Tales of Christmas Past–Penny’s Snowglobe

Unless I’ve missed one, this is the last of the old Christmas stories.  If you’ve read, I hope you have enjoyed.

PENNY’S SNOWGLOBE

Penny Wilkes sat on her couch, waiting. She had taken the initiative to put on her pajamas, mostly out of routine, and she stared at Tinkerbell and her fairy friends until she thought they were dancing across the flannel. Despite her dress, Penny was not ready for bed, was not even sleepy. She had waited for this night and had planned accordingly—sleeping through the day, taking naps when she could force her eyes to close, even making and gulping down some of the instant coffee her mother kept in the freezer for guests, as she didn’t drink it herself.

Penny had to be awake when he came. She knew the rules, knew that Santa only came to the children on his “nice” list when they were asleep, but she didn’t know of any other children who had so urgent a need to speak to Santa as she did.

She got up off the couch, looking up at the clock as she did. It was just past two in the morning—her mother had taught her how to read a clock not even six months before—and she wondered how much longer it would be. She paced the floor, a habit she had also learned from her mother, who would follow the same track from wall to wall in the small living room, circling the couch like a racecar on a test drive while she chewed on her fingers and mumbled to herself. She thought that Penny could not hear her talk about the medical bills, about Penny’s father walking out on them, about her worries for Christmas, but Penny heard it all.

Now, with her own worries, Penny mimicked her mother’s actions precisely, if unconsciously, her tiny feet in their flannel footies scuffling across the floor with barely a sound as she chewed her own tiny fingers. The only thing she did not copy was the mumbling. Penny was a very deliberate girl and had thought of nothing in advance to mumble, so her lips remained closed in a tight line.

The house in Queens where Penny lived with her mother was small and, without a fireplace or chimney, she wasn’t quite sure how Santa would get in. Every trip around the couch she would look at the front door, at the curtained windows, at the stairs that led up to her mother’s room, at the back door past the kitchen, and then back to the front door, checking with each like a night watchman making rounds. On every fifth circuit, she rearranged the cookies she had placed on the coffee table and checked the temperature of the milk, sticking her finger in to see if it was still cold enough. She listened hard for any sign of his approach—sleigh bells, the click-clack of reindeer hooves on the roof, even a distant “Ho, ho, ho”, but she heard nothing other than the whisper of her feet on the carpet and the ticking of the wall clock.

When the fireplace appeared against one wall where none had been before, she almost walked by it without realizing what it was. She jumped, her feet catching on a half-second later than the rest of her, and she nearly stumbled to the floor. Strong hands wearing black leather gloves trimmed in gray fur reached out and caught her, helping her back to her feet.

Penny righted herself and looked up at the one who had helped her. Just as she had hoped, he was there, his suit dotted here and there with ash as though someone had sprinkled pepper on him. He looked down at her with a kind, but confused, expression on his bearded face.

“Penny,” Santa said, “you’re up awfully late.”

“I had to wait for you, Santa.” She said. The only reason she could get the words out over her nervousness, was that she had been practicing them every waking moment for three days. She knew, when the moment came, she would have to plead her case without error, without stumbling over the words.

Only now did she notice the velvet bag slung over his shoulder. Santa lowered it the floor with an audible sigh. “Funny thing about this bag,” he said, smiling. “No matter how much I take out of it, it never feels any lighter.” He stepped over to the couch, sat down, and browsed the cookies a moment before selecting an oatmeal raisin. He took a small bite and chewed slowly, closing his eyes to savor the morsel, then washed it down with a swallow of milk. When he was done, he looked at Penny and smiled.

“Excellent cookie,” he said. “Now, Penny, you know I’m not supposed to stop until you’re asleep, right?”

“Yes, Santa.”

“So,” Santa asked, taking another bite of the cookie. “What’s a nice girl like you doing up at an hour like this?”

“It’s my momma,” Penny said. “Come upstairs and I’ll show you.”

Penny led Santa up the dark, narrow flight of stairs and along a short hallway to a closed door. She opened the door without knocking and led Santa into the room as she flipped on the light.

“There she is,” Penny said, pointing at the bed. “I need you to help her. She won’t wake up.”

Santa moved to the side of the bed and looked down at the figure before him. To a young girl like Penny, he supposed, she might look like she was sleeping, covered up in bed with her eyes closed. But Santa saw the pallor of her skin and the way the covers above her chest never moved. He took off one of his black gloves and felt the woman’s neck, finding no pulse beneath skin as cold as his backyard. Leaned over the bed, he saw the empty pill bottle still clutched in her hand.

“Make her wake up, Santa,” Penny said. “That’s all I want for Christmas. For my momma to wake up.”

Santa stood motionless for some time, tears sliding down over his red cheeks into his beard. He looked at Penny and saw the same tears running down her cheeks. Santa knew that, despite her age, she understood that her mother was gone, that he was her only hope of getting her back.

Yet, despite all the powers he possessed as Santa Claus, this was one gift he could not give.

He put his hand on Penny’s shoulder and led her out of the room as the girl burst into loud sobs. To Santa, it seemed like a dam bursting, all the fear and pain she had hidden behind her hope in him gushing out of her in a great flood of misery.

“No, Santa!” she wailed. “You have to help her! You have to make her wake up!”

Santa picked her up and carried her back down the stairs to the couch. There, he sat with her in his arms, rocking back and forth until her sobs, little by little, tapered off into quiet snuffling. In some part of his mind, he knew he was falling behind schedule, but nothing in the world—not the cookies or the reindeer or the gifts–mattered more to him in that moment than little Penny Wilkes.

Then, just when he thought he could do nothing for her, Santa had an idea.

“Penny,” he said, his voice gentle and low. “Penny, are you listening to me?”

She gave a loud snuffle and wiped her dripping nose with the sleeve of her pajamas. “Yes, Santa.”

He propped her up on his knee so he could look at her. “Penny, I’m afraid that not even I can wake up your mother. I’m very sorry.”

Penny looked as though she was about to break down again, but she took a deep, shuddering breath, closed her red-rimmed eyes, and nodded.

“But,” he said. “I do have another present for you. It won’t bring your mommy back, but you might like it. Do you want to see it?”

“I can open it now?” she asked.

“I insist,” Santa said. He moved her onto the couch and reached for his bag. Reaching inside, he rummaged around for some time before he found what he was looking for and, when he removed his hand, he held a wrapped present. He held it out to Penny and she took it, removing the bow and paper with care. When she opened the box, she saw a small, glittering snowglobe.

“It’s pretty,” Penny said.

“It’s more than pretty,” Santa said. “It’s magical.”

“What’s it do?”

Santa took the snowglobe from the box and stood it up on the coffee table. The snow inside shifted and swirled as though a blizzard raged within the glass sphere, revealing nothing of the scene within.

“I can’t tell you that,” Santa said. “Right now, you go to sleep and when you wake up in the morning, you’ll figure it out.”

“But I’m not sleepy,” Penny said, her wide eyes fixed on the snowglobe.

Santa reached into a pocket of his coat and pulled out a pinch of silver powder. He reached out and sprinkled it over Penny’s head. At once, her eyes grew heavy and closed. She leaned back against the couch and, a moment later, was softly snoring.

“Sleep now, Penny Wilkes,” Santa said as he moved to the fireplace. “And Merry Christmas.”

In a flash of light, both Santa and the fireplace were gone.

Penny woke on Christmas morning and saw from the light squeezing through the ice-crusted windows that the sun was up. She sat up on the couch, wiped her eyes, and looked around as she tried to remember what had happened. Only when she saw the snowglobe where Santa had left it on the coffee table did the pieces come together.

She picked up the snowglobe, surprised at how light it was in her tiny hands. The snow, still swirling inside, changed at her touch, the white flakes inside slowing until she could see an image begin to take shape within the glass sphere. As she watched, she saw a tiny figure that looked very much like her, dressed in her coat and boots, hat and gloves, opening a front door that looked very much like the one that stood only a few feet away from her.

Penny set the snowglobe back on the table and stared at it in wonder. No longer touching it, the snow swirled inside again, a miniature blizzard just inside the glass. With one tentative finger, she touched it again and gasped as the snow halted to reveal the same scene as before, the tiny version of her going out the door of the house.

She knew what she had to do now. She just didn’t know if she could.

With slow steps, Penny climbed the stairs, going first to her room. She dressed, putting on the dress her mother had gotten her for Christmas only a few weeks before. Then, she brushed her hair and teeth in the bathroom before going to the door to her mother’s room. She stopped there, afraid that if she went in, saw her mother still lying in the bed, that she would not be able to leave her behind, no matter what her magical snowglobe wanted her to do.

She opened the door and went inside.

The room was different than it had been the previous night. Instead of the piles of laundry that lay scattered like islands upon the floor, the room was clean. Light streamed in through the open curtains that had been shut the night before. Still, Penny saw none of this. Her eyes rested only on the empty, made bed before her. A piece of folded paper rested on the pillow where her mother’s cold head should have been and Penny picked it up, opened it, and read the two sentences written in a neat hand:

She will be taken care of.

Be brave, Penny.

At that moment, Penny did not want to be brave. She fell to her knees at the side of the bed and cried for her mother, now truly lost to her. She wailed, burying her face into the bed linens that still smelled of her mother’s perfume, and cried until she could summon no more tears. When she was done, she pulled herself to her feet and, without looking back, left the room, shutting the door behind her. The click of the door was drowned out by what sounded like a string, pulled taut like a piano wire, breaking in her heart.

Penny walked back downstairs and put on her coat, her boots, her hat and her gloves. Then, she picked up the snowglobe and, just like the tiny girl inside, opened the front door and stepped out into the snowy morning.

The sunlight reflecting off the snow was blinding, and as her eyes adjusted, she looked around for some sign of what she was supposed to do next. The street looked just as it always did, save for the new coat of snow upon the ground. A few people milled about outside the tightly packed buildings, some shoveling the snow, others playing in it. A few children near the corner gave Penny a quizzical look, wondering if she was coming out to play with them after being shut up inside for so long. A taxi cab passed by, leaving a slushy trail in the street.

Penny looked again at the snowglobe, pulling it so close that her nose touched the glass. When it did, the snow cleared again and showed the tiny girl inside entering the subway tunnel two blocks away, the one near the pizzeria her mother always took her to on her birthday.

Adjusting her scarf to keep out the cold, Penny walked down the steps to the sidewalk, the snowglobe cradled against her chest. The snow was past her ankles, but dry, the kind she would normally kick into the air as she walked just so she could see the sunlight reflecting off the tiny flakes. Now, though, setting off alone in the world with nothing but a snowglobe for company, she dragged her feet, turning back every few steps as her view of the house grew more narrow. Finally, at the corner, she could no longer see the house, just the outline of the front steps, and it felt as though another string broke in her heart.

She crossed through the slick intersection without another look back, checking for traffic and waiting for the signal as her mother had taught her. Traffic in either direction was light in this part of the city and especially so on Christmas morning. On the next block, she found it the same as her own—a few people working or playing, a passing car—and soon came to the subway entrance. The pizzeria was closed for the holiday, but the sight of it, the memories that flooded her mind as she gazed inside the darkened windows, nearly made her turn back and return to the house.

But her mother was not there, so Penny walked down the steps to the subway station. When she reached the bottom, she consulted the snowglobe again, removing one glove with her teeth to touch it with her bare fingers. Again, the snow parted and showed the girl swiping a card through an electronic reader at the gate, then walking through and getting on a train just as it arrived in the station.

Penny felt a moment of panic. Her mother had never given her a subway pass, preferring to take taxis whenever she had to travel any distance. Just as she was about to head back up the steps, she reached into her pocket and found a hard piece of plastic tucked inside. She pulled it out and, just like the girl in the snowglobe, swiped it through the reader. The gate opened for her just as she heard the approaching train rumble into the station, its brakes hissing like her mother’s tea kettle.

She moved across the platform and, when the doors to one of the cars opened, she stepped inside and found it empty except for a large black man, huddled in a heavy coat on the opposite end of the car. He wore dark sunglasses that reminded Penny of a movie she had watched with her mother about a guy who played piano, even though he was blind. Ray something, she thought.

The door of the car slid shut behind her and, with a jolt that nearly sent Penny tumbling onto the floor, the train started forward.

“Merry Christmas,” the black man said from the front of the car. He never looked at her, his face tilted toward the ceiling as though he was staring at the sun.

Penny said nothing; her mother had told her not to talk to strangers. Instead, she sat down on the seat furthest from the man and clutched the snowglobe to her chest.

“Not in the holiday spirit, eh?” the man said. “Can’t say I blame you. World’s a hard place.”

Penny did not look up at him, afraid that, even blind, he would continue to talk to her. To her relief, he said nothing more, only sat back staring at the same spot on the ceiling, rocking with the motion of the train as it sped beneath the New York streets.

The train passed by several stations, but did not stop. Penny saw them out the window, flashes of light and blurred faces breaking the monotony of the dark tunnels. In every station they passed, she looked for the blurred face of her mother, knowing she wouldn’t be there but hoping she would. She imagined herself stepping off the train into her mother’s arms, her mother healthy and happy, ready for them to be a family again.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, hoping the image in her head would appear within its snowy recesses, but instead she saw only herself exiting the train at the other end, near the blind man, and entering another station, a large sign reading Fifth Avenue on one wall.

She felt the train start to slow and stood up. She was wary of the large man, even blind, and she walked as quietly as she could the length of the car in the hopes that he would not hear her. If he did, he showed no sign of it and continued to look up at the ceiling, almost as though he was expecting something to happen there. Penny stayed on the side opposite from him, as close to the seats as possible, and moved into position to exit the car as soon as the doors opened.

The doors slid apart and, at the same time, the train came to a full stop, jolting Penny again. This time, the snowglobe slipped from her grasp. She gasped and reached for it, knowing in that moment she would never be able to catch it. Her eyes closed as she listened for the noise of shattered glass and broken dreams.

There was no smash of the snowglobe hitting the floor of the train. Even when Penny was sure it should have hit the ground, there was no sound of impact.

Penny opened her eyes and saw the snowglobe was whole and unbroken. A large hand, gloved fingers spread around the glass sphere, held the object a few inches above the ground. The blind man, kneeling in the floor beside her, his arm outstretched to its fullest length to catch the snowglobe, smiled and held it out to her.

Penny stood there for several seconds before she realized she wasn’t breathing. When at last she took a breath, a gasped “Thank You” came out, barely audible.

“You’re welcome,” he said. “Can’t be too careful. Now, you go on before the door closes.”

Penny stepped out of the car and looked back at the blind man.

“You have a Merry Christmas, Penny,” he said to her just as the doors slid shut again. With another lurch, the train moved on to its next stop.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and saw herself walked up the steps to the outside. It wasn’t until the fourth step that she wondered how the blind man had known her name.

She found herself in a part of the city she didn’t recognize. Tall buildings stood on one side of her and a snow-covered park stood on the opposite side of the busy street. Kids played in the park, throwing snowballs and building snowmen and making snow angels. On her side, a steady stream of people walked in both directions, passing her as though she was an island in the center of a great river.

Penny touched the snowglobe again and this time it showed her entering a building with a green canopy stretching out over the sidewalk. Looking up, she could see the canopy half a block away and she started walking toward it, falling in line with the flow of people moving in that direction. The adults jostled her as their long strides carried them past her and the children, some tagging along at the heels of the adults, gave Penny interested looks as they struggled to keep up. Penny ignored them all, intent only on keeping hold of the snowglobe and reaching the building with the green canopy.

When she reached the correct building, she saw a doorman standing in the snow just outside the door. His face was lean and red from the cold, but when he saw Penny it broke into a warm smile.

“You must be Penny,” he said, bending down to address her at eye level. “We’ve been expecting you.”

“Expecting me?” Penny asked, her voice barely a whisper.

“Absolutely,” the doorman replied. “Please go on in.” He opened the glass door for her and half-pushed her through into a spacious lobby dominated by the biggest Christmas tree Penny had ever seen. It soared upward like the building itself, almost too tall to be believed, and was covered top to bottom with silvery lights that twinkled like stars.

Penny stared at the tree for sometime before realizing that she had no idea what to do next. She consulted the snowglobe, which showed her entering the elevator near where she was standing and pressing the topmost button on the panel inside. Penny did as the image showed, the doors of the elevator sliding open at her approach and closing as she pushed the appropriate button.

The elevator traveled for what seemed like, to Penny, days. When it finally stopped and the doors opened, she found herself facing a short hallway, at the end of which stood a single door on which hung a large wreath.

Penny touched the snowglobe again, but this time the blizzard inside did not clear to reveal the next step of her journey. She set it down in the elevator, stepped out, and watched the doors close before she heard the car descend. This, Penny realized, she would have to do alone.

Taking a deep breath, Penny padded down the hall and knocked on the door. She could smell the deep pine scent from the wreath. The smell reminded her of the cleaner her mother had used on their tile floors and it calmed her even as it reminded her of her loss. Still, wherever she was and whatever she was supposed to do there, the smell of the pine wreath made her sure that her mother approved.

The door opened and Penny saw two people inside, a man and a woman. They were both still wearing their pajamas, matching red flannel, and both looked as though they had been crying right before she had knocked on the door. They both stared at her, red-eyed and weary, as if they could not believe what was standing on their doorstep. Then, they stepped aside, an unspoken invitation.

Penny walked into a large, open apartment. The rooms she could see were decorated with the type of furniture—dark woods and soft fabrics—her mother always talked about wanting to have. A television, bigger than her old bed, dominated one wall in the living room above a lit fireplace. A massive kitchen stood off to one side, spotless and filled with stainless steel. On the far side of the apartment, large windows offered a spectacular view of Central Park and the city beyond. In one corner, a Christmas tree stood in the middle of a mountain of presents, more than she had ever seen in one place.

Then, Penny noticed the pictures. On the walls, on the tables, even on the mantle beneath the billboard-sized television, the young face of a girl, no older than herself, stared out at her. In some of them, she was alone, but in others, she was with the two people-obviously her parents—who still stood by the open front door staring at Penny. There she was with them at the Grand Canyon. There she was again with the Sydney Opera House in the background. There she was again, standing with her parents, the Eiffel Tower rising up behind them.

Penny picked up one of the pictures from a nearby end table. The girl wore a school uniform with a backpack slung over her shoulder. She smiled into the camera with two missing front teeth.

The man and woman shut the door, but continued to stare at Penny.

“Where is she?” Penny asked, holding out the photograph of the girl.

Instead of answering, the couple exchanged glances. The woman buried her face in her hands and began to sob quietly. The man led his wife to the couch and sat her down.

“That’s our daughter,” the man explained. “Jillian. She . . . she died last week.”

When he spoke, the woman cried harder and he put his arm around her.

Penny put the picture down, ashamed she had asked. She turned away from the crying lady and looked at the Christmas tree. Now that she was closer, she saw the tags on the packages, the name “Jillian” on nearly every one. Presents for a girl who would never open them. Penny knelt before the tree and, feeling the sting of her own loss mirrored in the woman behind her, began to cry herself.

Two pairs of strong arms lifted her from the floor.

“It’s okay, sweetie,” the man said. “She had been sick a long time.”

Penny shook her head. “No,” she said through her tears, “My mother . . . .”

They all cried for some time, each suffering from his or her own loss, each feeling the others’ pain. Finally, when they could cry no more, they sat before the Christmas tree and looked at each other.

“What’s your name?” the man asked.

“Penny.” She thought of giving her last name, but, with her mother gone, her family name didn’t seem to matter.

“I’m Max,” the man said.

“And I’m Susan,” the woman said, still wiping her eyes.

Penny, remembering her manners, shook their hands. Then she stood up and went back to the window. She looked out over snow-covered park and at the tiny people and cars milling about.

“Penny,” Max said. “Would you like to stay with us tonight? We . . . we would love to have you.”

Penny looked out over the city. She thought about Santa and her mother and these new people in her life and how she came to be with them. She thought about the snowglobe.

“Yes,” she said. “I think I would like that.”

Posted in Uncategorized | 12 Comments

Tales of Christmas Past–Death of a Mall Santa

This one also requires a warning for language, content, and other inappropriateness.  Read at your own peril.

DEATH OF A MALL SANTA

“Santa?”

Frank heard the name. Somewhere in his bourbon-soaked brain, he checked and found the name wasn’t his. He ignored the question.

“Santa?” the voice asked again, small and curious. “Santa, are you awake?”

He sent the small part of his brain that was still functioning to double-check the name, comparing it against his own. No, he finally decided, he was not Santa. He was Frank. Fifty-two. Two-seventy. Involuntarily retired.

And completely drunk.

He was not Santa. That was a ridiculous notion. Just because he had put on a few pounds over the years and had let his beard grow out to a scraggly white mess and had taken a part-time job as a —

“Shit!” Frank said as the pieces slammed together like a car crash. He sat up, nearly dumping the shocked, white-faced child from his lap. The girl’s mother rushed in, her face alight with anger, and scooped up the child as she started crying.

“You are a disgrace,” the well-dressed woman said through gritted teeth. She pushed her sobbing child behind her as though Frank might leap up from his grand chair and bite the kid. “I’m going to see that you get fired for this, you . . . you . . . animal.”

The woman stormed off in the direction of the mall office, all but dragging her child behind her.

“Have a Merry Christmas,” Frank called. When he was sure she was out of earshot, he muttered “bitch” in what he thought was a quiet voice, but several more parents, standing open-mouthed in line, gasped when he said it and left the queue, following the first woman toward the office.

A girl in an elf costume, young enough to do such work without feeling ashamed, but old enough for Frank to imagine her naked, leaned forward until her nose was nearly touching his. The look of rage on her face cracked a moment when he exhaled, blowing Jim Beam breath at her, but returned after she retreated several inches.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” Her name, Frank remembered, was Holly. Very appropriate for someone wearing an elf costume. Or maybe it was Haley. A minute before he had to double check his own name, so he applauded himself for at least getting close. “You can’t come in here drunk off your ass, pass out when the kids are talking to you, or call their mothers bitches. Are you trying to get us both fired? I need this job like you need a bath, so don’t fuck this up. You hear me?”

Frank started to reply, but when he opened his mouth, the words came out as a long, loud burp that turned heads across the wide corridor of the mall.

“Ohmygod,” Holly/Haley said, “that is so disgusting.”

Frank stood up, listening to the impulse as it arrived half-formed in his head. He wobbled for a moment, teetering back and forth, threatening to fall into the plastic candy canes marking each side of the path to his chair. Finally, putting his hands out like a tightrope walker, he steadied himself and smiled at his accomplishment.

“What are you doing?” Holly/Haley asked, backing away.

“Bathroom,” he answered, following the explanation with another loud burp. “Too many milk and cookies.”

