twenty miles to the closest Denny’s, which was about the only other place his brain had been able to come up with as an option.

The appearance of the bar lent itself to one of those colorful honkytonk stomping ground-worthy names like The Bull Run (a place he’d actually been to in western Texas not two weeks before, and there’d been actual sawdust on the floor and a mechanical bull off to one side).

All that advertised any identity for this establishment was a flickering neon sign that said simply ‘Bar’ and cast a sickly red light over the snow. Under it, a pink sign rhythmically blinked ‘Eats’.

Caleb shrugged. “Simple. Tells the story,” he whispered to himself as he headed up the slippery walkway and pulled open the grimy door.

The place was surprisingly full, considering the weather and the lack of cars in the poorly maintained parking lot. No one paid him any mind as the door banged closed behind him. The only one who seemed to notice him at all was the no-necked chuck of muscle standing by the door.

Must be the bouncer, Caleb thought. The guy looked more than up to the task of tossing out a drunk, or, you know, fifty. Caleb looked back impassively as the guy eyed him up and down. After a few seconds, the big dude tipped his chin in the direction of the woman standing behind the bar.

He looked around for a moment. The other guests filled the noisy establishment in the booths that lined the walls or by monopolizing the two pool tables and several dart boards. The bartender smiled and motioned him over to the mostly empty highly polished counter. “Come on over, Slick. Take a load off.”

Caleb walked over to the bar, sliding onto one of its high stools and resting his heels on the crossbar near the floor. “Nice place,” he said pleasantly, giving the bartender a worldly smile that he would never admit to having practiced in front of the mirror. Sometimes his age made this job a little more challenging than it was for someone with a few years on him.

The woman behind the bar tilted her head and raised an eyebrow in speculation. “Evening, young fella. I’m Mandi.” He just nodded in response. “And as the proprietor of this establishment, I have to ask … Why you packing? You a cop?”

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

The Bar*****

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

*****

On the fourth day of Fic-mas, we look to the new year, and find something not quite new to fear …

Out With The Old

“Mikey, I said no more cookies,” Mary Davies called out to her son, who was in the kitchen, ostensibly to get the wine glasses for the table.

“Um … Sorry!” drifted back through the swinging door.

“Were those sleigh bells I heard in there,” her husband Clark asked with a smile, as her finished setting out the silverware.

His wife grinned. “I may have hot glued some to the inside of the cookie jar lid. You know, for enhanced security purposes.”

He chuckled. “That is positively diabolical and makes me glad that I’m on your side,” Clark said, leaning in for a kiss.

“Ew, get a room you guys,” Mikey groaned as he came back from his assigned task, bereft of cookies. He began setting the glasses around the table. “Also, very funny, Mom. Like haha. I didn’t know you worked for the cookie CIA or something.”

She smirked, her eyes glittering with mischievous good humor. “I’m more the private security type, but my methods are, nonetheless, highly effective.”

Mikey rolled his eyes, and leaned against the table, his last pointless task for the evening completed. “Why are we doing this whole thing?”

“It’s all you this round, babe,” Mary said as she headed into the kitchen. “Maybe he’ll get it if you explain it to him.”

She tossed a reproving look at her son and exchanged a sympathetic glance with her husband. The tween years had been rough, and now Mickey was going from an only child, an only child who would be thirteen come May 4th, to a big brother. As signs of the impending arrival of the youngest member of the Davies clan compounded, Mikey got exponentially surlier with his parents.

His father took a deep breath and tried again. “It’s Christmas Eve, son. And when I became a deacon of the church, well, I agreed to observe their traditions.”

Mickey tried unsuccessfully to conceal a roll of his eyes. His father went on smoothly, pretending he hadn’t noticed.

“One of those traditions is hosting an elder of the flock, who for whatever reason is alone this time of year. Mr. Morrow hasn’t been here for very long and has no one to share the holiday with … So, I offered for him to come here.”

This time Mikey rolled his eyes openly. “Lame.”

His father puffed a frustrated breath through his nose. “You know what, Michael? I’m done with your attitude. When our guest arrives, you will be polite, cordial, friendly, and not the sullen spoiled brat you keep showing your mother and I lately! Do I make myself clear?” he asked.

Michael thought one thing was very clear. He’d pushed a little too much today. Better to just suck it up, get this dinner over with, and head up to his room. He could turn the light off, pretend he was sleeping, and just go online. “Yes, sir,” he said, only sounding about half as sullen as he felt.

A chime sounded from the living room. “There’s the doorbell, now,” Clark said. “Why don’t you go let our guest in, Michael?”

He gave his son a hard look. His father was sticking to his full name, a good indication that he better play nice or the Wi-Fi password would get changed.

Mickey opened the door, and took an instinctive step toward the man on the welcome mat, almost reaching out a hand to steady the old fellow’s elbow, hardly recognizing him from church, where they’d met last week.

“Are you okay, Mr. Morrow?” Mikey asked, skipping over the normal ‘good evening’.

Before him stood, or more accurately stooped over a cane, what could best be described as a memory of a man. Wispy and frayed around the edges. A wheezy laugh escaped Mr. Morrow on a zephyr’s breath.

“That bad, huh, kid?” he asked with amusement.

With surprising agility and grace, the old man slipped around Michael and into the house.

“C … c …. Can I take your coat?” Mickey squeaked, caught entirely by surprise.

“Why, thank you, young man,” Mr. Morrow croaked.

If Mickey had thought the man appeared frail while wearing his coat, without it, their ancient dinner companion seemed like he might just blow away. He looked about as substantial as a paper snowflake.

A shiver rippled up and down Mickey’s back as Mr. Morrow’s eyes pierced him. Mikey thought a smirk might have passed over the old man’s face, but he was so wrinkled and dusty looking it was hard to tell. Mickey shivered again, this one shaking his whole body a little.