Frank stumbled away from the chair, tripping over the strings of lights that surrounded his faux kingdom and nearly falling into the arms of a young gay couple. He shook off the lights, nodded to the two men, and said, “Why don’t you two go home and make a fruitcake?” Laughing hysterically at his own wit, Frank shuffled past the couple and weaved toward the restrooms. He passed the various stores, packed with customers doing their last minute Christmas shopping, and bowled through the steady stream of people moving in the opposite direction. Most of them saw him, or at least heard the bells strapped to his belt, and moved out of the way. The rest he pushed aside, not bothering with apologies. In his drunkenness, Frank saw only a mass of faces parting before him like the Red Sea before Moses.

He reached the hallway where the restrooms were located and knew he would not make it in time. He broke out in a half-sprint to the door, knocking several people down as he held his hand over his mouth. A young boy, unfortunate enough to be in the doorway when Frank reached it, bowled over backward as, to his eyes, Santa ran over him and dove for the nearest open stall. A moment later, the sound of Frank’s insides roaring out through his mouth drowned out the boy’s crying or the father’s angry yells.

When he was done retching, Frank slid to the floor beside the toilet, appreciating the cool tile under his skin. His gut felt as though a reindeer had kicked him. Now that he could hear above the sound of his own puking, he could tell his outburst (or the smell it created) had cleared the room of anyone who wanted to use the restroom and could wait until he reached the next closest one.

Satisfied that he was alone, Frank closed his eyes, hoping to rest a moment before mall security came to lead him out of the building. Seconds later, he was asleep.

“Ahem.”

Frank heard the voice and thought it was part of his dream. He had no idea why Sally Field would be saying “Ahem” in the middle of their lovemaking, but he decided he could overlook it.

“Ahem.”

Frank opened his eyes, wincing as the bright fluorescents sent shafts of pain through his skull. All he could see at first was the white base of the toilet. After another brief memory search, he pieced together how he came to be in the floor of a mall restroom and wondered how much longer it would be before the mall cops came for him. He figured he had not been out long, since he still lay in the floor.

“A-hem.”

Too late, he thought.

Frank struggled to pull himself to a sitting position, trying to think of something clever to say to the officers before they hauled him off. He ignored the pounding in his head and turned to face his punishment.

No officers, mall or otherwise, were standing at the door to the stall. No humans at all waited for him.

Instead, a tiny figure, no more than two feet tall, stood just beyond the open stall door, watching Frank with an impassive expression. Its large, luminous eyes would have been its most striking feature if not for the huge, pointed ears that stuck out from its head like the fins on a vintage Chevy.

“What . . . who are you?” Frank asked. He rubbed his eyes and looked again, but the little man was still there.

“My name is Tinsel,” the figure said in a high, almost girlish, voice. “As to what I am, I’m an elf. From the North Pole.”

Frank blinked at him. Aside from his diminutive size and his admittedly elf-like facial features, he thought Tinsel could not look less like an elf from the North Pole. Instead of the bright red and green outfit he had always seen on television or on Haley/Holly, he wore an outfit of all black. His long sleeved shirt fit snugly over an impressive build for someone so short, while his pants were loose and bore several pockets that bulged with objects he could not see. A large pouch, also black, hung from his belt. In place of pointed shoes with bells on them, Tinsel wore miniature black combat boots. To Frank, he more closely resembled an oversized G.I. Joe action figure than any elf he had ever imagined.

Still, Frank’s head hurt too much to allow him to argue. “Okay,” he said, “what do you want?”

Tinsel reached into the back pocket of his pants and pulled out a folded piece of paper. He unfolded it and read, “Frank McCloskey, you have been found guilty of gross misconduct in your role as Mall Santa at the Windmere Mall. In accordance with the Mall Santa Code, which you signed upon your employment for this position, you are found to be in violation of your contract and have been designated for termination.” When he finished, he refolded the paper and tucked it back into his pocket.

Frank waited a moment to make sure the elf was finished. Then, he burst out in a fit of laughter that threatened to tear his skull in two.

“What?” he asked, tears of amusement streaming down his cheeks. “The mall sent you to fire me?”

“No, Frank,” Tinsel said, not smiling in return. “I’m not here to fire you. I’m here to kill you.”

Frank took in the serious expression on the little face and laughed harder. Even when he smacked his head on the toilet and slid back down into a horizontal position, he continued to chuckle, unable to control himself.

The laughter died abruptly, however, when Frank’s body went into harsh spasms that pounded his face against the base of the toilet like a woodpecker building a home. His body jumped and thrashed as pain rippled through his body, multiplying that in his head a hundred times over. The smell of burning flesh, likely his own, drifted to his nose. He heard screaming and it took several seconds for him to realize that the sound was coming from him.

Finally, the pain eased, but not all at once. It ebbed away slowly, retracting an inch at a time and leaving numbness in its wake.

Frank was only dimly aware of the tiny pair of feet walking on him. Tinsel barely weighed anything and to Frank’s fried nerves, it felt as though the footsteps traveling up his side were on someone else’s body instead of his own. When the elf reached where Frank could see him, he held a small device in his hands that looked like a plastic icicle, blue electricity arcing from the tip.

“I didn’t want to do that, Frank,” he said. “But I need you to understand. We can do this the easy way or the hard way. The choice is up to you.”

Frank looked at the electric icicle. “Let me think about it for a moment.” Then, quicker than anyone would have expected, he rolled over on his back and grabbed Tinsel’s head, no bigger than a softball in his hand. As the elf brought the icicle down toward his chest, Frank lifted him up and over the rim of the toilet, slamming him into the bowl as though he was dunking a basketball. Tinsel’s tiny howl of rage was cut short as his mouth filled with what Frank hoped was not just water.

With effort, Frank pulled himself to his feet. He paused only a moment to look back at the two booted feet thrashing in the air before staggering to the door and out of the bathroom. His head still hurt and his limbs occasionally failed to respond to his commands, but each step that brought him closer to the exit made him feel a degree better. Through the glass doors at the end of the hall, he saw that night had fallen and no cars filled the parking lot beyond. He figured the mall was closed, but as long as the night guard didn’t catch him trying to exit the building, he’d get away clean.

He was three strides from the door, three strides from freedom, when he saw the chains. Thin chains of popcorn wound among the latch bars, offering a comical distraction to his escape. He shook his head, bemused, and the act sent a new pulse of pain that he knew would vanish with his first breath of outside air. He reached down and pushed the latch.

The latch did not move. The door remained closed.

Frank pushed again, harder this time. Still, the door defied him. He took a step back and hit the latch again, throwing his full weight into it and bouncing off as the latch stayed motionless as though set in concrete. With a snarl, he grabbed the chains of popcorn and pulled, expecting them to crumble in his grip. The chains felt like lead in his hands and would not budge a millimeter, even as he grabbed them and leaned back with all his weight. In exasperation, he gave the door a hard kick that served only to send a new flood of pain through his lower leg.

He looked through the glass at the parking lot, tinged yellow by the street lights standing sentinel over the pavement. He was inches from freedom, from being able to disappear into the night and never return to this place again.

With one last look of longing, he turned away from the door, looking for another exit. He was almost back to the restroom when he heard a small voice from inside.

“Did you think it would be that easy, Frank?”

Frank resisted the impulse to open the door and look inside, choosing instead to pick up his pace as he entered the main corridor of the mall. As he stepped out into the main wing of the mall, every light in the building flared to life, causing him to recoil as though in pain. The gates that barred entrance to the various shops along the corridor slid open, their metallic grating creating a spine-shivering chorus that nearly sent Frank back the other way. Locked windows on kiosks snapped open, displays rolled out into the traffic aisles on their own, and the fountain that formed the center spoke of the mall’s corridors roared into operation, the various lighted reindeer and polar bears that stood sentry around it paying no notice. Finally, the speakers in the corridors, in every store, even in all the electronic devices in the Radio Shack across hall from Frank crackled before a voice, tiny but annoyed, said, “Okay, Frank, we’ll do it the hard way.”

The voice died away, replaced by Michael Jackson singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” as such high volume that Frank thought his eardrums might throw themselves out of his head.

Barely audible above the deafening Motown track, Frank heard the restroom door creak open and, not looking back, began to run.

He made it exactly two steps before he tripped and fell, smacking his face hard on the tile floor. As he half-bounced on his jelly-like waist, he felt a tooth pop loose from his mouth and go clicking away ahead of him.

“Shit!” he screamed as pain slammed through his skull again. He rolled over on his back quickly, expecting the commando elf to be right on top of him, but instead he found a trio of radio-controlled trucks forming a line a few feet away. He had tripped over these somehow and, in his anger, he reached out with his foot to kick one away. The truck backed away just beyond his reach, beeping its high-pitched horn at him.

Frank clamored to his feet and stepped toward the truck to make sure he didn’t miss with his second attempt. “Fucking piece of sh—.” He kicked out again, but this time the truck accelerated forward. Before Frank could retract his leg, the toy had used its knobby, hard wheels to climb his foot and start to ascend his leg, digging through his red pants and gouging the skin beneath. Frank roared in pain as the thing seemed to be eating his leg, pinching great chunks of his meaty thighs between its spinning tires and plastic frame. Frank danced around on one foot, beating at the truck with his fists, as the other two began attacking his other leg, looking for some purchase to follow the first up the other side.

“Damn!” Smack. “Piece!” Smack. “Of shit!” With both hands, Frank managed to pry the toy truck off his leg, losing a strip of flesh from his inner thigh in the process. He howled in agony and rage, this time landing a kick on one of the trucks and sending it flying. It landed on its top several feet away, the tires still spinning as though reaching for him.

Frank pushed the other two trucks away with his feet, then stomped on each in turn until they were no more than piles of debris.

“Take that!” he said. A wheel atop one of the shattered trucks spun in response and Frank ran, his moment of triumph passed.

He ran toward the center of the mall. Looking back over his shoulder, he saw no sign of Tinsel or his avenging toy trucks, nor did he see the large kiosk he ran into. He bounced back with a startled cry, landing hard on his red-clad bottom. He looked up, ready to launch into a new round of swearing, but the words evaporated before they could leave his mouth, smothered by his terror.

Dolls, two dozen or more, stood all around and atop the kiosk Frank had struck. They stared at him with big, glassy eyes that looked innocent and passive when they weren’t moving, but now looked cold and lethal. Adding to their chilling appearance, the dolls stood atop a kiosk that was not the one where they spent their days being inanimate for potential buyers, but was instead one that sold sets of cutlery, shining sets of knives the dolls were now distributing like a bucket brigade to all their party. Frank could not swallow the scream that erupted from him as the little plastic boys and girls, armed with what looked like swords in their tiny hands, approached him like some menacing beast they meant to put down.

Frank scrambled backward just as the nearest dolls swiped at his shin. He got to his feet as the mass of dolls hobbled toward them on their stiff legs and he danced away as they stabbed at his ankles. He glanced around for something he could use to defend himself and, finding nothing, tried to jump a nearby bench to reach the other side of the corridor. He nearly made the leap, but his back foot caught the topmost wooden slat and sent him down hard on his left shoulder. He felt the joint dislocate and let out another high-pitched scream, this one of pain. His head swam, but he fought off the tempting blackness that colored the edges of his vision, visualizing the army of dolls instead. He pulled himself to his feet, mindful of the pitter patter of tiny feet drawing closer to him, and forced his legs to amble on through the mall.

His gaze down, Frank only knew he had reached the center of the mall by the roaring of water in his ears. It was the only thing he could hear over his own heartbeat and it helped clear his head. He looked back over his shoulder and saw the dolls were still coming, but their miniscule strides made their chase difficult.

“Frank,” Tinsel’s voice chimed in from everywhere again, “you’re just delaying the inevitable. Give up now and I’ll call off the dolls.”

“Fuck you, you reindeer-fucking pygmy!” Frank roared to the heavens.

“Have it your way,” Tinsel said through the overhead speakers.

Frank allowed himself the slightest grin before he heard the growl behind him. The smile melted from his face as he turned around, coming face to face with the massive lighted polar bear that, moments before, had been standing completely stationary atop the platform in the middle of the fountain. Now, spray from the fountain sizzled off the bear’s glowing bulbs and tiny arcs of electricity crawled along the wires that made up its body. It’s eyes, once white and benevolent as character from a Coca-cola commercial, now glowed a murderous red. It opened its wide, electric mouth, showing a series of blazing bulbs lined up in wicked rows of teeth.

The bear roared.

Frank soiled his Santa suit.

The bear reached out to swipe at Frank with one massive wire paw, but Frank scrambled backward, nearly into the onrushing tide of knife-wielding dolls.

Frank yelped and ran forward, sprinting at an angle that carried him just past the lighted polar bear along the edge of the fountain. The bear roared again and Frank could hear the clicking of its wire paws as it padded after him. He wanted to looked over his shoulder, to see the absurdity of the situation in full, but he would not slow down or risk running into something again.

Rounding the fountain, Frank saw his next obstacle right away. A line of Christmas trees from a nearby shop stretched the length of the corridor, forming a wall of green between him and whatever lay beyond. He knew the trees did not have to stop him completely, only slow him down enough for the polar bear or the dolls to catch up with him, so rather than try to find some way around the prickly branches, Frank picked out what looked like the smallest, weakest tree in the line and pounded for it.

“Red rover, red rover,” he panted as he lowered his shoulder and hit the tree like a linebacker. The tree gave surprisingly easily and Frank, not expecting such success, toppled forward as though he was being dispensed from a soda machine full of Diet Santa.

Frank lay on his back, winded, and closed his eyes. He could hear the soft padding of the knife-wielding dolls coming closer and the growl of the lighted polar bear as it too approached. Part of his brain screamed for him to get up, to flee, to keep fighting for his life, but all his limbs felt like pudding. He had no strength left to do anything but lie on his back, panting, and wait for the end.

“I didn’t have to be this way, Frank.”

Frank opened his eyes and saw Tinsel’s face, upside down and inches above his own. The elf regarded him with a tiny mixture of boredom and sadness.

“Just get it over with,” Frank said, closing his eyes again. He felt Tinsel climb up onto his shoulder, unable and unwilling to stop him. The little feet climbed atop his broad chest and stopped and Frank, hearing the familiar crackle of the electric icicle, just hoped it would be quick.

“Tinsel?” a different, deeper voice asked from a short distance away. “What are you doing?”

When the elf spoke, Frank heard quavering words and knew the elf was afraid. “Santa? I . . . I was just doing what you . . . what you told me to do.”

Frank found just enough strength to raise his head. Santa Claus—no poor sap working at some run down mall, but the real Father Christmas himself—stood only a few yards from Frank’s feet, close enough that Frank could smell the faint musk of reindeer he gave off. He regarded them both—man and elf—with an amused twinkle in his eyes.

“Now, Tinsel,” Santa said, an amused twinkle in his eyes, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.”

Frank felt relief beyond any emotion he had ever felt in his life. Energy flooded back into his limbs and as Tinsel opened his mouth to protest, Frank smacked the elf off his chest. Tinsel rolled along the tile, disappearing into the mob of angry dolls.

“Santa,” Frank said. He crawled across the floor and lay at Santa’s feet, a penitent sinner seeking absolution. “Oh, Santa, thank you. Thank you for not letting him kill me. I’m sorry, so sorry for how I’ve acted and I promise you that I will get my act together and—“

Santa laughed, his deep “Ho Ho Ho” resonating through every corner of the mall. “Get up, Frank. I have something for you.”

Frank could not believe his good fortune. He scrambled to his feet, trying to forget that he had been chased by an army of animated toys, that he had come within seconds of being killed by an insane elf, and that he had dropped a load in his rented Santa suit. He had survived all of that and now here was the real Santa Claus, about to give him a present. He looked over to where Tinsel had picked himself up and stuck his tongue out at the elf.

Santa reached into his bag. “Tinsel, he said, “I didn’t tell you to kill him.” He removed his hand from the bag, but instead of a wrapped present, he held a 9mm handgun. “I told you that I’d kill him.” Santa pointed the gun against Frank’s chest and pulled the trigger.

Frank felt a searing pain in his chest and back, then all feeling washed away. He was dimly aware that he was falling, but he felt nothing as he landed on the hard tile yet again. The last thing he saw before his vision failed was Santa standing over him, gun barrel still smoking.

Santa pointed the gun again, this time at Frank’s head, and as he pulled the trigger he spoke the last words Frank would ever hear.

“Frank McCloskey,” Santa said. “You’ve been naughty.”

DEATH OF A MALL SANTA

Posted in Uncategorized | 2 Comments

Tales of Christmas Past–The Many Santas of Shepherd’s Hollow

They say a parent shouldn’t have favorites among his or her children, but I confess that this may be my favorite of the Christmas stories I’ve written.  There are mistakes in it, but I like it and I don’t care what anyone else thinks.  Na na na na na.

So, here is “The Many Santa’s of Shepherd’s Hollow”. This is a rather long one, so feel free to take as l0ng as you need to finish. I’m not going anywhere.

THE MANY SANTAS OF SHEPHERD’S HOLLOW

The snow began December 23rd, flurries sliding in from the west as though they were ordered especially for the holiday. White Christmases were rare in central Kentucky and the gray skies with their white flakes offered the first promise of one in years. Children looked out their windows and smiled, pointing and declaring with the authority granted to them during the holidays that this year, finally, there would be snow on Christmas Day.

Their parents also looked out the windows. They did not smile. They had seen the weather forecasts and knew what was coming.

Becky Garrison had not seen the weather. Waiting tables at the only restaurant in Shepherd’s Hollow, she had overheard vague conversation about the weather, but there was always such talk at the Corner Café. Old farmers and older retired farmers, deep into their sixth refill of free coffee, sat at the small tables all the time and talked about the weather, the tobacco crop, deer hunting, and the occasional Kentucky basketball game. Becky only paid attention to the basketball talk, the rest fading into a dull drone that formed the soundtrack of her working day.

“Jim,” Becky called to the kitchen as she pulled off her apron, “you need anything else before I take off?”

Jim Cantrell, wearing a grease-stained Santa hat instead of his usual grease-stained chef’s hat, looked up at her. He smiled at her, the warmth of it a bittersweet reminder of her father, dead of lung cancer the previous April. Jim had been her employer since high school and the only man she really trusted since Robbie had left her, four months pregnant with his child, to go to college out west.

“No, hun, you go ahead,” Jim said. “You and Beth have a good Christmas and be careful.”

“I will. Thanks.”

Becky tossed her dirty apron into a cloth bag beside the kitchen door, spun on her coat, and made for the front with a casual wave at the last four customers in the restaurant, all regulars she had known since childhood. Thee of them returned her wave, throwing in a “Merry Christmas” along with it, but the fourth, the oldest of the group, stood up and motioned for her to wait.

“Hold on, Becky, before you go,” Mr. Cosley said. A withered-looking man in his mid-eighties, Mr. Cosley looked even smaller in his tan coveralls, zipped halfway down to reveal his customary v-neck tee beneath, and his heavy, insulated boots. He hobbled through the tables and chairs to Becky, reached in his pocket, and pulled out a fifty. “You can’t leave without your tip.”

Becky stared at the money, but didn’t move to take it. “Mr. Cosley,” she said, her voice low, “that’s a fifty. I think you grabbed the wrong bill in your—“

“Ain’t the wrong bill, either,” the old man said. He reached out and stuffed the bill into Becky’s reluctant fingers. “You take it and have a good Christmas with that little girl of yours.”

Tears stung the corner of Becky’s eyes and she did the only thing she could to keep the sweet old man from seeing them, wrapping her arms around his shrunken shoulders and kissing him on the cheek. She held him there for a moment until she was sure her voice would work properly.

“Thank you,” she said. “And Merry Christmas to you.”

She kissed Mr. Cosley again, smiling as the pasty skin of his ears turned bright red, and waved again at the others before nearly dancing out the door into the parking lot.

Outside, Becky realized for the first time that it was snowing. Her mood higher than it had been in some time, she stood and watched the bits of white drift down, swirling in the yellow lights of the parking lot. Night had fallen, still and quiet in the small town.

Becky found her car, an older model Toyota, covered in a light dusting off snow and brushed off her windshield, not minding the cold bite on the exposed skin of her hand. She worked fast, only clearing off enough to drive safely the few miles to her home, and sat down in the car, flexing her frozen fingers as she dug her keys out of her purse. The car started on the fifth try and as it idled, she reached into her jeans pocket and pulled out the wad of cash. Singing along with a Bon Jovi song on the radio, she smoothed out the bills and laid them into stacks on the passenger seat, organizing them by denomination. Then, she started with the fifty Mr. Cosley had just given her and counted the stacks, her spirits rising as the total rose to and past what she had hoped to save by today.

Yes, she decided, it would be enough.

Tucking the money back into her jeans pocket, Becky put the car in gear and pulled onto the quarter mile of Highway 650 that became Main Street as it passed through Shepherd’s Hollow. The street, like her car, wore a blanket of white marred only by a few sets of tire tracks that were already starting to disappear under the steady accumulation of powder. Becky traveled slow, her headlights soon replacing the street lamps as the only source of illumination on the two-lane road out of town. Her father, a truck driver until the illness took hold, had taught her how to handle slick roads and she felt no fear as she handled the curves and rolling hills, only a cautious confidence that she would make it home to her Beth.

The radio station came out of commercial and the DJ started the weather forecast. Becky reached down, her eyes locked on the road, and switched stations until she found Kenny Chesney and joined him in a mid-song duet.

Reaching her turn, Becky did as her father had instructed and began braking very early, allowing the car to come to a near stop on the icy road before allowing it to coast onto the gravel road. Even with such caution, the Toyota’s back end slid a bit as she turned, causing Becky to stop singing abruptly and grip the wheel tighter, even as her foot automatically let off the gas to allow the vehicle to correct itself. The back tires caught traction again and, reaching the relative safety of the gravel, dug in for a better grip.

Becky lifted her voice again, joining Kenny for the last chorus and singing along with Reba as she sang about a girl named Fancy. “Fancy” was one of Becky’s all-time favorites, the story of a young girl living a life of poverty who rises up, through sacrifice and hard work, to a life of luxury. The song gave Becky hope, something, like money, that a single mother working at a local diner rarely had in surplus.

But as she pulled into her driveway, the lights of her rented trailer winking through the increasing snowfall, she had just over two hundred dollars in her pocket and the kind of hope that only Christmas can bring.

She pulled the Toyota beside the Dodge pickup already in her driveway, the larger vehicle’s features all but vanished beneath the blanket of white. Doing a twirl in the gravel before she went inside, Becky placed a tentative foot on the first of the two steps leading up to the front door and, finding it slippery, grabbed the rail for support. The sound of laughter, unusual coming from her, accompanied Becky as she pulled her way up the steps and turned the door knob.

The trailer was small and old, but thanks to Becky’s knack of decorating on a tight budget, it felt cozy and inviting. She had strategically placed pieces of furniture, rugs, and pictures of Beth to cover up the various burns, stains, and holes left by the previous tenants. Instead of the smell of smoke and urine that had greeted her first visit to the place, the trailer now smelled of pumpkin spice and apple pie thanks to the aromatic candles she kept burning in the kitchen. This year, she had even placed a Christmas tree for the first time, a live one she had cut herself in the nearby woods and hauled back as a surprise for her daughter.

“Mommy!”

Beth met her at the door, her footie pajamas sliding on the snow-slick tile. Her hair, still damp from her bath, stuck to Becky’s frozen cheek in warm strands that seemed to radiate the love between them.

“I was starting to worry about you,” Paula said from the kitchen where she was finishing the dishes from dinner. “Roads look like they’re getting bad out there.”

“Nothing I couldn’t handle,” Becky said, putting her daughter down. She looked at Beth as she took off her coat. “What was for dinner?”

“Fish sticks,” Beth beamed. They were her favorite, a staple Becky could count on at least three nights a week. “I ate nine.”

“Wow,” Becky beamed back, “that’s a lot.”

Beth held out her flannel-clad belly, leaning back so that it protruded as much as possibly against the snowman designs. “I know. Look.”

Becky reached down and rubbed her daughter’s belly. “Wow,” she repeated. “Now, you go get in bed and I’ll be in a few minutes to tuck you in.”

Beth took off in a sprint for her bedroom down the hall, Becky watching her go.

“She’s pretty excited about the snow,” Paula said, drying off her hands and reaching for her coat. “Can’t say that I second that emotion, but I remember being her age.”

Paula had been Beth’s sitter since Becky had been able to go back to work following childbirth. Her husband, a contractor, made more than enough money to support them, but Paula loved being around children and saw Becky’s situation as a perfect way to get out of the house and feel needed. To Becky, she was a saint who had been more than a blessing to her and her daughter, she had been like a wise older sister, one she could ask for advice and count on for whatever she needed. Paula had been there many nights in the beginning, mopping the tears from her eyes or the morning sickness from her lips, and she was still there, as much a part of their family as either of them.

Becky reached into her pocket and pulled out the wad of bills and thumbed through them as Paula came into the living room.

“You put that away,” Paula said.

“I told you I’d pay you today,” Becky protested.

“And I said put it away,” Paula said. Her tone made it clear that the matter was not open for debate.

“But—“

“You use that money on Beth,” the older woman said. “You can make it up to me later.”

For the second time in less than an hour, Becky was rendered speechless by gratitude. She reached out and hugged Paula hard, kissing her cheek. This time, she did not try to check the tears that flowed down her still-red face. Paula had seen them enough to not be shocked by them.

“Thank you,” Becky told her.

“Merry Christmas, girl.”

They let go of each other and Paula opened the door to let herself out.

“Watch out for those steps,” Becky warned her, “and the roads. I fishtailed a little pulling onto the gravel.”

“I’ll be alright,” Paula said, using to handrail to slid down to the ground. “You shut that door so you don’t let all the heat out.”

Becky laughed and waved at her friend as she climbed into the big Dodge. She mostly shut the door, leaving open a crack while the big V-8 roared to life and the truck backed out into the road. She continued to watch it until the red tail lights were lost in the heavy snowfall and then she shut the door, locking it against the winter cold.

“Mommy!” came Beth’s voice from down the hall.

Becky slid off her wet shoes near the door and peeled off her damp socks as she hopped down the hall to her daughter’s bedroom.

Beth was in bed, her pink comforter piled on top of her like whipped topping on a sundae. Becky smoothed out her covers and sat down on the edge of the bed.

“You two have fun?” Becky asked.

Beth nodded. “We played Uno and watched Wheel of Fortune and I ate nine fish sticks.” To emphasize the point, she held up eight fingers, looked at the result, furrowed her brow, then added one more and held them out again.

Becky laughed again, unable to remember when she had felt more like doing so. After so many years of struggling, so many nights when everything in their lives seemed uncertain except for the constant fear that they would not have enough to survive, Becky finally felt like they were finding some traction, gaining some ground on that paralyzing terror that she was not the mother Beth deserved.

“Does Santa come tonight?” Beth asked, her eyes wide.

“Not tonight, honey. Tomorrow night.”

“And he’s bringing me presents?”

“Have you been good this year?”

Beth narrowed her eyes. “Mommy,” she said, as though she were the parent, “you know I’ve been good this year.”

“I know,” Becky agreed. “And I’m sure Santa knows, too. Now, you go to sleep and when you wake up, you’ll be one day closer to those presents.”

Beth closed her eyes and gave a mock snore.

Becky leaned over and kissed her daughter on the forehead, barely able to contain another outburst of mirth. “I’ll see you in the morning, you faker.”

Leaving her daughter’s room, Becky thought of going into the small living room and seeing what was on television, but her feet screamed at her from the cold and from being on duty all day, so she turned left into her own bedroom and shut the door. A few minutes later, she was in bed, thinking of all she had to do tomorrow. Even though the Corner Café was closed for the holiday, she had to drop Beth off at Paula’s so she could go to Wal-Mart and pick up the things on Beth’s Christmas list. The girl had not asked for much and, for the first time since they had been together, Becky could afford to get what she wanted.

She watched the snow falling outside as snuggled into her warm bed, thinking of how her daughter’s face would light up on Christmas morning.

“Mommy!”

Becky ignored the familiar little voice that called her name. Clutching her comforter closer to her chin, she rolled over and stayed asleep.

“Mommy,” the voice said again. This time, it was accompanied by a shaking of the bed and an insistent prodding of her left shoulder.

“What, baby?” she muttered, still unwilling to open her eyes.

“Mommy,” Beth said again. She was nearly breathless with enthusiasm. “Come look at the snow!”

“I’ve seen snow before.”

Beth tugged at the comforter. “Prolly not like this. There’s so much!”

Something pinged at Becky’s mind and she opened her eyes. “Okay,” she said. “I’ll come take a look. Then I’m getting back in bed.”

Beth jumped down and vanished out the door, her tiny feet thumping against the floor as she ran down the hall.

Becky looked up at the windows above her bed, but could see nothing through the thick glaze of condensation that had settled on them overnight. She rubbed her eyes and stood up, throwing her robe on as she slid her feet into a pair of white bunny slippers Beth had gotten for her, with Paula’s help, as a birthday present. She left her bedroom, passed her daughter’s, and turned into the bathroom. Again, the glass was frosted over, but she could see a lot of diffused white in the tiny dots of moisture clinging to it. She emptied her bladder, flushed, and went out into the living room.

Beth was standing on the couch, her little hands pulling apart the curtains so she could stare out through small space she had wiped clear on the window.

“Look, mommy,” she said. “Look outside.”

Becky yawned and went to the front door. She turned the knob and pulled, expecting to see an inch or two of snow, just enough to cover the ground and excite a five-year old into near hysterics. Instead, what she saw drove her to near hysterics, though not ones caused by excitement.

The flurries from the night before had grown into an impenetrable curtain of white. Snow flew sideways beyond the storm door, so thick that she could not see more than a foot or two beyond the frosting glass. The Toyota, which she knew to be no more than ten feet or so from the bottom of the front steps, was completely concealed by the maelstrom of snow. Now that she was more awake, she could hear the wind howling around the corners of the trailer, a baleful moan that Becky began feeling inside herself.

“Isn’t it great?” Beth asked from the couch. She was bouncing up and down on the cushions. “Can I go out and play in it?”

“No,” Becky said. The word came out sharper than she intended and Beth stopped bouncing.

“What’s wrong, Mommy?”

Becky looked outside again, her high spirits from the previous night draining out of her. She hit the latch of the storm door and tried to open it, but a drift of snow, nearly rising the two feet or so to the bottom pane of glass, held it back, forcing her to push hard to open it out over the top step. Snow blew in harder than rain and, in just a few seconds, formed a growing drift around her bunny slippers. A gusting wind seized the door and, if she had not been gripping it with such firmness, would have ripped it from her hand and likely off its hinges. She pulled hard, shutting the screen door with extreme difficulty, the aluminum base dragging in another pile of snow onto the small patch of tile at Becky’s feet.

“Why can’t I go out and play?” Beth asked.

Becky forced herself to smooth the edges off the word before she said it again.

“No, baby,” she said, closing her eyes. “Not right now.”

Beth, not a child given to tantrums, sank onto the couch and said nothing.

Becky went to the television and turned it on. A map of the region sat beneath the women of The View, all the counties shaded in white while the crawl beside it listed them alphabetically. Beneath the map were two words Becky never thought she’d see in rural Kentucky.

Blizzard Warning.

“Oh, my God,” Becky said as she stared at the television. She sank onto the couch next to her daughter and watched until the meteorologist broke in during the commercial break, talking about such things as a “state of emergency” and “impassable roads”.

Becky thought of the trip she had planned to Wal-Mart. She had intended to drop Beth off with Paula for an hour or so, head to the store fifteen miles away, and purchase everything she could for her daughter with the money she had saved, all of it to be placed around the tree that night, gifts from Santa for a good girl.

Now, however, there would be no trip to Wal-Mart. The fifteen miles might as well have been the distance to the North Pole. The Toyota could handle the rough roads and various hazards that came with normal driving in Kentucky, but her little car could not plow its way through two feet of snow.

Following her first impulse in a crisis, she went to the phone to call Paula. With her pickup, she might be able to get out and negotiate the roads, even in the deepening snow. When she picked up the handset and hit the “Talk” button, the line was dead. She tried again, and then a third time, all with the same result. Not only was she snowed in, Becky realized, she had no way to contact the outside world.

“Mommy?” Beth called from the couch. “What’s the matter?

“Nothing, baby,” Becky said. “Why don’t you put a movie in?”

Beth padded off to her room and, a moment later, came back with a thin DVD box in hand. The title, Becky saw as her daughter took the disc out, was “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”.

Tears rolled down Becky’s cheeks as she watched her daughter insert the movie into the player.

“Not this year, baby.”

For most of the day, Becky stood at the kitchen window, staring out at the snowstorm. The wind continued to howl as the white flakes obliterated the world outside and her hope of providing the wonderful Christmas she wanted for her daughter. Tears streamed unchecked down her cheeks, dripping onto her bathrobe and into her coffee. She made oatmeal for Beth’s breakfast, then more fish sticks for lunch, eating nothing herself. Her stomach, she decided, would have to content itself with the awful feeling of dread that weighed inside her like stones.

Beth, for her part, tried to contain her excitement. Sensing her mother’s distress, she played movie after movie, all of them Christmas themed, and occasionally cast a worried look at her mother.

The wind let up near mid-afternoon and the snow stopped falling completely near dusk. Becky, allowing herself a thin sliver of hope, dressed in three layers, including a pair of coveralls she had received secondhand from Paula’s husband a few years earlier, and opened the door again. Pushing the storm door, she found the snow had drifted higher this time, pressing against the glass like a starving orphan outside a restaurant. She pushed again, inching the door open as she shoved the snow off the top step.

Beth, still in her pajamas, ran to her room and returned with her coat and a pair of snow boots.

“Can I go out, too?”

“No, baby,” Becky said. “Not right now. The snow’s too deep. You might fall in and I wouldn’t find you until spring.”

Beth laughed at the idea, then her mouth opened as she poked her head through the doorway and looked outside.

“Look at all the snow!”

“I know,” Becky said. “Now, go back inside where it’s warm.”

Beth did as she was told while her mother stepped outside. Wearing her boots instead of her work shoes, she found better traction on the covered steps, but the snow when she stepped to the ground was past her knees. She plowed her way one leg at a time to the small mound of snow she knew to be her car and started brushing away what she could. The work was exhausting and after ten minutes, her hands and feet numb, she had barely cleared one side of the vehicle, not even enough to open the door and get in. In frustration, she pounded her hands against the snow-shrouded roof.

Forced to admit defeat, Becky went back inside.

Beth’s coat and boots were still by the door and the girl gave her mother a hopeful look as she came back in, knocking her own boots against the threshold to remove the snow from them.

“I’m sorry,” Becky said to her daughter. And she was sorry, for the snow and for the cold and for every other difficulty the two of them had not asked for, yet faced every day. In those two words, a mother apologized to her daughter for every failing she had ever had.

“It’s okay, Mommy,” Beth said. “I can play in the snow another time.”

Becky smiled, marveling that, despite her questionable parenting and their circumstances, that the little girl could be so good. “Come here.”

Beth did as she was told and Becky swept her into her arms, holding her tight. “Baby,” she said, “with the snow this high, I don’t know if Santa is going to make it tonight.”

The girl backed away. “What do you mean? He lives at the North Pole. They have lots of snow there.”

Becky struggled to argue with her logic, but could not find a way around it.

“I know,” she said. “We’ll see. But if he doesn’t come tonight, I’m sure he’ll come soon.”

“He’ll come tonight,” Beth said, sure of it. “It’s Christmas Eve and he has Rudolph to guide the sleigh.”

Becky hugged her daughter again, as much to hide her sadness as to appreciate the little girl’s faith. “Of course he does.”

The evening passed much as the day had. Beth played her considerable collection of holiday movies and sat cross-legged in the floor. At times, she played with Barbies, building a Christmas tree out of green Legos and using the other colors for the presents around the tree, present that, had they been life-sized, would have filled the trailer. At other times, she played with her plush toys, using shoelaces to harness them like reindeer to a sleigh made from an empty shoebox.

Becky watched her daughter as the evening grew later and later, hating the snow, hating the patch of nowhere where they lived, and hating herself. She marveled at her daughter’s imagination and wished she could use a little bit of it, some of that wonderful childhood ingenuity, to find a way to Wal-Mart to make Christmas happen. She tried the phone several times and hour, finding no change from the dead hum from before, and finally threw it down on the couch in disgust.

Beth looked up at her mother. Concern furrowed her tiny brow as she held Donner the Dog and Blitzen the Zebra, one in each hand.

“Stupid phone,” Becky said, forcing herself to smile. “You ready for a bath?”

Beth lost her worried look, nodded, and ran for the bathroom, stripping off her pajamas on the way. Only while her daughter was in the bath, happily splashing and talking to herself about Santa, did Becky allow herself to sit down at the kitchen table and sob. Twenty minutes later, when Beth called for a towel, Becky forced the sorrow from her features, sticking on a mask that she hoped would fool her five-year old long enough to get her into bed.

“Mommy,” Beth asked as Becky tucked her in, “how does Santa know where everyone lives?”

“Because he’s Santa.”

Beth thought that over. “Okay. Goodnight.”

Ten minutes later, Beth was asleep and Becky, her stomach roiling from worry, went to her own bed, hoping for the first time since she was Beth’s age, that there really was a Santa Claus.

She was awake by the second knock. Sitting upright before she realized what had woken her, Becky was halfway down the hall before her consciousness caught up with her. With every step, more and more of the day before crashed over her in waves of despair until she reached the front door of the trailer and understood what the noise was.

Someone was knocking. Someone outside in the snow was knocking on her front door.

Before she could open the door, Beth appeared at the near end of the hall, rubbing her eyes and looking around.

“Mommy,” she said.

Becky knew she was about to ask where her presents were and, deciding that she was not quite awake enough to kill her daughter’s dreams, she pulled open the door.

Outside, she could see little through the frosted door. The expanse of white she had seen the previous day was now broken by an amorphous patch of red very close to her door. The red patch moved and the knocking sound came again.

Becky opened the storm door and looked outside at Santa Claus.

“Ho, ho, ho,” Santa said in a voice that sounded very much like Jim Cantrell, “Merry Christmas!”

Before Becky could respond, Beth was at the door. “Santa!” the little girl squealed. “Mommy, it’s Santa!”

Santa Jim stomped up the two steps to the trailer door in the thermal hunting boots Becky had seen him wear on several occasions. The grease-stained Santa hat was now joined by a crumpled Santa suit and a frizzy beard that showed the borders of Jim’s own graying stubble at the borders. In his hands, Becky now saw, were two large packages wrapped in plain red paper. These he set down in order to scoop Beth into his arms.

“See, Mommy,” Beth beamed. “I told you he’d come.”

Becky, still staring at her boss in shock, said nothing, her hand still holding the door open. She turned and looked out at the snow, still piled high over everything in sight. Everything, she noticed, except for the large John Deere tractor now parked at the end of her driveway.

“Shut the door, girl,” Jim said to her in his best Santa voice. “Even Santa doesn’t want to freeze his butt off.”

Beth giggled and Becky, almost giggling herself, did as she was told.

“Are these for me?” the girl asked as Santa put her down next to the presents.

“Have you been a good girl this year?”

“Yes, yes, yes.”

“Then, I guess they are for you.”

Beth started to dive for the presents, but Santa Jim caught her with velvet-covered arm.

“Not yet,” he said. “You have to wait for the rest of them.”

“The rest?” said mother and daughter together.

Santa Jim turned to Becky. “You think we’re going to let a little snow ruin this little girl’s Christmas?”

“We?”

Santa Jim smiled, the gesture pulling at the corners of his fake beard. “Just a few of us who watch the weather more than you do.”

Becky started to say something else, but Santa Jim had already turned his attention to Beth.

“You just hang tight and wait for the rest,” he told her. “When the rest of them get here, then you can open them. Got it?”

“Yes, Santa.” She spoke the words with reverence.

Becky again started to say something to her boss, but a moment later he was gone, slipping down the steps and into the snow on his way to the large green tractor. He climbed in, an odd sight in the red suit, and started the engine.

“Mommy,” Beth said, picking up the smaller of the two boxes and shaking it. “What do you think are in them?”

“I don’t know, baby.”

Just as the sound of the tractor faded into the distance, another sound caught her ear, growing louder as she walked to the door and listened. She opened the door and saw another shape through the fogged glass, a larger one, and when she opened the storm door to look out, she saw the massive dump truck coming down the snow-covered gravel road. Its wheels, nearly as tall as Becky, had no trouble negotiating the deep piles, flinging a cloud of white behind it. When the massive vehicle parked in the middle of the road in front of her trailer, Becky saw the decal on the side.

Carter Construction.

It was Paula.

When the driver’s door opened, however, it was Jerry, Paula’s husband, who got out, his muscular frame bulging against the Santa suit. He skipped down the side of the truck with practiced ease, landing in the snow, and drove his legs through the drifts toward the trailer, a burlap sack slung over his shoulder. He waved at Becky, his cheekbones raised from the invisible grin lurking beneath his fake white beard.

Just as Santa Jim had done, Santa Jerry stomped up the steps and into the trailer. Becky yielded before him, her prior shock fading into amused disbelief.

“Ho, ho, ho,” said Santa Jerry, “and all that mess.” Jerry was normally a man of few words, preferring to let his wife do the talking for both of them. He could speak with authority on a few things—construction, football, deer hunting—but Paula often chided him on his lack of social skills.

Yet, Becky thought, here he was, dressed in a red velvet Santa suit and enjoying every moment of it.

“There’s a little girl here, isn’t there?” Santa Jerry asked, pretending not to see Beth hopping up and down in front of him. “Now, where is she?”

“Hereheredownhere,” Beth squealed.

Santa Jerry turned a full circle and, feigning the same kind of surprise Becky felt, started and bent down to look at Beth.

“There you are,” he said. “I hear you’ve been a good girl this year.”

Beth put her hands on her hips, sure that something was different about this Santa, but not quite able, or willing, to figure it out.

“I already told you I was,” she said.

“Don’t get sassy,” Becky warned her daughter. “You might be on the naughty list next year.”

The idea seemed to scare Beth. “Sorry,” she said.

“No, no,” Santa Jerry said, shaking his head. “This here’s a good girl if I ever saw one. And I think I might have some presents in this bag for her.” He swung the burlap sack around and rummaged inside, pulling out three boxes and handing them to Beth.

Beth looked at her mother, expectant.

“No way,” Becky said in answer to her daughter’s thoughts. “Under the tree.”

Beth looked disappointed only for a second before she shrugged and turned to put the presents under the tree with the earlier ones.

“Thank you,” Becky whispered to Santa Jerry. She flung her arms as far around him as they would go and hugged him. “I . . . I don’t know what to say.”

Santa Jerry blushed. “We know how hard you work for that girl. Paula loves you like you were her own and, well, that goes the same for me.”

Becky hugged him again. “You guys are great.”

“I hope she likes ‘em. Paula picked them out, of course. I’m just the messenger. Well, one of the messengers. The others’ll be along later.”

“Others?” Becky asked. “How many–?”

“Gotta go,” Santa Jerry said, cutting her off. “Merry Christmas.” Before Becky could ask any more questions, he was out the door, retracing his steps through the snow to get back to the massive truck.

As the day went on, more and more Santas came to the trailer. Eddie Waddell, who owned all the farm land around Becky’s home, arrived in his combine shortly after Jerry was gone. Bill Gorman, head of the Shepherd’s Hollow sanitation department, came in another dump truck, this one smaller than Jerry’s, but no less welcome. Sonny Long, his fake Santa beard doing little to hide his full red one, drove a grater from the Highway Department depot. All of them came dressed in Santa suits, from elaborate to hurriedly homemade, and all of them bore gifts for Becky’s daughter.

“One more, I think,” Sonny told her as he headed out the door. The clouds trailing the previous night’s storm had thinned, then given way to brilliant sunlight that set the snow-covered landscape ablaze with light. “And I think he’s coming right now.”

Becky leaned out to look where Sonny was pointing and could see nothing at first in the blinding reflection. Finally, she saw a shimmering shape that solidified into a sleigh—an actual, Santa-like sleigh—that slid and bounced along behind two large horses that plowed through the snow with their strong legs.

Sonny turned his grater around and went back out toward the highway, waving at the sleigh as he passed.

Becky watched, still amazed at the day’s events, as the sleigh stopped in the clear space left by the previous Santas. This time, however, the Santa that got out did not spring to the ground and high step his way through the snow. This Santa, thinner than the rest and walking with a cane, trudged through the snow as if his reaching the steps was far from a certainty. In his free hand, he held one, small package. He walked with a familiar, stunted gate, but only when he reached the bottom step and looked up at her did Becky recognize him.

“Mr. Cosley?”

The old man eyed the steps warily, then tested them with his cane. Satisfied, he stepped up onto the first, then the second, with meticulous care. Finally, he handed the small, wrapped box to Becky and made his way into the trailer.

Beth was at the door again and, this time, she knew something was not right.

“You’re not Santa,” the little girl said.

“Beth,” Becky said, but stopped when Mr. Cosley raised his hand.

“Now, girl,” Cosley said to Beth. “You’re used to seeing the Santa for children. I’m the Santa for grown folks.”

Becky, still holding the small box, looked at him.

“You go on and open that,” Santa Cosley told Becky. “You’re only getting the one, so you shouldn’t have to wait.”

Becky tried and failed to hide her smile. She couldn’t help the childlike enthusiasm as she tore away the paper with as much speed and violence as she could muster from so small a package. Beneath, she found an unmarked box, its hinged lid begging to be lifted.