“Never seen a walking cadaver before, have you, boy. Hehehe,” he chuckled, then the strange hollow laugh turned into a body-wracking cough. His ribs were visible through his threadbare dress shirt. Mikey offered an arm to help steady his guest, feeling a strange mix of pity and revulsion when Mr. Morrow gratefully accepted.

“Mr. Morrow, are you alright?” Clark asked, coming into the foyer, having been alerted to the difficulty by the noise.

Wiping his mouth with a faded handkerchief, he showed his hosts a toothless grin. “Well, I thought I was, but I guess I’m in the minority. No matter. I’ve caught my breath now. I would like a seat though.”

“This way, sir,” Mikey said, leading his guest into the dining room and helping him into a chair as quickly as the old man’s labored movements would allow. Mikey had a strong, inexplicable urge to no longer be touching him.

“There’s a good lad,” Mr. Morrow said with genuine admiration, though for what, Mickey couldn’t know. The man patted his hand and made momentary eye contact, his expression grateful.

Mikey suppressed a shudder when those blue eyes met his brown ones. There was something off about the man’s gaze. His eyes just weren’t right. It was like they didn’t fit his face, like they didn’t get that they were old, or something.

Mary came into the room and offered, “Dinner isn’t quite ready, Mr. Morrow. If you’d like we could move into the other room to wait where the furniture is a little more comfortable.

He looked at her with something like understanding. “No, thank you kindly, all the same though. But you look like getting up and down from these low chairs is about as much fun for you as it is for me.”

He nodded at her very obvious baby bump. She smiled at his thoughtfulness. That had been almost exactly what she’d been thinking.

Mr. Morrow suggested, “Why don’t we stay right here? I’d prefer it, if it’s all the same to you. I like sitting around a nice table. It’s more personal, intimate. You can talk and really look people in the eye.”

When he said the words, he gave Michael another look and a nod. The boy tried not to fidget, but he felt himself squirm under Mr. Morrow’s scrutiny.

Mr. Morrow smiled his strange old wrinkly smile with nothing of it to sparkle but shiny pink gums and offered, “How about a story to pass the time? I know some good ones.”

“Sounds like fun,” Clark answered for the group.

The evening passed pleasantly. Mr. Morrow did know some truly wonderful stories. Mary was an excellent cook, and Clark a terrific baker, but dinner a dessert played a definite second fiddle to Mr. Morrow’s tales. Both the real historical accounts and what sounded like outrageous swashbuckling fiction enthralled the family.

It was like Mr. Morrow had been born with many lifetimes worth of firsthand knowledge, and that he was somehow passing it off into this room, into this gathering we nothing more than the gift of shared time and a few words.

Mr. Morrow was just concluding a harrowing tale of near death and shocking bravery from the French and Indian War, when he paused to look at the clock as it began to chime softly.

“Well, look at the time. Merry Christmas, one and all.”

Mikey let out a soft sigh of relief. That meant Mr. Morrow would be leaving soon, no doubt. And good stories or not, the guy just gave him the creeps something awful.

“Don’t look so disappointed, son,” he father said. “I’m sure we’ll do this again.”

Good old Clark, Mikey thought. Missing the general mood as usual.

“No,” the old man said, with an almost sad shake of his head, his silver hair looking too much like spider webs in the sun for Mikey’s liking. “Most likely not,” he continued. “I’ve much to do and prepare between now the new year.”

“Maybe after the holidays, then?” Clark asked. “I mean, really, Mr. Morrow, I truly enjoyed this evening.”

“As did I, Clark; as did I.”

The old man paused and looked around the table, eyes grazing Mikey again, asking him something, it seemed. The boy had an inexplicable urge to either be sick or to shout at his father to put the old man out on the mat, now. To not say what he was going to say next. But his silent scream didn’t stop his father’s words.

“Well, I invite you to join our family, any time.”

Mikey actual had to swallow to keep his dinner from coming right back up onto the table at the little flash in Mr. Morrow’s eyes just then. Then the old man spoke again, and the boy felt strangely faint.

“Thank you kindly, Clark. In that case … I do believe we’ll be seeing each other again. Very soon.”

“I … um … I’m not feeling very well,” Mikey blurted. “May I please be excused?”

He looked everywhere but at Mr. Morrow as his mother rose and came over to where he was sitting, laying her bare wrist against his forehead. “I don’t think you have a fever … But this is awfully late for you. Why don’t you go get some rest?”

“Thanks, Mom!” he practically yelled.

Then he said quick perfunctory good nights all around and disappeared upstairs, climbing into his bed and pulling the covers over his head, and dozing into strange dark dreams before the adults had even pushed away from the table.

After an after-dinner drink, in no particular hurry for the evening to be over, the Davies showed Mr. Morrow to the foyer.

“Thank you for coming,” Mary said as she opened the door while Clark helped the old man with his coat.

Mr. Morrow stopped at the door, turning to face Mary. “You, dear lady, are a wonderful host.” She was going to thank him for the kind remark, but he reached out and put his gnarled, blue-tinged hand against her swollen belly.

A cold chill raced through her body, that her sleeping son, who was now moaning softly with a terrible dream above their heads, would have recognized.

Mr. Morrow spoke softly, gazing into her face with an unwavering assurance. “A New Years’ baby, I should think. Much like our meeting …” He paused, and the Davies both thought he might have just lost the thread of his thought. But then he looked at them both very seriously. “Both a blessing, and a curse.” That hung in the air for a moment. “Good night.”

Mary and Clark both found themselves oddly unsettled. Mr. Morrow turned to them as he reached the end of the walk. “I’m sorry. I really am just so, so sorry.”

He walked off into the chilly dark, leaving them speechless.

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

Baby new year

*****

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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