“Go on,” Santa Cosley urged her. “Open it up.”

Becky did. She stared at the object inside for a long time, not sure at first what it was, then not sure what it meant.

“It’s a key,” she said.

“That’s right,” Santa Cosley said. “It’s the key to my almost-new Chevy pickup . . . well . . . your Chevy pickup now. A year or so old. Eleven thousand miles. Still got that new car smell inside. Would’ve brought it here myself, but it’s parked down at the café whenever you can get to it.”

Becky stared at the old man, still unsure what he meant.

“I’ve decided I’ve had about enough snow to last me the rest of my life,” he explained, “however long that is. I’m moving to Florida and there won’t be any need for a truck while I’m sitting on the beach.”

Becky continued to stare, continued to disbelieve.

“You need something better than that little foreign job you’ve been driving around. It’s time you started driving something with some American horsepower.”

Though she felt the realization coming toward her, threatening to overwhelm her, she could not prepare herself for it. She collapsed to her knees, then to a sitting position, and there, in the floor of her tiny living room, she wept.

Mr. Cosley patted her head. “Little Beth ain’t been the only one that’s been good this year.”

An hour later, Becky sat on her couch, the key still in her hand. Santa Cosley was gone and she could not remember him leaving. Wrapping paper lay in drifts around the perimeter of the living room while Beth sat in the middle like the eye of a hurricane, playing with her assortment of new toys.

“Mommy,” the little girl asked without looking up from her new Barbie playhouse. “Were any of those people the real Santa Claus?”

Becky thought about it for a long time before answering. Her eyes remained locked on the key and, beyond that, the image of the new truck—her new truck—parked down at the Corner Café.

“Yes, baby,” she said at last. “I think they all were. Every single one of them.”

Posted in fiction | 1 Comment

Tales of Christmas Past–An Inconvenient Christmas

I wrote this one as a response to the Al Gore documentary, An Inconvenient Truth.  I think if Mr. Gore has taken this approach instead, we’d have figured this global warming thing out by now.

AN INCONVENIENT CHRISTMAS

Crack!

Santa Claus rolled over in his bed, a difficult task beneath the half dozen thick blankets, and looked at his wife.

“What the hell was that?”

Mrs. Claus’s eyes were wide and shifting back and forth as though the cause of the noise might appear within her limited field of vision.

Crack!

“There it is again,” Santa said. “What is that?”

“I don’t know,” Mrs. Claus said. “Why don’t you get up and find out?”

Santa nestled down into the covers. “No. It’s cold out there.”

Crack! Crrrrack!

Mrs. Claus was surprisingly strong and showed it now. Planting her feet in the small of his back, she pushed her husband out of the bed onto the cold, wooden floor. Even a belly like a bowl full of jelly did not help him as he landed on his stomach, the wind knocked from his lungs.

“Dammit, hon,” Santa grumbled, breathless, “that hurt.” He stood up, pulling on the blankets as though to climb back into bed, but stopped when an electric cattle prod appeared from beneath, its tip sparkling with blue lightning.

“I said,” Mrs. Claus said from beneath the covers, “take your ass downstairs and see what made that noise.”

“Where did you get—?”

“You shouldn’t have left your sack on my side of the bed.”

Santa still held the lip of the bottom blanket in his hand and considered trying to climb into bed anyway. He knew his wife loved him and would never, ever do anything to hurt him.

Then, the cattle prod sparked, the blue arc lighting the dark room, and he dropped the blanket.

“What? You think someone’s breaking in? Nobody can find the place.”

“You heard it, too,” she answered. “Now, go.” Her tone was commanding, daring him to protest further. It told him, without saying it aloud, that one more comment like that would draw her out of the warm bed and then, fat man, there would be hell to pay.

“Okay,” he said, “I’m going.”

Cold floors are a natural hazard of winter. Anyone with hardwood in a bedroom, or who has risen from a hospital bed to make that all-important walk to the restroom, knows the pain that comes as the cold seeps into the joints of the foot, climbing the ankles and calves like ivy, until it settles in the knees like a bundle of razor wire.

Then, there are cold floors at the North Pole. The cold there did not seep up slowly, attacking the joints one at a time in its steady progression. Instead, the cold Santa felt seized his legs like a mass of clutching, clawed hands. He lost the feeling in his feet immediately and the numbness rose like an elevator, not just to his knees, but all the way to his hips, making it hard for him to walk. He stopped long enough to put on his robe and slide his feet into his slippers, then hobbled out into the corridor, headed for the stairs.

Crack!

This time, the sound was accompanied by a tremble in the large house, as if the building itself was shivering from the cold. Santa stopped at the foot of the stairs, trying to determine the source of the sound and the shake, but after several seconds, it did not repeat itself, so he continued on, wincing as his sore hips navigated the steps to the ground floor. He emerged into a large, airy room with expensive-looking chairs and sofas surrounding a massive flat-screen television that took up nearly one whole wall. The television, tuned to Fox News, showed two men arguing.

“Global warming is a hoax—“

“That’s just absurd.”

“—a hoax thought up by liberals to make it harder for American businesses to make money.”

Santa stopped in the middle of the room, turned off the television, and listened again. He knew the crew of elves working third shift in the workshop were busy putting together the Playstations and Blu-Ray players and other gifts he would be delivering in less than a week, some of them on the phones asking questions to Japanese technicians at Sony or yelling at suppliers in Hindi. Most of his staff, though, was asleep at this time of night.

Hearing nothing, Santa moved into the kitchen and flipped on the lights. He opened a cabinet, pulled out a mug, and set it down under the spout of his Keurig coffee maker before spinning his large rack of single-serve brew choices. He selected a dark Brazilian roast and popped the small cup into the machine, smiling as the aromatic steam began rising from his mug.

Crack!

This time the house shook with such violence that Santa nearly fell to the floor. His coffee mug, half-filled, toppled over and spilled across the stainless steel countertop. Santa reached for the dark fluid with his hand, hoping to keep it from spilling onto the floor, and recoiled as the hot coffee scalded his skin.

“Shit!” he spat as he looked for a towel to clean the mess.

Another noise drifted to his sensitive ears. Something was happening outside the house. Someone, in the distance, was screaming.

Santa sighed and turned away from the spilled coffee, ignoring the patter of the brown drops against the Italian tile. He threw on his red coat over his robe, slid his bare feet into his black boots, and opened the door to go outside.

The Campus, as Santa called the assortment of buildings that made up his operation at the North Pole, was awash in the soft, yellow glow of the streetlamps that lined the streets of packed snow and ice that served as the thoroughfares through Santa’s domain. Normally a place of understated serenity, the buildings were decorated with all manner of lights and tinsel. Evergreen trees—grown in the large greenhouse a half mile or so from Santa’s house—lined the sidewalks, their limbs heavy with ornaments. The elves, like their human counterparts to the south, enjoyed decorating for the holidays, but by the first week of January, exhausted from the mandatory overtime and in need of vacation, were sick of all things Christmas, including the fat son of a bitch that took all the credit for their hard work. The administrators of the local chapter of YULE (Yeoman’s Union of Laboring Elves) had their hands full keeping complaints to a minimum.

Now, however, the usual calm of a December night at the North Pole had given way to absolute pandemonium. Elves ran up and down the streets, crashing into each other and over each other. Many of them looked as though they had been roused from sleep, sprinting about in their pajamas, but a fair number had the bleary-eyed look of too much eggnog. Even the elves that normally worked third shift down the street at the massive workshop were in the streets, running and flailing their arms and looking terrified.

An elf ran into Santa at full speed, bounced off into a double somersault, and landed hard on the ice. As the dazed elf started to get up, Santa recognized him.

“Kleebert,” Santa said, kneeling down to the elf’s eye level, “what the hell is going on?”

Kleebert looked up at Santa, his eyes gradually sliding back into focus, then widening with the same look of terror on the faces of the other elves running like water around them.

“The ice, sir,” the elf began. “It’s—“

What the ice was doing, Kleebert never got to say. As he was about to finish his explanation, the ice beneath where he knelt split open and the elf, with a high-pitched scream, fell into the black water welling up from beneath the hole.

“Shit,” Santa said again. He dove for the elf, his beefy arm sliding down into the water and finding, to his great disappointment, no elf.

Crack!

The ice all around the hole cracked like window glass, spidery lines stretching out in all directions. One wound its way across the street to where a large mass of elves, the merger of two smaller masses moving in opposite directions, were trying to get past each other. Without warning, the ice beneath them gave way, dropping two dozen more elves into the freezing sea. Their screams, like Kleebert’s, died with a sudden finality that drilled into Santa’s overloaded brain.

Santa stood up slowly and backed away from the hole where Kleebert had fallen. The ice beneath him groaned and popped, but held his prodigious weight as he nearly moonwalked his way to safer ground. All around him, elves were vanishing with tiny splashes as the ice opened up beneath them like a great, hungry mouth and swallowed them whole.

“Santa!”

Falbut, Santa’s second-in-command, was sprinting toward him across the ice. He had obviously picked up the wrong robe in his haste to get outside, the bright pink velour waving behind him as he approached.

“Santa,” the elf asked, out of breath, “what do we do?”

“Hell if I know,” Santa said. “How did this happen?”

“No idea,” Falbut answered, “although I did hear Bloktin mention something about ‘global warming’ right before he fell into a hole.”

Craaaack!

At the far end of the street, a building Santa recognized as The Naughty Elf, the Pole’s only strip club—its neon sign displaying a male elf being spanked by a buxom, scantily-clad female –trembled, then began to tilt to one side. Santa first thought he was imagining the effect, that the stress of what was happening was too much, but as he continued to stare, open-mouthed, the building listed until, with a great slurping sound, it slid out of view into the ocean.

“We are in deep shit,” Santa said to Falbut.

“Every elf for himself,” the elf said. He turned and dashed off the way he had come.

“Get back here you little bastard!” Santa yelled. He was about to tell Falbut that he was fired, but as he opened his mouth to speak, a great hole opened up before the elf.

Falbut, seeing the hole in time, skidded to a halt at the very edge of the jagged wound in the ice cap. Leaning back, he reached up to wipe his brow in relief just as a walrus shot out from the water, snatched the tiny elf in its maw, and dragged him into the black depths.

Santa had seen enough. There was nothing he could do to save the elves, the buildings, or the thousand of toys in the warehouses adjacent to the workshop. Everything he had spent centuries working for was going to ruin, sinking into the Arctic Ocean like some failed luxury liner. He might, however, save what mattered the most.

Santa turned and ran back for his front door. He could hear the ice splintering beneath him and, in some places, it gave way completely and only his forward momentum kept him from falling into the water. He reached the front door just as the building across the street, an Italian restaurant that he particularly enjoyed, shivering and plunged into the ocean like a person in a dunking booth.

Sprinting back through the kitchen, Santa could feel the floor of the building beneath him shifting and heaving as the ice below cracked. He had no idea how long his house would stay above the surface, so he took the steps three at a time, knowing that each second placed him closer to an icy depth.

“What is going on out there?” Mrs. Claus asked as Santa burst into the room. She was sitting up in bed now, the covers pulled up around her neck.

Santa ignored her question. Instead, he dove for his sack lying on the floor next to the bed.

“What are you doing?”

Santa again ignored her, too focused on the task at hand to lose precious time answering. He rummaged around in the bag, his arm inside to the shoulder, groping blindly and hoping that he was right, that the item he needed was still in there.

The house seemed to jump, throwing Mrs. Claus on top of Santa as his fingers settled on what he had been searching for. The two of them rolled in a heap to one corner of the room as the house, having jumped, had come down crooked and now leaned hard to one side.

Santa, sore and battered, refused to let go of what was clutched in his hand. With a hard pull, he managed to throw his wife off of him while removing from the bag a large, folded pile of yellow rubber.

“You better tell me what—“

Santa reached around the yellow mound until he found what looked like a loose piece of rope hanging from it. This he grabbed and pulled. The thing in his hands hissed and expanded, its various folds unfolding until a large rubber raft lay in their bedroom.

Mrs. Claus’s face went as white as her hair.

“What’s that for?” she asked in a timid voice.

“We have to get outside,” Santa said.

The house shifted again, this time drawing almost level, but sinking a few inches so fast that Mr. and Mrs. Claus bounced off the floor.

Mrs. Claus grabbed her robe from her bedside chair and threw it on while Santa grabbed his sack and threw it into the raft.

Downstairs, Santa could no longer hear the screaming of elves. The only sound he heard, apart from his and his wife’s panicked breathing, was the rush of water pouring into the first floor of his house. Then, a loud popping noise came from somewhere in the house and the lights went out. A silvery shaft of moonlight came through the window at the far end of the room, providing the barest of illumination.

Fumbling through the darkness, Mrs. Claus climbed into the raft and sat down. Santa, however, continued to stand beside it, staring at its shadowy form as though he was waiting for something.

“Are you going to get in?” Mrs. Claus asked him, the dangerous tone of impatience that he so feared returning to her voice.

“I forgot something.”

“Well,” Mrs. Claus said, “it’s a little late now.”

“No,” Santa said, pulling at his beard in frustration. “How are we going to get the raft outside? It won’t fit through the window.”

There was a moment when, even in the darkness of the room, Santa could feel her anger as a palpable force, a wave of fury that, had it occurred earlier, he would have blamed for melting the ice cap. As it was, he could only stand there and hope that he did not spontaneously combust from her gaze.

“I guess I have to do everything myself,” Mrs. Claus said as the house lurched again. Water had reached the second floor and began pouring through the open bedroom door, pooling around Santa’s boots and lapping against the raft in a preliminary effort to lift it from the floor.

In the sparse light, Santa saw his wife reach for his magical sack again. She reached inside and, a moment later, pulled out a long, cylindrical object. Only when she raised it to rest on her shoulder, did he realize what the thing was and flung himself, headfirst, into the raft.

The rocket-propelled grenade flew from the barrel of the launcher, hissing through the bedroom for only a second before striking the far wall, blasting a hole through it with such concussive force that Santa was flipped out of the raft, end over end, to crash into the opposite wall.

As he lay dazed and upside down, Santa could feel the icy water closing around his head until he could no longer breathe. He flailed his arms and managed to right himself into water almost a foot deep and rising. Little chunks of ice floated here and there, gathering around him like small children at a mall.

“Please get into the raft,” Mrs. Claus said, sounding as though she wished he would do anything except what she asked.

Santa stood on wobbly, numb legs and began sloshing his way to the raft as it started moving away from him and toward the gaping hole still smoking in the far wall. He dove for it just as the small boat was about to float beyond his reach and landed with his head at his wife’s feet and his legs still dangling in the freezing water.

“Stopping goofing off and get in the damn boat,” Mrs. Claus said, not moving a finger to help him.

With tremendous effort, Santa Claus pulled himself into the raft just as it slid out of the bedroom and into the winter night. He lay there in the bottom of the boat for some time, gasping and shivering, before he found the strength to sit up and look around.

All around them, chunks of ice, most no bigger than the rubber raft, drifted through the still Arctic waters. Various debris—bits of wood from the buildings, several toys, even the stiff corpse of an elf floating face down in the water—filled the spaces between the pieces of ice. There was no sign of the centuries old operation that Santa had devoted his immortal life to creating. Everything, from the workshop to the elves, was gone.

“This is all your fault,” Mrs. Claus said from the other end of the small raft. “I said you should build your workshop closer to the equator, but you wanted privacy.” She waved her arms around at the empty night. “How do you like this for privacy?”

“Shut up,” Santa said. He thought of all the elves, annoying but loyal, he had lost. He thought of the reindeer, probably locked in their barn as it plunged into the ocean. He thought of the tons and tons of toys that he would not be able to deliver on Christmas Eve.

“I will not shut up,” Mrs. Claus said. “If you think I’m just going to forget what an idiot, what an imbecile you are, you are sadly mistaken.”

Santa reached out and grabbed the sack away from his wife. Reaching inside, he rummaged about until he found what he was searching for and, with a wide grin, pulled out a steel manacle attached to a thick chain.

“I said shut up.” Santa reached with the manacle as he spoke and, with the final word, snapped it shut over his wife’s ankle.

“What are you doing?”

Santa did not answer. Instead, his smile in place the whole time, he pulled arm length after arm length of heavy chain from his bag until, with a grunt of effort, he found other end attached to a heavy metal anchor.

With a small nod to his wife, Santa heaved the anchor over the side of the raft.

“No—you can’t—I mean—please—“ she was about to say something else, but the chain snapped tight and dragged Mrs. Claus, screaming in terror, out of the raft and into the cold, murky depths.

After several minutes of sitting in silence, Santa reached into his magical sack again and pulled out two oars, a battery-operated ceramic space heater, a flare gun with a box of flares, and a bottle of bourbon. He kicked on the heater, took a long pull of the whiskey, placed the bottle between his legs, and took up the oars, wondering how far it was to Canada.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tales of Christmas Past–The Coffee Shop

And we’re back to regular posting.  This one is short and sweet, but I like it.

THE COFFEE SHOP

The sole customer at the Crossroads Diner sat at the counter, both hands holding a steaming cup of coffee. He wore a thin, ragged coat, little protection against the harsh weather of northwestern Minnesota that, even now, was beating with wintry fury at the front windows. The rest of his clothes, from his worn out work boots to his threadbare jeans to his holey flannel shirt, gave him the appearance of a drifter, someone fallen on hard times. Beneath the curtain of his long, brown hair, he stared at the black liquid as though he might divine some truth from the tiny ripples created by the slightest touch of his fingers.

The man was not alone at the diner, but he might as well have been. A young lady stood at the far end of the counter, eyeing him with suspicion. She had not spoken when he came in, no smiling “Merry Christmas” or chestnut comment about the weather. She had simply stood there, silently awaiting his order, and seemed relieved when he sat down and said only, “Coffee”.

He was still on his first cup, even though the sign by the front door advertised free refills.

The door of the diner opened, allowing a blast of cold air into the small space. Snow swirled in to settle on the tables nearest the entrance and napkins blew free of their wire holders in imitation of the flakes. The woman kept her eyes locked on the man at the counter for another second, then spared a look at the newcomer with anxious eyes.

He was short and round, shorter and rounder even than most of the people who portrayed him in malls and parades around the world. His hat was not pointed, but was instead squarish, like a hunter’s cap, with flaps that he had tied to cover his ears, and a deep burgundy instead of the common cherry red. The entire suit, top to bottom, was lined with thick, gray fur that matched the color of his thick beard.

Santa wiped the snow from his eyes and looked around the diner. He smiled, the beard twitching slightly, and stomped the packed snow from his boots before making his way through the tables to the counter. He sat down next to the other man, took off his coat, and looked down at the young woman.

“Coffee,” he said, and she complied, pouring him a cup and placing it in front of him. She started to walk away, but he said, “Leave the pot, if you don’t mind.”

She did, plopping a towel on the counter between the two men and placing the hot decanter atop it.

“That’ll be all for now, I think,” Santa Claus said to the young woman. “Can you give us a bit?”

She nodded, staring at him in wonder, and backed away into the kitchen.

When they were alone, Santa took a sip of his coffee, then said, “How have you been?”

“Oh,” the man said. “hanging in there. And you?”

Santa took another sip of his coffee. “The same, always the same. Licensing agreements and merchandise contracts and royalty payments and drama with the elves and the PETA people complaining about my unethical use of reindeer.” He gave the man a wry grin, his eyes twinkling. “Every year gets a little tougher.”

The man chuckled. “Tell me about it. The polls—if you can believe those things—say I’m fading in the public consciousness, and I can see why. With the Muslims and the liberals and the scientific community all taking shots at me, it’s a miracle anyone remembers me at all.”

Santa set his coffee mug on the counter. “And I certainly don’t help matters. I’m the very symbol of your problem.”

“Don’t be so hard on yourself,” the man said.

“No,” Santa replied, “it’s true. Go into any store in this country right now and what will you find? Me. Santa hats, Santa stickers, Santa-shaped chocolates, plush Santas and animatronic Santas playing a saxophone.” He put one hand on the man’s shoulder and, with the other, pointed at himself. “I don’t even play the saxophone. I can barely play the bass guitar the missus bought me ten or twenty years ago.”

The man smiled, despite himself. “I’m pretty good on drums. Maybe we should start a band.”

“You’re missing the point,” Santa said. “Here I am, the very emblem of commercialism, my chubby ass everywhere, and where are you in amidst my sea of merchandise? I tell you where—nowhere—and I’m a big part of the problem.”

The man looked at Santa. “This is really bothering you, isn’t it?”

Santa bent down over his coffee cup, looking embarrassed. “Well, I am Saint Nicholas. Despite appearances, I do have my priorities straight.”

“I know you do, old friend,” the man said, patting Santa’s back.

They sat again in silence for some time. When both of them had finished their coffee, the man looked up at the clock above the grill.

“You should probably head out,” he said. “You still have half the Western Hemisphere to go.”

“I suppose so,” Santa said, sliding down off the stool. He started for the door, but the man reached out and grabbed his shoulder.

“Look, I don’t blame you, and you shouldn’t blame yourself. You’re not the cause of this mess, just another product of it. You think Thomas Aquinas or Mother Theresa want your responsibility? And, if you really think about it, you really do represent what is right about this season, what it’s all about, even if the message gets a little mixed up these days. Generosity, kindness, faith—all of these things you bring to the world are what we have in common. Except I have to do it without the elves and reindeer, of course.”

The man smiled and Santa, pulling on his coat, smiled back.

“I guess you’re right,” Santa said. “As always.”

“Of course I am.”

The man reached into his coat and pulled out a worn leather wallet, but Santa grabbed him by the forearm.

“No,” Santa said. “My treat.”

“But—“

“No buts,” Santa argued. “You can pick it up next year.”

The man put his wallet away. “If you insist.”

Santa reached into his coat, pulled out a silver money clip, and peeled two twenties from the thick wad of bills it held.

“Business has been good,” Santa said, his cheeks turning a shade of red that had nothing to do with the cold.

Santa made his way to the door and opened it. Snow swirled in about him and he breathed in deeply, closing his eyes. A second later, his eyes darted open and he looked back at the man still seated at the counter.

“I almost forgot,” Santa said. He reached into another pocket of his coat and pulled out a small, wrapped box with a silver bow on top. He weighed it in his hand for a moment, then tossed it to the man.

“What’s this for?” the man asked.

“It’s for you,” Santa said. “After all, it is your birthday.”

With a sly smile, Santa went out into the storm, closing the door behind him.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

We Interrupt Our Regularly Scheduled Programming for “Six to Eight Black Men”

I would normally be posting another of my Christmas stories tonight, but I think I will share what has become a holiday tradition for me.  I didn’t write it, but I damn sure wish I had.

If you’re not familiar with David Sedaris, you should be.  He’s what, back in the day, would have been called a “humorist”.  That is to say, he writes funny things—essays, mostly—which are generally true and offers some universal truth about who he is, who we are, and what life is all about.  He writes about his family, about living in France, and about such simple activities as taking a class in foreign language and traveling overseas.

I came across this piece a few years ago on audio and loved it (“Youth in Asia” is another excellent one) and so I was thrilled when, earlier this year, I found it available on YouTube in the audio version.  So, instead of posting one of my stories tonight, I give you David Sedaris’s “Six to Eight Black Men”, read by the author at Carnegie Hall.

It’s Christmas related.  I promise.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tales of Christmas Past–Santa’s Worst Stop

Of all the stories I’ve written, I probably would have given this one the worst chance of seeing publication.  It was a fun concept and I had a wonderful time writing it, even in the wake of my mother’s death.  She was very traditional about Christmas and would’ve wondered about my sanity had she been around to read it.

That is exactly why I had to write it.

Despite the small chances I gave it for publication, I did find a home for it in the Fall 2010 issue of Ghostlight Magazine.  Ghostlight has since gone to that great writer’s workshop in the sky, but I am thankful to their editors for giving this story a wider audience.  Better still, there are always reprint markets out there for offbeat works like this, so I may be able to inflict it again on some unsuspecting readers out there.

WARNING: This story is NSFW, contains excessively foul language, and is full of explicitly gory detail. It is not recommended for children, people of weak constitution, or people who are very traditional about Christmas.

SANTA’S WORST STOP

Santa Claus, his heavy red coat tossed over the seat of his sleigh, sat on a rooftop and took a moment to stare out at the clear, moonlit night. The Louisiana bayou lay all around him, the canopy of the trees forming a dark wall around the small illuminated patch in which the house rested. Smells of decay and life, sounds of animals, things he never experienced at the sterile North Pole, assaulted him in a dizzying array of sensation. The only familiar intrusions into this fantastic new world, reborn every year, was the subtle musk of the reindeer a few feet away.

Sighing, Santa leaned back against the tiled roof. The house, as isolated as any he would visit tonight, allowed him a place to rest on his yearly world tour, somewhere he would not be spotted by neighboring children hoping to catch a glimpse of him like paparazzi pursuing some celebrity diva. He pulled a Cuban cigar from his shirt pocket, one he picked up from a house in Havana, and lit it with a small flame that sprang from his thumb. He sucked hard on the stogie, watching as the end flared with light, and pulled a chocolate chip cookie from another pocket.

Ah, he thought, life is good.

For a while, he inhaled and blew smoke rings into the air, thinking of nothing in particular. He was near the end of his run and things had gone smoothly, even with all the trouble brewing in the world. Thankfully, naughty and nice only applied to children, or he would have needed an extra sleigh to haul all the coal.

When he felt he’d been idle long enough, he stood up. With his powers, he could manipulate time easily enough, but he didn’t want to allow himself to rest too long, preferring to push on through the weariness caused by his annual trek across space and time to reward the good little children of the world. Well, okay, the good little Christian children. The good little Christian children whose parents had enough money . . .

Why get bogged down in the politics of it? He brought the shit, the kids played with the shit. Wash, rinse, repeat.

He adjusted his suspenders and, careful not to catch it on his cigar, pulled on his coat. He hated the heavy thing once he got into these warmer climates, but he knew his image demanded that he show up in full uniform, no matter how much he would have liked to slip down a chimney in Brazil or Liberia wearing nothing but a red and green Speedo.

No, the Speedo would have to wait a week or so. As he threw the stub of the cigar off the rooftop, he thought of his private island in the south Pacific. Primo surfing, drinks served in hollowed out coconut halves, and Mrs. Claus sunbathing in the nude.

Yes, life is good, he thought. Vacation is better.

Santa buttoned his coat and nodded to the reindeer, who stood in front of the sleigh regarding him with bored impatience. He was again thankful that the smelly shit factories couldn’t talk. If the decision were up to him, he’d replace the beasts with something else, something cooler. Polar bears, perhaps. Considering how the things were dying out, he thought they could probably use the employment. Nobody gives a damn about reindeer other than the ones who pulls his sleigh, but everyone loves polar bears.

He walked to the chimney, thinking of how absurd it was for a house, and not even a very nice house, in Louisiana to have a chimney. Did it really get cold enough for someone to need a fireplace or was it just for some redneck to impress the buck-toothed whores he picked up at the local bar?

Santa climbed on top of the chimney and shimmied down, wondering how he had ever become so cynical. Very un-Santalike.

Half-landing, half materializing like some character from Star Trek, Santa hiked his bag up on his shoulder and looked around. Obviously, whoever lived here was a fan. The small room was decorated, floor to ceiling, with hundreds, if not thousands, of Santas. Santas took up every available inch of every flat surface in the room, from the mantle to the tables to even most of the floor, allowing just a narrow passage for someone to walk. Father Christmas ornaments hung on nearly every branch of the tree, some so heavy they weighed the limb down over tops of other Santa-bearing boughs. There were Papa Noels on the walls, atop the small television in the corner, even on the throw draped across the sofa. Dean Martin was singing “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” from a radio somewhere in the room. To the real-life Saint Nick standing by the fireplace, it reminded him of the time he ate some LSD-laced cookies at some house in San Bernadino, a stunt that had landed the kids, and the parents, there on the permanent naughty list. The whole effect, the massive overkill of devotion, made him a bit nauseous.

So stunned by the overpopulations of faux hims was Santa, that it took him a moment to realize something else was making him nauseous. A stench, something that he could never recall smelling in all his many, many years of demigodhood, struck Santa with almost physical force, reaching down his esophagus and crumpling his stomach like a piece of paper.

Santa looked around the room, searching for the source of the odor, and a movement caught his eye. He was well-tuned to slight movements, having spent centuries watching for any little children that might have stayed up to spy on him, and his keen senses noticed that the throw over the sofa, bearing images of him that made him appear to be raging drunk, slid back an inch, then stopped, slid another inch, and stopped.

Perplexed, Santa took a step forward and heard, as Dean Martin gave way to The Beach Boys singing “Little Saint Nick”, what sounded like someone eating. He could hear the smacking of lips and, very quiet, a rhythmic chewing sound followed by an almost imperceptible swallow.

He took another step forward and stepped on the button for an animated Santa that played the saxophone and shook his hips like an arthritic belly dancer. The toy blared to life and Santa winced.

The smacking, the chewing, the swallowing all stopped at once.

Santa watched as the throw slid slowly, but steadily, over the top of the sofa until it vanished from sight. Then, a hand, emaciated and covered in blood, reached up and grasped the back of the sofa. A face followed, sunken and sallow, its lower half dripping the same fresh blood as the hand. The eyes occupying the face, milky white, flared as they focused on Santa.

“Holy fuck!” Santa yelled as the zombie drew slowly to its feet. It’s clothing, what wasn’t covered in red stains, was filthy as though the creature had trudged through the surrounding swamp to get to the house. It’s skin hung from its body, it seemed, more out of habit than for any practical purpose. In places, it was sheared away, leaving exposed bones that the abomination didn’t seem to notice.

The milky eyes fixed on Santa and the thing’s face changed. It looked hungry.

Santa’s first instinct was to shoot back up the chimney and get the hell out of dodge. He backed up to the fireplace as the zombie turned its head sideways, regarding his considerable bulk like a full Christmas feast—and God bless us, every one. Holding his bag firmly, he touched his nose, triggering the magic that would shoot him back up the chimney and outside.

Nothing happened.

He touched his nose again, feeling the sweat dripping down it.

Nothing happened again.

The zombie began his way around the end of the sofa, his shuffling steps knocking Santas aside like a strong wind felling trees.

Santa grabbed his nose so hard it brought tears to his eyes.

Nothing happened for the third time.

The zombie, clear of the sofa, lunged for Santa.

Being Santa Claus, as Santa would tell anyone who would listen, is not all cookies and elf slaves. There are occupational risks to being Santa. There were attack dogs that, he had found, could usually be bought off with a nice bone or, if the case required, pepper sprayed. There were nasty older brothers who would set booby traps at the fireplace, leaving Santa cleaning up egg, or worse, from his uniform. There were the aforementioned acid cookies. Being Santa, he had learned, could be very hazardous to one’s health.

But at no point in his centuries of service, in the millions of houses he had visited, had he ever been in mortal fear of being eaten.

The zombie stretched out for him with its blood-caked fingers and Santa, reacting on pure instinct, swung his huge bag off his shoulder in a wide arc that intercepted the creature just as it touched his red coat. The zombie, weighing far less in death than it would have in life, bounced off the sack like a racquetball, crashing through a sea of Santas before smashing into the television.

Above Santa’s pounding heart, he heard The Beach Boys fade and Madonna start singing “Santa Baby”.

He stepped away from the fireplace, going against his better judgment, to peek around the sofa. A middle-age woman lay in the floor, her body partially covered by the Drunken Santa throw. Her nightgown, a Saint Nicholas-covered fleece garment, was open, revealing a gaping hole in her abdomen where the creature had ripped apart her flesh and feasted until Santa had arrived as a possible second course. The sight of the woman, her eyes wide, her face filled with silent terror, nearly made Santa toss his cookies. And that, after a nearly full night of sampling, would have made quite a mess.

Santa was so captivated by the dead woman lying on the floor that he almost didn’t hear the stirring to his left. He turned just in time to see the zombie straighten and charge him again. Jumping back, he swung his bag around again, hoping to knock the creature into the fireplace, but missed as the zombie hesitated as the velvet weapon whooshed past him.

The zombie darted in again, but Santa, reversing the direction of the bag with skill born of years of handling it, caught it just in time and sent it flipping over the arm of the sofa to crash into the Santa-laden coffee table. The small, cheap piece of furniture collapsed beneath the weight of the creature as animatronic Santas went off in a discordant symphony.

Santa moved back to the fireplace and tried to exit again and, again, found his magic failing him. He wondered if the stress of the situation was somehow blocking it or, even worse, if the zombie somehow was keeping him from escaping.

He had no time to think about it, however, as the undead thing started rising again where it had fallen.

Santa dropped his bag and moved around the room, putting the sofa between him and the zombie. He looked for something he could use as a weapon, but all he kept seeing were more miniature images of himself, none of which would prove very useful in mortal combat.

The zombie stood up and looked at Santa. Its face had changed again. Now, it looked hungry and pissed off. It opened its mouth, revealing elongated, wicked teeth and hissed.

“What, you want me to just hold still and let you fucking eat me?” Santa asked. “I don’t think so.”

The zombie hissed again and started moving around the sofa. Santa mirrored the move, careful not to step on, or in, the dead woman, keeping the heavy piece of furniture between them. The zombie moved the other way, and again, Santa moved the opposite direction. Then, the creature jumped up onto the sofa and, with another loud hiss, leapt over the back of the piece, arms outstretched.

Santa let out a high-pitched, girlish scream and did the only thing he had time to do. Grabbing the Christmas tree, he pulled it between himself and the zombie just as the bloody hands clawed for his face. The thing pressed forward, its arms extended through the tree on either side of the trunk, its snapping teeth biting off branches on the other side.

Keeping the tree at arm’s length, Santa struggled to find a way out of his predicament. The zombie’s hands were clutching at his sleeves as he held the tree out in front of him like a shield.

Santa had a flash of insight as he struggled against the hands. Pulling on the strings of lights that wound around the pine, he began wrapping the green wires around the zombie’s wrists, tying them up like a rodeo rider roping a calf. Soon, the hands could only flail against themselves in a clapping motion and the zombie was stuck, unable to free itself from the tree. With a great heave, Santa sent the tree tumbling over sideways and the zombie, hissing like an enraged cat, went over with it.

“Ha! Take that!” Santa yelled as the zombie thrashed to extricate itself.

The zombie jerked as though it was having a seizure, its body pulling back away from the tree. The light cords held tight to the creature’s wrists—working with flying reindeer all the time, you have to know how to tie a good knot—but with a sickening, ripping sound, the zombie’s left arm tore away from its shoulder. With its right hand, it then pulled the severed limb through the tree on the other side and stood up, holding the still-wagging appendage like a club as the music changed to the Jackson 5’s “Up on the Housetop”.

“Oh, shit,” Santa whispered as the zombie started toward him again. It shuffled forward, its foot caught in the fabric of Santa’s bag of presents.

The bag, Santa thought. The presents.

The realization struck Santa with a wave of nausea that matched the one from his initial smell of the room. How had had been so stupid, so incredibly dense, he could only attribute to the panic of finding a member of the undead eating a dead body in a room full of hims.

Santa Claus does one thing. He leaves gifts. That’s his gig. Santa, trying to leave at the first sight of the zombie was violating the primary rule of his job, the entire reason he had those magical powers to begin with.

For his powers to work, he now realized, he had to do what he came to do. He had to deliver his gifts.

The next problem, now that he had solved the first, was that the zombie stood between him and his magical bag of gifts, a deadly obstacle to the completion of his task. And it was coming closer.

Santa backed away, his eyes shifting from the zombie, now approaching him more cautiously that it had before, and the magic bag that represented his salvation. He stood in the doorway to the kitchen and dared a glance over his shoulder. The kitchen door stood ajar, the muggy swamp air rolling in over a set of muddy footprints that moved from outside across to the dead woman lying on the floor.

He turned just in time to see the zombie lunge for him again.

Santa, though, had a plan to repel this attack. Clutching one of the dining room chairs, he picked it up, stabbed out with the legs, and caught the zombie in mid-air. With a hard twist, he sent both chair and zombie sliding across the tiled kitchen floor where they crashed hard into the refrigerator. Hundreds of magnets, all showing some representation of a particular jolly fat man, fell upon the creature like rain as it hissed in protest.

Santa was moving again before the last magnet hit the floor. He jumped the dead woman and nearly tripped over a miniature him on a motorcycle before scooping up his bag and thrusting his hand inside.

“Come on,” he begged as he dug around, shoulder-deep in the red velvet. At last, he pulled out the first gift, unwrapped it, and found a life-sized inflatable Santa Claus. He threw the box at the woman’s corpse in the floor and it bounced off her blood-soaked shoulder.

“Merry Christmas, you fucking stalker!” he yelled at the dead woman, his arm disappearing again into the bag.

The zombie appeared in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

“If I pull out another damn me from this bag—“ Santa said, but he stopped when his hand found another item and he pulled out a long, heavy package, wrapped in camouflage paper and tied with a glittery red ribbon.

Again, Santa tore into the package, another violation of his magical contract, but one that he thought could be ignored under the circumstances. He suspected what would be in the narrow box and was not disappointed when a double-barrel Remington shotgun rolled out into his shaking hands.

The zombie inched closer to him, more wary than ever, a bloody snarl curling the remains of its lips. Its fingers bent into claws as it moved closer to its intended victim.

Santa raised the shotgun to his shoulder, aimed for the zombie’s head no more than six feet away, and pulled the trigger.

Click.

“Motherfucker!” Santa roared.

The zombie was nearly close enough to touch him now and Santa was moved to try something desperate. Taking up a stuffed Santa doll, weighted at the bottom to make it stand up, Santa called forth the same thumb-tip flame he had used to light his cigar and put it to the doll. The cotton material caught at once and, without hesitation, he flung the flaming doll at the zombie.

The zombie, still wet from its trek through the swamp and the blood covering its face and body, watched as the flaming Santa struck it and bounced off, doing no more harm to it than a sprig of mistletoe.

Santa, his hand already back in the magical bag, could not help his mouth dropping open in disappointment. A moment later, though, that disappointment changed to triumph, followed closely by alarm.

The flaming Santa doll, while doing no direct harm to the zombie, landed on the old throw half-draped over the dead woman at its feet. The throw, and the sofa next to it, flared into hellish life, the conflagration quickly spreading across the many, many Santa figures and decorations across the crowded room. In moments, the entire room looked like the inside of a lit fireplace.

The zombie took a step back to avoid the burning throw, but could not escape the ring of fire that wound around it. It turned left and right, looking for some avenue to freedom and, finding none, turned its baleful gaze back to Santa.

The radio, halfway through Elvis Presley singing “Here Comes Santa Claus”, warbled, then died, as it melted.

Santa dug into the bag, knowing that this house required one more gift. He could just touch it with its fingers, as though the bag knew the danger of his situation and wanted to torture him. Finally, he managed to grab hold of the box—a heavy one—and pull it free of the bag.

It was the right size and shape and Santa, following the pattern of logic from the last gift, knew it was a box of shotgun shells. He tore the paper away from the nondescript brown container and pried it open with his thick fingers.

It was not shotgun shells. Instead, an assortment of artificial fishing baits and lead sinker weights sat in little compartments, awaiting a fishing trip that would never come.

The zombie, sensing its end drawing near in the raging inferno, charged through the fire toward Santa, the orange, burning tongues finally biting the tattered remains of its clothing enough to engulf it.

Santa screamed in anger and frustration as he hurled the tackle box at the zombie. The heavy sinkers struck the zombie’s head like birdshot, some of the various baits clinging to the pallid skin like odd piercings. The overall effect, though, stopped the zombie just long enough for Santa to realize that, with all the presents delivered to this house, he could get the hell out.

He reached for his nose, but the zombie’s flaming hand, the skin curling black around Santa’s wrist, grabbed him, pulling his arm down.

Santa, enraged beyond anything he could remember in all his many long years of life, bellowed a roar that drowned out the crackling symphony of the flames all around him. Despite the heat gathering around him, despite the flaming hand clutching him, despite the gnashing teeth of the zombie zooming toward his face, Santa Claus would not be denied.

With a powerful jerk, made possible by his centuries of hauling his heavy bag of gifts, he pulled the zombie toward him and, with a hard thrust, bounced the fiery, undead creature off his belly. The zombie snapped its teeth once, nearly taking off the tip of Santa’s nose, before flying back away into the flames, it’s severed left hand still clutching Santa’s wrist.

The flames reached across the floor and the white fur around Santa’s boots began to blacken, but a second later, he was gone.

Back on the roof, smoke rising all around him, Santa Claus peeled off the still-protesting hand of the zombie and flung it off into the swamp. He wiped off the pieces of rotted skin the clung to him and, with a quick pinch, put out the small fire that was sending smoke up from the cuff around his left boot. He flipped into the sleigh, taking the reins so he could leave before the roof collapsed beneath him.

He snapped the reins, but nothing happened.

“Come on,” Santa demanded, waving his hands at the reindeer. “We have to go.”

As one, the eight reindeer turned and looked at their master. Their eyes, normally heavy-lidded and submissive, were wide and alert. And angry. From their mouths, billowing out around the metal bits like clouds in an approaching storm, a milky white foam dripped onto the roof.

Placing his weary head in his hands, Santa Claus ignored his rabid reindeer and for the first time in his existence, wished he was the Easter Bunny.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tales of Christmas Past–The Present

In light of the events of today in Connecticut, I thought about holding off on my Christmas stories for a few days.  However, I know that in the midst of such darkness, we must always look for the light.  This story, my first of this series, is a story of tragedy and while it’s far from the scope of today’s horror, it is also a story of loss and, more importantly, hope after loss.  It is a story of light after the darkness, and we could all use a little of that right now.

So, with a heavy heart, I give you my first Christmas story—The Present. 

THE PRESENT

All was in place. Thomas scanned the few objects lying on the table before him, checking that he hadn’t forgotten anything. The pen, the paper, the loaded gun—that’s all he would need, really. He thought about adding a cigarette or the bottle of Maker’s Mark in the cabinet downstairs, but he had quit smoking before he turned twenty and the bourbon now seemed unnecessary. No, he thought, these things would do.

He could hear the sounds of Christmas carols from across the street. “O, Christmas Tree” drifted like snow through the thin window glass. The Bakers were having their usual family Christmas, complete with drunken caroling that often lasted until the wee hours of the morning. The house itself stood as a testament to seasonal marketing—not an inch of building or lawn, was left undecorated by lights, holly, or inflatable figures. A fleet of cars and trucks stood parked in the snow outside the house, dark beneath the street lamps. The sight of them, setting aside their familial differences, their past offenses, for one night of good cheer and peace, made Thomas envy them.

There are some offenses, he knew, that could never be set aside.

As “O, Christmas Tree” ended in a wave of raucous laughter, the music for “Silent Night” started, oxymoronic at such volume. Thomas turned away from the window, afraid that anger and longing would distract him from his plans. He closed the curtains, blocking out enough of the music so that only a warbled melody penetrated his room.

Sitting down at the table, he took up the pen. He had been thinking of what to write for some time, had completed mental draft after mental draft, each one evolving from the previous one into what he hoped would be a perfect suicide note. Even during the summer, right after Carla had left him and he decided to take his own life, he was scripting his final words in his head. At work, during showers, during his meals alone, usually frozen dinners or take out, he would drift into a trance-like state of composition, his expression blank as he called forth the words that would be his lasting legacy, the only one he had to replace the one he had destroyed.

Now that the time had come to conjure the words to paper, however, they would not come. As though suspended in the ether, unwilling or unable to take physical form, they floated loose in his head, rejecting his desire to put them in some practical order. He held the pen over the paper, commanding the language to pour out, but the pen and the hand holding it remained still. In frustration, he threw the pen down on the table and, seizing the paper, sent it airborne with a flick of his wrist. He watched as the pieces fluttered and settled in various points around the room, scattered as his life had been scattered for the past year.

He sat still for only a moment, looking out the frosted window, before he rose and started to gather the loose paper. Once he had it all in one pile again, neatly arranged and lying next to the pen on the table, he sat back down. He stared at the paper as though willing the words he wanted to say to appear on the blank pages, even if he was not sure what those words would be. Only when his eyes began to water did he even blink.

After nearly a half hour, he picked up the pen again. He resigned himself to knowing that anything he wrote down would not be a sufficient explanation. Then again, he reasoned, there really wasn’t anyone who needed an explanation. Carla was gone, Brady was gone. Soon, he would be gone, too.

He picked up the pen again and pulled one sheet of paper from the top of the stack. Before he had time to change his mind or second guess himself, he wrote. His hasty scrawl was barely legible, but anyone finding his body would be able to decipher the words and that was all he cared about.

I’m sorry, the note said.

It wasn’t much, but Thomas knew it was enough. It was all he had to say.

He folded the note into thirds and held it down flat with his hand on the table. He was afraid to put it into an envelope, afraid that it might be cast aside as a meaningless piece of mail by whoever came to investigate the sound of a gunshot or, he grimaced, the stench. He spent a long moment wondering how his body would look after a few weeks of decay. The house stayed cold in the winter, but he doubted it would be cold enough to prevent at least some of his tissues from breaking down. Looking up, he regarded his image in the mirror across the room. He had lost a significant amount of weight over the past year–somehow food didn’t seem as appealing after what he did to Brady–and the face staring back at him, pale and haunted, was not his own. That face, the one he saw now, was the face of his son’s murderer.

Thomas took up the pen again and thought for a moment who to address the note to. Finally, he settled again on the basics, scribbling “Whoever” on the upturned third of the paper and pushing it to the center. He lay the pen carefully next to it, lined up at a perfect angle to both paper and the edge of the table. Somehow, he figured if the only thing left untidy when he was done was himself, the situation would look better for him.

He glanced back up at the mirror again. The murderer’s face was smiling at him as if to mock his grief, his loss.

Anger welled up inside Thomas, entwining with his grief to a thread of steel that gave his hand strength to take up the gun. The feel of the Ruger in his hand, the evil metal against his skin, made him almost lose his nerve. He knew that what he was about to do was cowardice, a luxury he did not deserve after what he had done to his son, yet cowardice was a mild thing compared to that monstrous act. The events played through his mind again, as they had thousands of times over the past year. He fought against the memories, but they came on anyway, forcing him to relive them again one more time before he made his last, desperate attempt at escape.

“What was that?” Carla asks him, he voice accompanied in the dark by her hand on his shoulder.

Thomas hears the noise and is up at once. He does not bother getting dressed, afraid of the noise even the pajama pants at the foot of his bed might cause. He imagines himself pulling on one leg, then tripping as he tried to pull on the other one.

Instead, he pulls the Ruger from the drawer in the bedside table. Flipping the safety, he pads to the bedroom door. The door is shut, but the house is new and the doors still open on quiet, well-oiled hinges. He eases it open, feeling the breeze attacking his privates, and steps into the hall.

The only light he can see is the flickering glow from the Christmas tree downstairs, radiating up the stairwell like a neon aurora. He looks to the other end of the hall and sees Brady’s door is still closed. The boy could sleep through just about anything, he knew, and he is now very glad of the fact.

Ruger in hand, he comes to the corner of the stairwell and peaks around, looking down the long, walnut bannister. At once, he sees the shadow amidst the blues and greens and reds dancing across the living room. He had seen on the news only a few days ago how burglary rose sharply in the days leading up to Christmas, thieves looking to take advantage of well-lit loot, packaged for the taking. He considers going back to the bedroom to call the police, but the Ruger makes him bold and he starts down the stairs.

He takes the first step down in absolute silence. He can hear the rustling of the wrapped presents down stairs and wonders if he is in time to save them all or if the thief has already managed to get some outside. He takes two more steps down before the idea of an accomplice, someone who might be waiting just around the corner at the bottom of the stairs, comes into his head. Distracted, he slips off one step, his foot landing hard on the step below and nearly causing him to lose his balance.

The shuffling downstairs stops. The shadow grows longer as the figure comes to the bottom of the stairs.

The gun goes off as the shadow materializes into a dark mass below him. He does not remember, even later, pulling the trigger, but he knows he must have. The dark shape crumples to the floor.

Thomas all but leaps down the remaining stairs in one stride. Only when he reaches the bottom does he realize what a terrible, terrible mistake he has made.

Brady, the front of his Spiderman pajama shirt stained dark in the thin light by blood, looks up at him. Thomas looks back, seeing not pain or shock or confusion.

Looking in his dying son’s eyes, he sees remorse.

“Just wanted . . . to shake . . . a few . . . .” Then, he is gone.

Tears streamed unchecked down Thomas’s cheeks as he brought the gun up. He had contemplated many times over the previous months whether to go through the roof of the mouth or through the temple, but now that the moment is upon him, the choice was made almost automatically. He stuck the barrel of the bloodthirsty Ruger into his mouth, his teeth chattering against the metal from his uncontrolled sobbing. He closed his eyes.

“Daddy?”

At first, Thomas thought the voice was a continuation of the memory, or some other memory seeking to plague him in his moment of ultimate weakness. His eyes flashed open a moment, then closed again. His finger brushed the trigger.

“Daddy?”

He was sure he heard it this time, physically heard it, the sound originating from somewhere outside his head. His eyes opened and, gun still in his mouth, he looked at the door.

Brady, whole and alive and unhurt, stood in the hallway. Instead of remorse on his round face, though, Thomas saw confusion and fear in his son’s expression. The boy rubbed his eyes in a childish, innocent way, but the concern did not fade when his hands dropped again to his side.

Thomas pulled the gun from his mouth. The tears streaming harder now, he reached up to wipe them away, more afraid of what he was seeing than of a violent, sudden death. His hand lowered the gun to the table and, by the time it reached the wooden surface, he was too weak to hold it any longer.

“Brady?” he asked in a hoarse whisper.

The boy turned away from him and disappeared down the hall.

Thomas was on his feet and at the door in less than a second. He plunged through into the hall and looked around, his fear growing.

He spotted Brady descending the stairs. The boy gave him a quick glance and raised a small hand, beckoning him to follow.

Four long strides brought Thomas to the top of the stairs. He looked down the steps for his son, but did not see him. Instead, he saw the familiar flickering light in a myriad of colors. The memory of the previous year crashed upon him like rough waves, but he railed against it, the fresh image of his son, alive and there, a talisman against his grief and guilt. He moved down the stairs at nearly a run and tumbled down the last few steps, landing painfully on his knees.

The living room was exactly as it had been the day his son had died. Three stockings, their white cuffs now rimmed at the top with a brown layer of dust, hung over the mantle above the gas fireplace. Stacks of presents rested beneath the artificial tree, all collecting their own version of neglect.

The tree itself, though, was the most striking thing in the room to Thomas. For a year, since Carla had unplugged it as the police investigators questioned him about Brady’s death, the tree had been dark, standing sentinel over all the gifts the boy would never open. Now, the tree’s lights twinkled with renewed life, awakened after their long time of mourning. The lights cut into Thomas, making him wince and shield his eyes.

After several long moments, Thomas adjusted to the light and looked at the tree. It was beautiful–Carla had done an excellent job of decorating it so that every bulb, every ornament, seemed in the exact place it was meant to be. What had served for so long as a reflection of his own inner darkness now filled him up with a feeling so long forgotten that he barely recognized it.

The feeling grew stronger when he saw Brady standing next to the tree. The boy remained silent, but looked at his father with absolute love. Then, he turned and looked down at the presents before his bare feet, arranged just as they had been the previous Christmas. He looked back at his father, smiled, then pointed down behind a box that, Thomas knew, contained a new bicycle his son would never ride.

Brady smiled again, wider this time, then vanished.

“Brady?” Thomas whispered. “Brady, come back.” When his son did not comply, he whispered again.

“Brady?”

Thomas knew his son was gone again and he leaned forward on the floor and wept, his tears soaking into the carpet. He lay sobbing for a long, long time, feeling his year-old wound reopened and bleeding. When he could no longer bend at the waste on his knees, he rolled on his side and cried until he could cry no more.

At last, he sat up. The silence around him was complete. He guessed the party across the street, now miles and years away in his own mind, was over, the guests either gone home or passed out drunk.

In his renewed loss, he almost forgot what the image of Brady, now he knew that it was only an image, was doing before he disappeared. He pulled himself across the floor, his legs still too weak to support him, waded through the presents, and moved the wrapped bicycle out of his way.

A small box, crudely wrapped in yellowed Sunday comics, lay tucked behind the larger package. It looked as though half a roll of tape had been used to seal the paper and a label bearing four laboriously printed words stuck to the top.

To Daddy. From Brady.

Thomas took the package in his hands, regarding it as the greatest find in the history of mankind. He cradled it against his chest, feeling with his fingertips the extreme care his son had taken in wrapping the gift so completely. Part of him did not want to unwrap it, afraid of undoing his son’s work, but he knew that Brady would not have pointed it out had his intention been other than for his father to open it.

Thomas worked on the gift for several minutes, removing intact as much of the wrapping as possible. Regardless of what lay within, the wrapping itself, the love that seemed to radiate from it, meant more to him than anything else he owned. The paper slid off, retaining most of its shape save for the open end, revealing a small, unmarked shoe box, also sealed with too much tape. He went around the lid, pulling up each piece of tape individually, then lifted off the lid.

At first, he could not tell what it was. He unwrapped the tissue paper surrounding it and saw a picture frame, constructed of popsicle sticks, glue, and tape, spill into his open hand. The picture inside was of him and Brady, father and son, at Disney World, the shiny sphere of Epcot in the background behind their matching Mickey Mouse caps. Colorful foam letters at the top spelled out “World’s Greatest” while more letters at the bottom finished with “Dad”.

World’s Greatest Dad, Thomas thought.

He thought he had finished crying, but the frail, handmade object proved him wrong. He cried until he could no longer breath, lying curled up beneath the flickering lights of the tree, finally falling asleep, the popsicle frame still clutched to his chest.

When he woke, daylight streamed in from outside. Christmas Day had dawned and outside he could hear the renewed revelry from the Baker residence. The tree above him still blinked and the popsicle frame still rested in his hand.

He stood up, his muscles sore from his wracking sobs, and made his way to the stairs, the frame still clutched to his chest. His feet ascended the steps, driven by sheer will, and took him into the bedroom. Taking the note, he crumbled it with his free hand and dropped it into the waste bin. He picked the gun up by the barrel as though afraid it might seek of its own free will to end what he had begun the night before. He carried it back downstairs, keeping it far from the popsicle stick frame, and took it outside. The dusting of snow bit into his bare feet, but he barely noticed. Making his way around the corner of the house, he opened the trash can with the hand holding the Ruger, then dropped the gun in.

Back inside, he sat in the living room, holding the frame, almost afraid to look at it in case it turned out to not be real.

He picked up the phone and dialed. Carla answered on the second ring.

“Merry Christmas,” she said, not sounding merry at all.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “I’m sorry for everything.”

There was a long pause. “I know.”

“Can you come by later? I . . . I want to talk.”

Another long pause. “Yeah. I guess I can do that.”

“That’d be great.”

They hung up and Thomas set the phone down, feeling for the first time since killing his son, that, maybe, all was not lost. Maybe, he thought, sometimes all you needed was love and hope.

And lots of tape.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Terra Incognita–Chapter 14

It’s been a bit since I posted a new chapter on here, but I have been finishing up classes for the semester and, with that out of the way, I can resume regularly scheduled programming.  There are only four chapters to post after this one—fairly long chapters, at that—but I hope to have the whole damnable thing posted by the end of this week….

BECAUSE I will start posting my Christmas stories next week.  I am excited about this because, with my life in pure upheaval, I didn’t write any last year.  So far, I have one complete and began work on another this evening which I hope to finish over the next couple of days.  These things are much easier when I don’t have papers on management to work on.  And, I am considering a special bonus Christmas post after all the Christmas stories are up.

Anyway, here’s the latest episode of Marcus & Heather’s Not-So-Excellent Adventure.  Enjoy and pardon me for anything that sucks.

Chapter 14

Reaching the closest sewer grate had proven easier than Marcus had feared. They found an entrance to the tunnels a few dozen yards from the entrance to the dungeons, but in the opposite direction as the king’s home. The iron slab had been damnably heavy, requiring both Marcus and Wilkey to strain to pry it from its hole.

Just as things seemed to be going extraordinarily well, Marcus saw their first complication. The first and only time he had visited the dwarven sewer system, the dank water flowing inside moved along like a forest stream, mildly burbling along its course to elsewhere. This time, however, he heard the torrent of water before he saw it, a deep river flowing under the dwarven city.

Taking a chance, Marcus fashioned a torch from some discarded fabric he found nearby and lit it, generating the flame in his hand once again. He handed the makeshift torch to Wilkey.

“I’ll lower you down,” he said.

“What? Are you crazy?”

“This was your idea and unless you think you can hold me up by my ankles, I’m going to lower you down so you can take a look around,” Marcus returned.

Wilkey gave up the argument, but when he lowered himself on his stomach to the edge of the hole, his face lit up. “Wait,” he said just as Marcus was about to grab his legs, “there’s a ladder.”

Indeed there was a ladder, dark iron bars set against the slightly darker rock. Marcus put a foot down to test their sturdiness and, satisfied, climbed down the half dozen remaining rungs until only open space and rushing water lay before him. The smell of the water so close to where the river ran into the city was not as bad as he had expected, but the cold, dank air still made him shiver as he braced himself.

Holding his breath, he stepped back from the ladder and allowed himself to drop. The icy water that rushed up to swallow him feel like one of the people, idiots he called them, that celebrated winter by jumping into a frozen river. As his head sank below the surface, he thought he could see his breath being forced from his body in a white cloud of vapor.

The flow of the river was not particularly fierce, but when he surfaced, he still found himself in several yards from the ladder. He could see dim flickering light radiating down from the torch, then he saw a dark form drop into the water as Wilkey followed him. A moment of fear seized him, stronger than the grip of the chill water surrounding his body, as he tried to remember if he had ever seen the halfling swim. His fears were soon alleviated, though, as the dark outline of Wilkey’s head poked out above the surface of the water.

Marcus stood to his maximum height and found the water reached to just below his shoulders. He knew that meant the halfling would be just too short to stand upright without drowning and hoped Wilkey would be able to swim long enough for them to reach Heather. For now, he saw the halfling bobbing up and down calmly enough, flowing toward him in the current which pushed Marcus like a strong wind.

“I think,” Wilkey started, pausing as his mouth submerged again, “that we just need to follow this tunnel straight ahead to get there. We just have to know when we’ve gone far enough.”

That proved easier said than done. As they allowed themselves to be helped by the current of the river, they found themselves in darkness as thick as that within Marcus’s cell in the dungeons. He often generated the flame in his hand, but he sometimes needed that hand to steady himself, giving up his concentration and their light to avoid losing his balance.

Along their way, they found a few ladders leading up to the city. Marcus raised Wilkey up to these, allowing the halfing a break from his swimming and giving them a look above to get their bearings. Wilkey would raise the metal as best he could to give himself a tiny peak at the buildings in the direction they were traveling. As long as he could still see the peak of the granite spire, he knew they still had not reached their destination.

They moved on through the water toward, they hoped, Heather. Marcus guessed that they would adjust to the temperature of the water, but as they drew closer, the river around them seemed to grow colder. The chill seeped into their bones and muscles, making them stiff and harder to manipulate in their efforts to remain upright. Wilkey began to tire in the extreme cold, his teeth chattering between rasping breaths. Marcus offered to carry him on his back and Wilkey gratefully accepted.

The water continued to grow colder and Marcus began to feel objects in the water around him. Solid somethings bumped his legs and torso, leaving even colder water in their wake. Holding Wilkey, he could not further investigate as they moved on in the total blackness of the sewer tunnel. Marcus pictured icy rivers he had seen on television and guessed that if the temperature dropped much further, they could simply slide across the surface like penguins fleeing a killer whale.

Marcus’s whole body, particularly his legs, had grown numb, making balance in the water a tricky feat. Still, he trudged on, aware that they had limited time to reach Heather and, hopefully, Lorelei before the Necromancer arrived. Then, he collided with something in the water, not like the light impacts he had been feeling and guessing for ice, but something heavy and much more substantial.

He stopped walking, lowered Wilkey back into the water, and raised his hand, palm up, producing the flame again. A dome of light showed him the surface of the water and now he could see objects floating in it. Bending down, his face near the surface, he peered down into the murky water and saw . . .

“Oh, God!” Marcus breathed.

Floating in the water, bobbing up and down like corks, were dead bodies. Just in the small light he could produce, Marcus saw nearly a half dozen dead dwarves, their thick hair and beards floating in a soggy mass near the surface. The empty faces were in various degrees of decomposition, though all possessed empty eye sockets. Marcus expected to see those black voids fill with red light, but they remained dark, reflecting only the orange glow of Marcus’s flame in their watery cavities.

Each corpse floated perfectly upright, immune to the current Marcus still felt pushing him along the tunnel. Tentatively, Marcus stretched his foot below one to see if the body was chained to the sewer floor and found nothing. He doubted his numb feet would have felt anything had he struck a chain or some other binding, but he certainly would have seen the dwarf move if he had disturbed its restraints. Realizing the corpses were being held by magical means, he felt a chill of fear that surpassed even the icy water surrounding him.

“What’s going on here?” Wilkey asked through chattering teeth.

“It’s the Necromancer,” Marcus whispered. “He’s already been here—may still be here. This is his vanguard, the forces he’ll use to conquer the dwarves when he has me.”

Marcus could feel the halfling treading water behind him and knew that the halfling’s strength would only hold him for a short time before the current dragged him away.

“What do we do? Go back?” Wilkey asked.

“We can’t. We have to go on—through them. If we go back we’ll never reach Heather in time. I don’t know how I know that, but I do. Even if we just go back to the last ladder we passed, we’ll have to fight our way through the dwarves to reach her and I’m not prepared to do that. I don’t even have a weapon.”

“Oh, that reminds me,” the halfling said. His black hair disappeared below the surface of the water and remained submerged for so long that Marcus was about to dive under to search for him. When he did surface, he held a familiar pack in his trembling hands. The wet leather surface was darker than Marcus was used to seeing, but he knew it immediately as his, the one he had recovered in the pub in Yellow Banks, it’s sides glittering all the more from the tiny droplets of water that beaded upon them.

“Reach inside,” Wilkey said.

Marcus did and his hand closed on a cold, metallic surface—the hilt of a sword. He grasped and pulled, drawing the sword out of the small pouch like some magician’s trick and held it in his hand opposite from the fire. The blade still felt heavy and awkward in his grip, but he was suddenly thankful to have at least some defense should they have to fight their way out of the dwarven city.

“Where?” Marcus said, too shocked to say anything more.

“That’s why I had to track you down using their king,” the halfling answered. “I knew we would need the stuff in here sooner or later, so I followed the dwarf carrying them and saw where he stashed it. I think he planned on selling them, but I took them as soon as he left and set off to find you.”

“Okay, you’re forgiven for falling asleep,” Marcus said, then seeing Wilkey start to protest, he raised his hand. “No, I don’t want to hear any more about it. Let me just say thank you and let’s move on to more pressing matters.”

Marcus turned again with the current driving them along the tunnel and faced the dead dwarves, floating ahead of him like hellish buoys. Slowly, trying not to disturb them any more than possible, he slid between the corpses with Wilkey clinging to his back like his wet robes.

The water around the bodies felt several degrees cooler than the water in other parts of the tunnel and Marcus felt some measure of surprise that his initial thought of ice in it had not been on the mark. His lower body, past numb, began to sting painfully beginning at the bottom of his feet and he knew they needed to get out of the water and get warm soon or risk dying of hypothermia.

As he waded, his glowing hand held out before him like a torch, he saw the bodies floating around him grow more concentrated. He was forced to push them aside just to pass between them, their skin and clothes cold and clammy to the touch. The dead dwarves bumped against each other like bowling pins, then resumed their original position as soon as Marcus and Wilkey moved beyond them.

“There must be hundreds of them down here,” Wilkey gasped, horrified awe plainly evident in his tremulous voice. “Where did they all come from?”

“My guess is that a lot of dwarves have disappeared over the last few years. The Necromancer’s probably been abducting them, alive or dead, and storing them down here where the cold water would help preserve them until they were needed. What I don’t understand is why the dwarves haven’t been down here and seen them, or at least seen how much water is flowing through their sewers as opposed to what normally passes through here.”

“I can answer that one,” Wilkey said, readjusting his grip around Marcus’s shoulders. “When I was here before, I heard several dwarves talking about the sewers, how they were haunted and no one would dare enter them unless they did not want to come out again. I thought it was just superstition, but now I don’t think they knew how right they were.”

Marcus looked around at the dead dwarves—men, women, even a few children—forming their gruesome obstacle course all around him. “I have a feeling that they’re all about to find out. There are enough corpses here to take over the whole city. If Chonis thinks the Necromancer will keep his word about protecting them, he needs to take a look down here.”

They walked through the sea of dead dwarves until they reached another ladder that rose up toward the surface. Wilkey climbed atop Marcus’s shoulders, reached up, and grabbed the lowest rung, lifting himself up with some effort due to the weakness of his frozen muscles. As Marcus watched, the halfling climbed into the darkness above him and disappeared from view. He heard the slight scraping of metal against stone as the cover was lifted for Wilkey to look around, then he heard the halfling calling softly to him.

“We’re here.”

Marcus could not ever remember being so glad to arrive somewhere in his life. Storing the sword back in the magical pack, he reached up, allowing the flame in his hand to expire, and grabbed the rung. It was wet where Wilkey’s feet had stood upon it and his soaked body felt like it had doubled its normal weight. Still, he managed to pull himself up out of the water and started to climb. He felt the icy water dripping off his body in a steady stream and as the cold air closed in to replace the water, he felt colder than he had in the water. The chill seemed to radiate from the bodies bobbing below him and followed him up the tunnel like smoke.

He climbed for only a few seconds before his hand reached up to the next rung and touched Wilkey’s foot. The halfling jumped, in spite of himself, and gave a stifled shout.

“Sorry,” he whispered. “With all of them down there . . .”

“Yeah, I understand.”

Marcus heard the sound of Wilkey raising the metal grate again and this time could see a thin sliver of light cut down into the darkness.

“What do you see?” he asked.

The halfling turned his head from side to side. “I don’t see any dwarves. Don’t hear any either. I think we should make a run for it. The meeting hall is just a short run ahead of us and there’s a lot of shadows once we get to it. There’s only a few seconds where we could be seen if we’re careful.”

Knowing my luck, Marcus thought, that will be enough to get us killed.

Wilkey took one more glance around at the outside and pushed the metal cover enough to allow them to exit. The scraping sound it made was low, but sent a shiver down Marcus’s spine as though someone were raking their fingernails over a chalkboard.

“Well, if anyone is out there, they definitely heard that,” he said as Wilkey climbed up and out of the sewer tunnel.

Marcus followed quickly and found the halfling already sprinting several yards ahead of him. Wilkey’s small feet left watery tracks where they met the stone street, but Marcus knew they would dry quickly, more quickly probably than his own larger footprints. He did not want to waste time thinking about the trail they were leaving, though, and set off in a run himself, following the halfling as he fled toward the shadows of the meeting hall.

When they reached what they considered to be a relatively safe point, they both turned and looked at the ground they had covered. No one was visible and no shouts were raised as to why a human and a halfling were emerging from the sewers of the dwarven city. The metal grate stood open—Marcus had forgotten to slide it shut—but that was a detail they would have to risk the dwarves discovering. They had no time to go back and move the heavy plate back into place, nor did they wish to risk being seen in the attempt. Marcus even allowed himself to hope that someone, finding the portal opened, would investigate below and discover the Necromancer’s reserves, awaiting the call to run amok in the city.

“This way,” Wilkey said from a few yards behind him. “I know a way in that hopefully won’t be guarded.”

“That’s comforting,” Marcus said.

They moved along the side of the building, keeping to the shadows in the alley between the meeting hall and its neighbor. The thin corridor was filled with foul smelling trash and debris of various types. In the darkness, Marcus feared he might trip over something and break an ankle or suffer some similar injury, but would not produce his fire and risk being spotted. He had the sword, for which he was thankful, but he sincerely hoped he would not have to use it.

They came to the door Wilkey spoke of, an unmarked slab of oak atop two wobbly stone steps. The halfling tried the door, found it locked, then opened it with a carefully chosen pick he had selected in the darkness. The tumblers clicked and the door swung opened on well-oiled hinges. Beyond the open portal, Marcus saw a sparsely lit hallway running several yards before ending at another door. Several other doors lined the hall on either side, but all were closed. No one, dwarf or otherwise, occupied the corridor, but they could hear voices coming from some nebulous point in the building, several voices that all seemed to be in conversation at the same time.

“I think they’re entering the great hall. They’re gathering for something and everyone’s coming in, that’s why we didn’t see anybody outside,” Wilkey said.

Suddenly, another sound came from behind them, distant but distinct. Shouts of alarm rose in the distance from the direction they had come. The noise was very faint, but Marcus knew what it meant—his absence had been discovered in the dungeons.

“Come on,” he said, bypassing the halfling and entering the hallway. “They’ll be looking for us, or me at least, and I think I know what everyone is coming here for—to witness my death.”

Wilkey did not replied, but fell silently into step behind Marcus. They moved carefully down the corridor, wary of the doors around them. They did not know if any dwarves were in this part of the meeting hall building, but they did not want to rouse them if they were. Unfortunately, their luck failed them in that regard as a dark-haired dwarf emerged from a door near the end of the hall just as they reached it.

For a moment, there was only a comic moment where both parties—the dwarf and the two who were not dwarves—stared at each other in surprise. The dwarf’s wide, black eyes grew wider as he took in the human wielding the ornate sword and the halfling at his side. Deciding that the two intruders should not be there, the dwarf’s shock seemed to wash away and he opened his mouth to call for help.

Marcus reacted quickly, driving the sword forward in his hand and clubbing the dwarf in the head with the hilt. The dwarf, able only to utter a brief exclamation of pain, crumpled into a heap at Marcus’s feet.

Marcus grabbed the dwarf under the arms, after Wilkey checked the room he had just exited, dragged him inside. The dwarf’s boots made a harsh scraping noise against the stone floor and Marcus felt his teeth gritting at the sound. He felt sure they would be heard by someone else in the hall and would have to fight their way to Heather, or at least attempt to at the best of their meager abilities.

“You want to tie him up and gag him?” Wilkey asked, a thin note of anticipation in his voice. As was common with many small people when given the opportunity to physically best someone larger, the halfling looked forward to the idea of binding the elf.

“No,” Marcus answered, “no time. We have to get upstairs if we can find the stairs without being seen.”

“No problem,” Wilkey said. The halfling checked outside the door and saw, miraculously, no one coming to investigate the disturbance they had just made. He stepped outside and scurried up the hall the remaining few yards. Reaching the end, Marcus saw the corridor also turned left or right besides continuing straight on through the door. Beyond that door, Marcus could hear the voices louder still and knew that it must lead directly to the floor of the meeting hall. From the cacophony of voices, he thought that hundreds, if not thousands, of dwarves must be piling inside to witness the death of the fugitives sought by the Necromancer.

Wilkey did not pass through the door. Instead, he turned left and moved along another door-lined hall until he reached an open archway through which stairs could be seen leading up.

“How far up will we have to go?” Marcus asked the halfling.

“It’s a long climb,” Wilkey answered, taking the first flight of steps two at a time with his short legs. “Probably guarded, too.”

Marcus followed. The stairs seemed to wind around the inside of the wall of the spire they had seen from the entrance to the dungeons, bordered on the inside by another stout wall. Above them at intervals along the inside wall were torches casting their dancing light on the steps as they grew more and more numerous. Soon, Marcus found himself gasping for breath and heard Wilkey doing the same.

Below, they could still hear the voices of the dwarves waiting in the grand meeting hall below them. Marcus guessed that the wall of the spire rose directly above them and that if they were to somehow pass through the wall to their right, they would fall into empty space until they landed in the center of the hall.

To Marcus, it seemed as though he had been climbing for hours when they began to hear more deep dwarven voices, this time from above them. The voices, two of them Marcus thought, talked low and casually, engaging in the sort of conversation two people might have in a hospital waiting room or on an elevator. Holding out his hand, he silently warned Wilkey to stay back.

The halfling, who had fallen a few yards behind Marcus during the climb, stopped and leaned against the inside wall. He closed his eyes and Marcus could see his small chest rising and falling quickly trying to refill his abused lungs.

Marcus himself waited a while before advancing any further. His own lungs burned and his breath struggled to keep up with his demand for air, but his legs troubled him worse. His knees wanted to buckle and the muscles, crying for oxygen, wobbled dangerously as he fought to stand upright.

Above him, Marcus could still hear the voices, library low as they drifted down the stairs to where he and Wilkey quietly gulped air. He thought the guards, for he knew that they were guards, could certainly hear his pounding heart, but if they did, they gave no indication. The voices of the gathering dwarves now far below, did not reach up this high into the tower although Marcus still felt that their time was very limited, even without the alarm being yet raised below.

Marcus, still not fully recovered from the long climb, turned to Wilkey. Holding the sword out slightly in his hands, he indicated to the halfling that he meant to advance upon the guards and Wilkey nodded, though he gave no sign that he meant to follow his friend into the fray.

Gripping the sword tightly, hoping he would find it easier to wield now that he had in the tunnels outside the city, Marcus moved slowly until he could just see the arm of one of the dwarves. He kept moving forward, picking up speed with each step he climbed, until the dwarves spotted him. Beyond the two dwarves, heavily armored and each carrying a stout war hammer, stood another solid wooden door. Marcus sincerely hoped that Heather lay just beyond, because he doubted he would have time to do a thorough search before the dwarves searching for him realized he might be here.

The first dwarf Marcus spotted, the one on his left, stopped speaking to the other in mid-sentence and pointed with a stubby finger. He stood in mute shock as Marcus closed in on him and the human took advantage of the opportunity. Driving forward with the sword, he gave the guard a hard slap across the face with the flat of the blade. The dwarf reeled against the wall, his armor clanging against the stone like an iron pot, before falling to the floor.

The second dwarf’s reaction came just as slowly as the first, but he had the added advantage of not being the first to be attacked. Pulling back his war hammer, he swung it in a diagonal arc, hoping to bat Marcus back down the stairs.

Marcus turned from the first dwarf just in time to see the hammer begin its deadly path. He flung himself against the floor, the edge of the steps biting painfully into his ribs and hips. The hammer just missed his head and he felt the wind from it part his hair in its wake.

The dwarf recovered quickly and brought the hammer in a backhand swing, forcing Marcus to roll painfully along the jagged steps to avoid the blow. The head of the weapon cracked against the steps just inches from him, sending up a shower of granite shards.

Marcus scrambled to his feet and saw the dwarf advancing, remaining a few steps above his opponent to have the advantage of high ground, an edge not often enjoyed by dwarves in open melee combat. He ducked another quick backhand blow, knowing he was outmatched in the matter of weapons, decided to try something more desperate.

As the dwarf prepared to launch another attack, Marcus rushed forward, flinging his sword aside as his shoulder drove into the dwarf’s abdomen. He could hear the wind being forced from the dwarf’s lungs and the attack that had been meant to propel him down the stairs pulled up short and only gave him a irritating, yet painful, smack in the shoulder blade.

Marcus grabbed the dwarf’s belt and, ignoring the flash of pain in his back, pulled upward with all his strength. At first, Marcus thought he would not have the muscle to lift the stout warrior off the ground, but all at once the heavy booted feet left the stone step and rose into the air. Feeling the momentum going his way, Marcus raised the dwarf up over his shoulder and, with a final push above his head, flipped him over his head. The dwarf cried in alarm, then fell silent as his face smashed against the stone step a few feet down the stairs. The heavy armor banged loudly as the dwarf rolled down the spiral stairway and out of sight.

Panting heavily, Marcus sat down upon the step and fought again to regain his breath.

Wilkey, who had stayed back through the encounter, staggered forward now and stood beside Marcus. He put out his small hand and patted his friend on the shoulder.

“Nice work,” the halfling said. “You might have a future as a warrior, after all.”

“Yeah, no thanks to your help,” Marcus retorted.

The halfling, who now inhaled and exhaled with normal regularity, studied the door behind Marcus. “You want me to pick it?” he asked.

“No,” Marcus answered, pulling himself slowly to his feet. “He’ll have a key.”

Marcus pointed at the dwarf lying unconscious against the wall. Wilkey walked over to him and searched briefly around his belt before withdrawing his hand with a jingling ring. He gave a cursory search of the half dozen keys before selecting the one he thought would fit the door. He slid the key into the hole, turned it, and heard the satisfying click of the lock opening.

Marcus picked up his dropped sword and pushed the door open, not knowing if more dwarves lay beyond waiting to ambush them should they get past the guards outside. None were. The room was long and oval in shape with a large mahogany table and chairs, reminding Marcus sharply of the board room at the SportsWorld home office. Several large windows lined the walls allowing a view of the grand meeting hall below. Now, Marcus could hear the voices again, an excited pitch coming from below that Marcus associated with major sporting events. He wondered if word had reached the crowd yet of his escape from the dungeons or if Chonis had tried to keep the information as quiet as possible in hopes of recapturing him before it became an issue—before the Necromancer came to claim him.

The room looked empty at first glance, but as Marcus stepped in he saw movement at the far end. A figure had been standing in the shadows between two of the windows and now moved out into the light. Holding his sword out before him, Marcus stared down the large conference table and faced this new threat with growing anxiety. That feeling ebbed though as he recognized the thin outline and chocolate eyes that he had hoped to find here.

“Heather!” he breathed.

Rushing forward, he took her into his arms and squeezed her. She squeezed him back and this time there was no hesitation in her affection. She clutched at him as though her very life depended on her ability to hold him close. He could feel her convulse as she began to sob into his chest and he held her out with his arms, looking into her spewing eyes.

“No time for that,” he told her. “We have to get out of here.”

Taking Heather’s hand, Marcus turned to lead her back to the staircase when he saw Wilkey slam it shut. Marcus pulled up short, causing Heather to run into him about halfway back to the door.

Wilkey sprinted around toward them, panic reflected clearly in his eyes.
“They’re here! They’ve found us!” he called as he moved past Marcus and Heather looking for another escape route.

Marcus realized then that the plan of holding Heather here had been a sound one, despite his earlier thoughts of how easy it had been to get to her. In this room, several hundred feet above the floor of the grand meeting hall and the hundreds or thousands of dwarves that gathered there, there were no other exits that the staircase which now was swarming with guards. Marcus could hear the thuds of their heavy boots as they ascended the stairs at an almost leisurely pace, knowing their prey was trapped.

Cursing himself for not being better prepared, Marcus scanned the room for anything that might be useful. He saw nothing—the room appeared empty save for the table and chairs. No other doors branched off from it. The ceiling and floor seemed to have been carved directly from the rock, solid and without door or shaft. The only other option, he saw, were the windows that led to a long fall and a quick death.

A loud boomed shook the room as someone pounded on the door to the room. The dwarves had arrived.

“Marcus, come out an’ we swear we’ll not kill ya.”

Marcus recognized the voice as that of Chonis. The king must be panicked, he thought, to be taking up this mission himself. He knew the king would be true to his word. He had told Marcus that he himself had no intention of killing them. That privilege would fall to the Necromancer, due to arrive at any time.

When Marcus did not answer, another hard blow fell on the door and Marcus could hear the wood beginning to splinter. Heather grasped at him, terrified. Looking around desperately, he began to form a plan, one he knew had little chance of success and would likely result in a very messy death. Still, Marcus felt that a messy death would be preferable to an interminable undeath serving the Necromancer.

Pulling free of Heather’s arms, he walked around the perimeter of the room. Ignoring the pounding at the door, he examined the windows that surrounded them, looking out below at the rowdy rows of dwarves awaiting the execution of the humans and, possibly, the elf. Marcus paused briefly to think of Lorelei. He wondered where she was being kept and almost began to weep at the knowledge that he would not have the opportunity to search for her. Their only hope was to get away from the dwarves, with or without his childhood friend.

He continued to look out the windows. Standing side by side, Wilkey and Heather stared at him with concern, as though the stress had finally cracked his good sense and he was just sightseeing while he waited for the inevitable.

Perhaps I have cracked, he thought, although they’re really going to think I’ve lost it when I tell them my plan.

The door to the room gave another loud crack, but still held. Marcus could see the flickering of the torches outside in the stairwell, but for the first time in his life he thanked the dwarves for building such sturdy things.

“Both of you, come here,” he told Heather and Wilkey, who complied with only a questioning look revealing their doubts. They joined Marcus at the end of the room away from the door.

Marcus studied the ornate chair at the head of the table, the well-oiled wood looking old and valuable. He grabbed it and picked it up, straining to raise its bulk from floor as he had done with the dwarf outside the room. Setting it on top of the table, he turned to Heather and Wilkey.

“I’m going to throw this through the window,” he said. “Then, we’re going to follow it.”

Simultaneous cries of “What?” and “Are you crazy?” erupted from his companions, but they were partially drowned out by another loud rapport from the door. A large chunk of wood fell in and now he could see the heads of the dwarves trying to break in, their faces full of rage and excitement.

When they continued to protest, Marcus cut off the woman and the halfling. “Look, it’s our only chance. When we start to drop, we all need to hold and hands and focus on the woods at the base of the mountain, where we made our camp after the inn. I think we can teleport there if we concentrate hard enough.”
“And if we don’t concentrate hard enough?” Heather asked as another blow shook the door and sent another large piece of wood into the room..

Marcus stared at her. “Then remember that I love you.”

Heather had no response to this. Instead, she nodded, resigning herself to Marcus’s judgment. Standing beside her, Wilkey had gone pale beneath his black hair and only blinked as Marcus looked at him to determine whether or not he would go along with the plan. Marcus accepted his lack of objection as acceptance.

The dwarves hammered against the door again and this time, the splintered wood gave way. Led by Chonis, a dozen armed warriors flooded into the room and began walking around the table on both sides toward their captives.

Marcus moved quickly, grabbing the heavy chair and flinging it with his entire body like a contestant in a hammer throw competition. The chair struck the window and shattered it, appearing to hover in mid air a moment before dropping from sight.

The dwarves, seeing but not quite believing what Marcus intended to do, slowed for a moment before rushing forward to keep their prey from escaping.

Taking Wilkey’s hand in his left and Heather’s in his right, Marcus led them forward and leaped from the broken window. Like the chair, there was a moment of weightlessness that reminded Marcus of every Wile E. Coyote cartoon he had ever seen. Then, they were falling, the ground rushing up to meet them, pushing the wind before it.

To the two thousand or so dwarves gathered in the great meeting hall, the suspense leading up to the execution of the invaders was reaching a fevered pitch. They knew any moment that the powerful wizard known to the surface world as the Necromancer would arrive and demand the possession of the prisoners they thought to be safely locked away in the dungeons. The prisoners would then be brought to the platform at the center of the meeting hall and publicly executed in a triumph of dwarven solidarity that would ally them with the Necromancer and ensure his conquests would not include their subterranean home.

The time for the execution, though, had come and gone and now the dwarves began to feel anxious. They had no idea what the delay could be. They had seen neither the prisoners, led by their king, or the Necromancer, and so they waited impatiently for the arrival of either or both.

The din of voices, growing louder and louder with each passing moment of waiting, drowned out the sound of glass breaking from the room at the very top of the spire. Few even knew of the room’s existence high in the shadows of the tower’s peak and those who did knew it only as a room used by the king for important meetings that could not be held in the palace.

Several, however, observed the chair as it fell through the air and crashed on the stone floor below. The volume of the voices in the meeting hall dropped for a moment while confusion spread like a plague from those who saw the chair fall to those who did not. The dwarves stared in wonder at the chair and wondered where it came from and what it had to do with the execution of prisoners. Perhaps, some thought, this is some sort of symbolic beginning to the festivities.

Many dwarves were staring up in to the shadowy heights of the tower, trying to see where the chair had come from, when they saw another dark form begin to plummet toward the stone floor. As it fell, the form passed into the range of light from the many torches that lit the higher walls of the tower and the dwarves below realized that the two humans and the halfling, the prisoners to be executed, were hurtling to their deaths. A scream of triumph rose in the crowd. This was certainly not what they had expected, but a death was still a death and they cheered it madly.

The three figures appeared to gain speed as they drew closer to the ground. The dwarves could see that the human male was in the middle with the female and a halfling on either side. They had not heard of a halfling being executed as well, but considered this as an added bonus. The dwarves held any who invaded their home in the utmost contempt.

The dwarves began to sit up slowly. Each wanted an unobstructed view of the prisoners as they splatted onto the stone platform below. Each wanted to hear the cracking of bones as three enemies of the dwarves received what they deserved.

The prisoners fell, hand in hand, as the dwarves cheered. At first, none of the onlookers saw the blue glow that surrounded them, but as they continued down the aura surrounding them grew more and more intense until, at the moment of impact, it erupted into a flash of brilliant light. All the dwarves looked away, unable to bear the radiance even to see the prisoners meet their doom. None of them heard, either, the satisfying smashing of bones upon the stone platform.

Slowly, the eyes of the two thousand dwarves cleared and readjusted to the torchlight that normally filled the meeting hall. As their vision cleared, they looked at the platform to see the remains of the three recipients of their harsh justice and as they did, a loud murmur of awe and anger rose up from them.

The three prisoners had vanished, leaving no trace behind them.

Less than five minutes after the three prisoners had made their miraculous escape, King Chonis Kosphor stood in the center of the great meeting hall and tried to quell the fury of his raging subjects. He could barely hear his own voice above the shouts all around him and he knew that he might have to resort to far more dramatic measures to be heard and bring order to the hall.

To the side of the room, a large gong stood ready for just such an occasion. Chonis hoped he would not have to use it; it was dreadfully loud and always gave him a headache when he had been forced to employ it to be heard. On its polished brass surface, the image of a war hammer, its head surrounded by lines that represented rays of light, shone in relief and symbolized the power of the dwarven kingdom.

Looking at the gong, Chonis wondered what the escape of three prisoners in the midst of the entire dwarven population said about that power.

Lost in thought, the king was slow to notice the voices around him beginning to taper off. He looked up into the crowd and began to see many of the dwarves staring in his direction. A number of those who were looking at him turned and engaged others that were not, causing them to also turn their attention toward the dwarven king. Within a few minutes, the entire room was silent once again and all eyes were upon Chonis Kosphor.

Or at least he thought they were.

A dreadful cold radiated from behind him and Chonis, having felt that chill before, knew now what had caught the attention of his subjects. A lump settled in his throat and, despite his efforts, he could not swallow it down. Beads of sweat formed on his brow and began to trickle down his face in tiny rivulets of fear. Even the room around him seemed to grow darker, the torches burning lower until only a faint glow lit the room.

Chonis turned slowly and faced the entrance to the meeting hall. What he saw made him recoil in horror, made his knees give out completely and send him crashing to the stone floor. He tried to cover his eyes, but he could not remove his gaze from the spectacle before him. After a few moments of watching, he realized that he had stopped breathing, but had to force himself to resume the life-giving activity.

As he had expected, the Necromancer had entered the meeting hall, his black robes billowing in a breeze that no one else could feel. However, it was the sight of what accompanied the evil wizard that shocked and, much deeper, enraged the dwarf king. Dozens of dwarves, wet and decaying, shuffled into the meeting hall, their red eyes staring mutely at their former king. Chonis scanned the dead as they entered and began to surround him. Beyond the points of light that replaced their eyes, the king found that he recognized some of the corpses—former magistrates who had served him, servants from his palace, old friends—although he could tell that none of them remembered him. He guessed that the Necromancer had found some way to access every dwarven tomb from the last several years and enlist their occupants for his dark bidding, awaiting the time when he would call for them. Chonis at last realized the truth he would not allow himself to see before, the truth that Marcus had preached to him in the dungeons.

The Necromancer swept up the few steps to stand on the platform facing Chonis. The dwarven king could not see any detail of the face beneath the hood, only deep shadow that made him wonder if the person inside was even alive at all. He could feel the power that rested in that shadow, though, and taking one more glance around him at the dead dwarves that surrounded the platform where he and their master stood, he could see the effect of such power as well.

“I understand there is a problem with the prisoners,” the Necromancer said in a dry voice. The words formed more of a statement than a question and Chonis wondered how the wizard had come by that information so quickly. Considering, he decided that he was probably better off not knowing.

“They . . . they escaped,” Chonis said in barely a whisper, but his voice carried to every pair of ears in the meeting hall. No one else made a sound.

The Necromancer did not move, his hooded head still gaping at the dwarven monarch. “That is a very unfortunate piece of news, Chonis.”

His voice (Chonis assumed by the sound that the figure inside the black robes was male, though he could not be sure) was level, atonal. The dwarven king thought he detected a slight twinge in it that could have been amusement, or irritation. Either way, Chonis did not like it.

“Very unfortunate, indeed,” the Necromancer continued.

As the words trailed away in his brain, Chonis heard another sound that nearly stopped his heart. Although the sounds seemed to come from far away, he heard the doors to the meeting hall slam shut. He knew also that no amount of dwarven muscle would open those doors until the Necromancer wished them to open.

All around him, his subjects seemed to be thinking the same thing. Overcoming their horror at the Necromancer’s army of the dead, their dead, Chonis started to hear shouts of outrage. Somewhere far within himself, the dwarven king felt a flicker of pride hiding behind the all-consuming feeling of dread that had come over him. He knew beyond doubt that an unimaginable catastrophe was about to befall his people, but the sound of their anger, their will to stand up against such tremendous power, produced a warmth in him that not even the chill of death could extinguish.

At that moment, the catastrophe manifested itself and Chonis found not only the internal warmth of his pride, but also the external heat of fire. Despite the water dripping from their clothing, the dead dwarves all around him burst into flame. The crackling noise they made cut through the screams of horror in the audience like veins in a leaf.

Chonis tore his gaze away from the blackness inside the Necromancer’s hood, and looked around the meeting hall. Ringed in a circle of flame and smoke, he could barely see the terrified looks on the faces of all his subjects. The pillars of fire around him, no longer recognizable as dwarves, dead or alive, began to move outward away from the platform in the center of the hall and slowly into the crowd. Dwarves trampled one another, all sense of community and brotherhood lost in their flight toward the nearest exit. Those who reached the doors first found them sealed and were soon pressed painfully against them as more and more streamed in behind them.

The dwarven king watched as the fire raged out among his people, consuming all in its path. The screams of terror mingled with the screams of the dying and all rose in a symphony of death that chilled Chonis’s blood despite the roaring conflagration. After only a few minutes that seemed like a lifetime, the last of the shrieks died away and Chonis knew that he alone, of the entire dwarven nation, survived.

In the midst of the smoke and flame, Chonis Kosphor, last king of the dwarves, stood upon the stone platform in what he now knew to be the great tomb of his people. The air around him remained miraculously clear, giving him an unobstructed view of the evil force that had brought down ruination upon him. Impotent fury rose up from his middle. He wanted to fly forward and exact vengeance upon the Necromancer, to defend his people to the last even though there were none left to defend. Still, his limbs would not respond and, finally, his stout will gave in to hopelessness. Falling to his knees, Chonis looked up at the black-robed figure and waited to rejoin his subjects.

The Necromancer, his cloak flying in the flame-whipped wind, stood before the dwarven king. He spoke and his voice carried above the fire and the crumbling of the meeting hall around them as though it came from inside Chonis’s mind.

“Very unfortunate,” he repeated. Then, the dark figure disappeared, leaving the last dwarf alone with the ruins of his kingdom.

Chonis looked around him and realized that he only had moments to live. Large pieces of granite began to fall all around him. They formed large craters in the floor where they landed before disappearing within the smoke. Looking up, he could see far above him the small room where the human girl had been kept before her miraculous escape with Marcus.

Thinking of Marcus, the king realized how right the human had been. He had acted in what he thought was the best interest of his people and had slain them all. Marcus had seen that result, but Chonis himself refused to believe him. Now, as the room at the top of the tower fell and crushed him, his only hope was that Marcus could find some way to stop the Necromancer from ruling all.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Terra Incognita–Chapter 13

At this point, we are just over halfway in the story.  I hope to have the rest posted this month as I’ll begin work on my Christmas stories soon and want to have most of December in which to post them, old and new.  My goal is to have another three stories this year to go along with the seven or so I have from previous years, plus a top-secret bonus piece (or two) for the season.

Anyway, please enjoy the further misadventures of Marcus and Heather as they try to extricate themselves from the horrific situation in which I placed them.  Being an author is cool like that.

Chapter 13

When Marcus reached the base of Amadyr’s mountain, he was drenched in sweat. He had taken the climb leisurely enough, working through the dilemma the dragon had faced him with and finding no clear way around it. Night had fallen in the Fell Lands, bringing cool air to the lee of the crag in a pleasant departure from the day’s blistering heat. Heather, Lorelei, and Wilkey waited for him near the griffons, each apart from the other absorbed in their own thoughts. No fire had been lit, Lorelei probably deciding it was too great a risk, but ample moonlight flooded down for Marcus to see his path down and those waiting for him at the bottom.

When he reached them, Wilkey was the first to approach, grinning broadly. “You’re still alive!”

Marcus could only nod and offer a weak smile in return. Yes, he had emerged from the cave of a dragon unharmed after entering it completely unarmed and powerless, for which he knew he should be thankful, but considering the information he had received there, part of him wished Amadyr had incinerated him. At least then he would not have to worry about the choice he would have to make.

He looked at Heather and saw relief pass over her. She started to take a few steps forward, then saw Lorelei doing the same. Both women, human and elf, stopped at the sight of the other advancing, and hung back, unwilling to show their emotions over Marcus’s safe return.

Women, thought Marcus.

“Well, what happened? What did she tell you?” Wilkey asked, the words coming out like automatic gunfire. “We know something happened because we saw light inside the cave. Did she try to kill you? Did she tell you how to get your powers back?”

“No, she didn’t try to kill me, though I think she wanted to.”

Wilkey gaped. “Was she scared?”

Marcus managed a snort of bitter laughter. “Hardly. She’s . . . she’s dying.”

“Did she tell you how to get your powers back?” The question came from Heather, standing a few feet away, looking hopeful and terrified in the pale light.

Marcus looked away from her. “She told me several things, but I have to think about them and try to figure out what they mean.”

“What did she tell you? Maybe we can help,” Lorelei said. Already she was preparing the griffons for flight. The large beasts kept peering upward at the cave, now lost in darkness in a recess of the mountain. They wanted to be far from Amadyr before they rested, as did Marcus.

“No, I have to do this on my own,” Marcus said.

“Then you better do it quickly,” Wilkey said. “We don’t have much time.”

“I’m aware of that,” Marcus replied. He felt more exhausted than he could ever remember feeling, weary beyond the effects of any athletic endeavor or stretch at work than he had ever experience. “Come on, let’s get out of here and find a place to make camp.”

He received concerned looks from his companions, but no argument. The each mounted the griffons and took to the skies, flying back toward the dark outlines of the Norags in the distance. The night air away from the mountain was warm, but compared to the ferocity of the day’s heat, that was quite welcome. The flew for several hours before reaching the base of the mountains. Marcus slumped forward in mid-flight, unable to hold himself up any longer, and awoke only as Aspen landed and he felt he rush of air around him cease.

When they dismounted, Marcus unrolled his bedroll and immediately lay down and fell asleep again. He would let the others decide who would keep watch and when. He knew only that he needed more rest to be able to function at all and to be able to decide whether Heather would live or die. He told himself that she would live, must live, but the dragon’s words kept invading his thoughts like a virus.

You must sacrifice the girl . . . if you save the girl, then countless others will die . . . choose the lives of the many over the life of the one . . . risk so much for a woman who does not wish to be with you when one who does . . .

Marcus found himself alone in a clearing, the same one that they had fled near the inn. Again, walking corpses surrounded him, approaching from all sides, forming a ring around him that he could not break through. He could feel the chill of death flowing from them like fog, wrapping around his ankles and climbing slowly up his legs. He looked around for some escape, even into the skies for some sign of Lorelei and the griffons, but saw nothing other than the solitary eye of the moon staring down in wide-eyed horror.

He scanned the ring of dead, their red eyes gleaming brighter than even the moon, and gasped. He knew some of them, recognized the faces even beneath the pallor and infernal gazes. Lanian, his already gaunt features now no more than skin stretched tight over a skeleton, shuffled forward, his bony fingers now wicked claws that reached toward Marcus. Wilkey stood near the elven king, shorter than the dead around him, but no less horrifying with his amiable grin transformed into a rictus. Turning he saw Lorelei, her beauty gone, replaced by the pale mantle of death beneath gaping holes in her once-perfect skin.

“Why, Marcus?” Lorelei’s voice asked from the gaping mouth of her corpse. “Why did you choose her over all of us? Was my love not enough? Then, love me now, Marcus, love me now in death.”

The corpses drew closer with agonizing slowness. Marcus spun this way and that, fighting the urge to retch, looking for some desperate chance to escape this doom descending upon him. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of the dead surrounded him, their red eyes forming a shifting band as their uneven gait brought them closer to their victim.

Above him, he heard a noise, the creaking of great leathery wings. Amadyr appeared in the sky over the clearing, her lost wing restored and her full compliment of scales gleaming blood red in the moonlight. Atop her back, a black-robed figure stood undaunted by the up and down motion of the dragon as she flapped her wings.

“Dark times have befallen this land you have forgotten. You should have listened to Amadyr the Wise, Marcus,” the Necromancer said. “You have doomed everyone in this land and now have doomed yourself as well. You could not even save the one you love.”

The Necromancer pointed down at Marcus, who instinctively knew to look down. At his feet, cold and rigid, lay Heather. Her sightless eyes stared up into the night sky, her blue lips slightly parted as thought she may speak. Marcus knew, though, that she would never speak again. Heather, like the stinking bodies now almost upon him, was dead.

Feeling the tears of anger and hopelessness welling in his eyes, Marcus fell to his knees. He clutched Heather’s icy hand and held it to his cheek. Her skin burned his like cold metal, but he did not remove her hand, allowing his warm tears to flow over it unchecked. He sobbed and closed his eyes, feeling the first of the walking corpses seize his shoulder . . .

Marcus awoke to someone screaming, then realized that it was he that he was hearing. He throat felt raw from the exertion and his body was covered in cold sweat that made him shiver despite the warm air on this side of the Norags. Sitting up, he looked around the small camp and expected to see the others staring at him, wondering what had caused him to cry out. What he saw, though, only increased the terror that had not yet ebbed from his mind upon waking from the dream.

Lorelei lay sound asleep across the remains of the small fire they had lit to cook their evening meal. Nearby, Wilkey lay up against a small tree, snoring loudly. He held a bottle in his hand and had turned it over in his sleep, spilling its contents onto his pants. Heather, however, was nowhere to be seen.

Marcus was on his feet immediately, scanning the darkness around for any sign of movement, but the moon had already set and his vision only stretched a few yards around him. He remembered the episode in the centaur camp where she had disappeared to relieve herself and hoped, prayed, that she had gone to do the same.

“Heather,” he tried to call, but his throat was dry and would not make the sound rise above a whisper. He cleared his throat. “Heather!” he called, louder this time.

Lorelei rose up on her elbows. “What is it? What’s wrong?”
“Heather’s not here.”

The elf rose quickly, looking around the camp much as Marcus had done. He knew her eyes were much keener than his own, especially in the darkness, and hoped that she would see some sign of Heather that he had not.

His hopes were dashed, though, when she turned to him with wide eyes. “I don’t see her. I left Wilkey on watch, maybe he saw something.”

Marcus turned his attention to the halfling, still snoring before him. He could smell the alcohol on each loud exhalation and, upon closer inspection, on the large dark patch where the liquid had spilled over his thigh.

Enraged, Marcus lifted the halfling up by his shirt and slammed him against the tree he had been leaning against. The deep breath Wilkey had just taken in exploded from him, causing him to start coughing and sputtering as he fought to regain consciousness.

“Wha . . . Wha’s the matter, Marcus,” Wilkey gasped, his words slurred and accompanied by a fair amount of spit.

“Where’s Heather?” Marcus asked, speaking through his teeth in an effort to keep from screaming at the halfling.

“She’s right . . .” Wilkey started, pointing to where Heather’s bedroll still lay upon the ground. “She was there a bit ago.”

Marcus turned and flung the halfling roughly to the ground. Wilkey rolled a few feet and stopped, sprawling spread eagle on the ground near the fire. He made no effort to get up. Instead, he clutched his head and looked up at Marcus with an expression of purest confusion and hurt.

Marcus picked up the bottle from where it lay by the tree. He walked over the Wilkey brandishing it like a club, held high above his head. Grabbing the halfling again by the shirt, he lifted him up to a sitting position and waved the bottle at him.

“What the hell is this?” Marcus screamed, unable to control himself any longer. In some portion of his mind, he knew any number of predatory creatures could be nearby, even agents of the Necromancer, but he raged on heedless of the potential danger. “Where did you get this, you drunken bastard? You were supposed to be on watch, supposed to be looking out for trouble, and now you’ve let them take Heather, you bastard!” He had no idea who “they” were exactly, but he knew that Heather had not left the camp on her own.

Wilkey blinked rapidly, trying to force his eyes to focus on Marcus. Both his hands pressed hard against his temples as if holding his head on atop his shoulders. He brought his knees up in to his chest, almost rolling himself into a ball in his efforts to steady himself.

Marcus wanted to beat the halfling, to smash him over the head with the bottle in hopes of knocking some sense into him. He could not, though, and he knew it. Instead, he turned and hurled the bottle against the tree Wilkey had been reclining against. It smashed into a shower of glittering glass dust before disappearing into the night.

He stood wanting to roar with frustration, but held just enough control to understand that doing so would not bring him any closer to finding Heather. Behind him, he heard a metallic scraping noise and orange flame consumed the head of a torch held in Lorelei’s hand. Holding it high, she walked over to Heather’s bedroll and looked around in the new illumination.

“There are tracks here. The grass is matted down.”

Marcus ran to Aspen, sleeping on the side of camp opposite from where Heather had been abducted and retrieved the sword Polan had given him. He hurried to where Lorelei was and looked to where she pointed. The grass had indeed been trampled, apparently by several sets of feet. Here and there, Marcus saw the imprint of a booted heel in the soft ground.

“Dwarves,” Lorelei said, a poorly disguised tone of disgust in her voice. Marcus knew the elves and dwarves, being opposite in nearly every way imaginable, cared little for each other, though stopped just short of open warfare. Marcus had only visited the dwarven kingdom on one occasion as a child and found them warm enough in their own, gruff way, but for company he strongly preferred the folk of Glenfold over those dwelling beneath the Norags.

Following the light of the torch, Marcus and Lorelei followed the tracks away from the camp, hunched over like old crones as they strained their eyes to see every print the dwarves had left.

“Looks like four, maybe five,” Lorelei said.

Marcus thought the same, but held his tongue to keep from missing anything he might spot while sharing useless conversation. He followed the trail like a bloodhound, his head moving back and forth as they moved further from the camp. The path led them straight ahead, never wavering or bending as it went along toward the mountains. Finally, the light from the torch revealed a small hole, large enough for a man, or a dwarf, to fit through. Marcus could smell the freshly turned earth around it and the aroma reminded him of planting season during his childhood in Kentucky.

Lowering himself down onto his stomach, Marcus looked up at Lorelei. “Hand me the torch,” he said.

Lorelei did so and he lowered the flaming head past his own into the hole. The torch spluttered for a moment before revealing a vertical shaft that ran down for only a few feet before leveling off into a cross tunnel that ran parallel to the contour of the surface.

Marcus handed the torch back to Lorelei. “Hold this while I go down there, then you drop the torch through and follow.”

The elf stared at the hole with wide eyes. Many elves held a deep residing fear of being underground and he could see by the expression on Lorelei’s face that she was among them. He could tell, even in the uneven radiance cast by the torch, that she had gone pale at the prospect of entering the tunnel. To make matters worse, an elf invading the tunnels of the dwarves might be tantamount to a declaration of war considering the relationship between the two races, a relationship that was cold enough without any contact.

Marcus sensed the hesitation in Lorelei. “Come on,” he said, lowering his legs into the hole. “If we catch up soon enough, we won’t have to worry about any of the other dwarves knowing. We’ll get Heather, hurry back here, and be gone on the griffons long before we can stir up too much trouble.”

Somehow, he knew that accomplishing those plans would prove much more difficult than they sounded coming out of his mouth, but he slid down the hole anyway. He landed hard, but remained on his feet, sword drawn in case of an ambush. To his surprise, Lorelei dropped immediately beside him, landing gracefully into a ready position, the torch in one hand and a gleaming short sword in the other. Marcus had not seen the weapon and wondered briefly where she had been hiding it.

“The tracks lead that way,” Lorelei said, pointing to in a direction that Marcus knew led toward the mountains and the dwarven stronghold. The tunnel ahead of them looked like a natural cave system (Marcus was reminded forcefully of tours taken at Mammoth Cave) although he could see a few places where the dwarves had worked to widen the passage or level the floor for easier travel.

“Then that’s the way we’re going,” Marcus said. He started down the tunnel, Lorelei following behind, into the dwarven realm.

Wilkey sat in the camp for many minutes after Marcus and Lorelei passed out of hearing range. This was in part because he could not yet stand without wobbling, but mostly because he felt truly horrible for allowing Heather to be taken on his watch. Marcus had been a bit rough with him, he thought, but it was no more than he thought he deserved. Their group certainly had enough problems without him failing in his duties and plunging them into another dangerous situation.

He fought against the gray haze in his mind and tried to remember when he had picked up the bottle. He remembered them stopping to make camp after leaving the dragon’s lair and he remembered going to sleep. He recalled dimly Lorelei waking him up, telling him that she was exhausted and needed to sleep. He had foraged in his pack for a light snack when he came across the bottle, unlabeled and unadorned, among his other possessions. He took it out, examined it, and could not remember ever seeing it before. Pulling the cork, he smelled of the contents and inhaled the sweetest scent ever to pass through his nostrils. Then followed an experimental sip, a drink, a swig, then the whole bottle was upended as Wilkey poured the liquid down his throat. He had not had a sip of alcohol since Marcus had found him passed out in Yellow Banks and now he found himself rejoicing in the flavor. To him, it was like meeting a good friend after many years apart.

After the first few swallows, he could not remember anything else. He was normally quite adept at holding his liquor, especially for his diminutive size, but he had hardly consumed half the bottle when the irresistible urge to sleep stole over him like a strong breeze. When Marcus had invaded his room at the pub, the halfling had been drinking steadily for nearly three days, not allowing himself a single sober moment to reflect on the stupidity of what he was doing. He felt embarrassed that it had taken so little to produce a similar effect and that his weakness had come at such an inopportune time.

He rose to his feet, his knees swaying a bit before steadying, and clutched his head again. It pounded as though Amadyr herself had crawled in through his ear and was now trying to bust out through every inch of his skull. When he opened his eyes, everything seemed to be waving back and forth before him sending a wave of nausea that he had to focus all his will on to keep from taking over.

When his stomach finally settled, he took a few tentative steps in the direction he had seen Marcus and Lorelei go. He could see the tiny dot of the torch ahead of him and stumbled toward it. The ground was mostly level beneath him, but several rocks jutted up hidden in the grass and he stubbed his toes more than once, even falling over a particularly large stone in his path.

He had nearly reached the light of the torch when it disappeared. The flames dropped down and were gone as though being swallowed by the earth. When he reached the hole, nearly falling into it before he was aware of it, he found that his perception was not too far from the truth.

Looking down into the hole, he could see the faint flicker of torch light receding down one direction of the tunnel and hurried down the hole to avoid being left in the dark. He crashed hard onto his knees when he dropped, but managed to pull himself up quickly to follow the faint illumination moving quickly away from him.

Marcus and Lorelei followed the tunnel for what seemed like an interminably long time. Luckily, Marcus thought, they had encountered no side passages, no other corridors than the one they moved along to confuse matters. They stopped from time to time for a brief moment to ensure the dwarven footprints still led onward, then resumed their march.

Marcus could not tell if they were gaining ground on the dwarves who had abducted Heather, but he felt that they must be. He had no idea why he felt that way, but his gut told him that if they continued on at their current pace, they stood a good chance of catching the kidnappers, even inside their own caves. He had no idea how well fortified the dwarven city would be, but he strongly wanted to remain outside its perimeter if possible.

As he and Lorelei sped through the tunnel, Marcus considered many questions that nagged at his mind, even through the panic induced by Heather’s disappearance. First, he wondered why the dwarves had taken Heather in the first place. If they had all been invading land the dwarves felt was off limits to outsiders, then why not capture them all? Why take just one of them? Second, he wondered how the dwarves knew where they had camped? He guessed that their campfire could be seen from guard stations within the mountains themselves, they had made no effort to hide themselves, but the tunnel they now ran along seemed to be made to reach that point alone with no other corridors branching off of it. Finally, he wondered how Lorelei, with her heightened elven senses, had not heard the dwarves approaching. He asked the same about himself, too, although he attributed his lack of awareness to sheer exhaustion. If Lorelei felt the same, she certainly did not show it.

As they hurried along the tunnel, Marcus began to notice a gradual incline of the floor, becoming more and more pronounced as they drew closer to the mountains. Despite his excellent physical condition, he soon began to feel winded. His night’s sleep, which he desperately needed, had been cut short by the current crisis and he hoped to resolve it soon so that he might return to his bedroll before daybreak and at least manage a few hours of sleep before they continued on their quest.

One other thought pulled at his mind as they followed Heather’s abductors, one that he tried to force out completely, but could not quite wipe from his consciousness. What if, the voice said, sounding much like that of Amadyr, you let the dwarves have her. Then, perhaps, you could get your power back, defeat the Necromancer, and have Lorelei as a consolation.

Marcus would not accept the voice’s suggestion. He felt repulsed that his own mind would generate such a thought and even questioned whether it had generated it. Perhaps the dragon, he thought, planted some sort of suggestion on him during their conversation. He knew the idea was most unlikely, but he still grasped for anything to shift responsibility for his dark thoughts onto someone more deserving.

Lost in thought, he almost ran into Lorelei when she stopped ahead of him.

“What? What’s wrong?”

Lorelei held the torch high above her, the ceiling to the tunnel now almost eight feet high. She scanned the floor, a grim expression on her face.

“The tracks. They’re gone,” she whispered. “There’s a jumble right here, but they go no further down the tunnel.”

“Then where did . . . “ Marcus started to ask, but his question was cut short by a flurry of activity all around them. Hidden panels in the walls, cunningly designed to blend in seamlessly with their surroundings, swung open and dwarves erupted from them. The small, bearded warriors gave a loud cry in unison and flung themselves at Marcus and Lorelei, wielding war hammers and carrying shields.

Marcus ducked under a hammer blow, stumbling back down the tunnel in the direction from which they came. His maneuver had left him off balance, but it allowed him some much needed space in order to put up some sort of defense. He knew he was sorely at a disadvantage—the dwarves were all trained to be skilled fighters, especially within their underground domain, whereas Marcus knew very little about melee combat.

He found himself facing two opponents and, looking over their heads, saw Lorelei facing the same number. The two advancing on him wore wide grins as they began moving to either side of the tunnel in an effort to reflank their foe

Marcus did not want to have a dwarf on either side to contend with, so he pressed the engagement. Feinting to the left with his sword, he swung it around to his right in a low arc, hoping to catch the dwarf on that side off guard. Instead, the sword deflected off the round buckler and bounced out wide.

The other dwarf, who also had not been fooled by the bluff, dove in with his hammer, aiming for Marcus’s back. Marcus sensed him coming, though, and rolled to the side just as the strike fell. The hammer clanged against the shield as well, the momentum of the attack carrying the two dwarves into one another.

Using the momentary confusion, Marcus reached out with both hands and grabbed the shield of his attacker with both hands. The longsword fell from his grasp, but he paid no notice, still finding the weapon awkward in his hands. Clutching the buckler, he gave a hard turn as though steering a car into a hairpin curve at high speed. He felt the leather straps on the inward face of the shield go taut, stretch, then give with a sudden snap as the bones of the dwarf’s arm broke.

Howling in pain and outrage, the injured dwarf recoiled back against the opposite wall, dropping his hammer and trying to pry the shield off his broken arm with his unbroken one.

The other dwarf howled as well in shared outrage and swung his hammer in a vicious arc straight down hoping to crush Marcus’s skull. Realizing that he lacked the time to get out of the way, Marcus reached up and tried to catch the dwarf’s hands as they brought the weapon down. The combined force of the heavy hammer and the strength of the swing painfully jammed his wrists and forced him down to a sitting position.

The dwarf raised the hammer again, but this time Marcus was quicker. Kicking out hard with his right foot, he caught the dwarf’s kneecap and snapped it backward, producing a loud popping noise that reverberated down the tunnel. The dwarf stumbled forward, the momentum from his abbreviated swing forcing him down to the stone floor.

Marcus scrambled to his feet and heard another scuffle going on just down the tunnel. He saw on the opposite side of the torch now lying discarded on the floor, Lorelei had been battling two more of the dwarves. As he looked, though, he saw the melee end as the elf gave a shrill cry, cut short as she fell backward to the dark stone floor just beyond the circle of light produced by the small flame.

“Lorelei!” Marcus called, just as a hard, heavy object made contact with the back of his head, sending him into darkness.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment