Twas the Night Before Yuletide or Santa vs the Reindeer

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My Saturday flash fiction blog and Beowulf: The Midgard Horrors will return on January 7th, 2017. I’ll be taking a breather for the holidays. But to tide you over, here’s another way to look at “Twas the Night Before Christmas.” Seasons greetings from Midgard and me!

Twas the Night Before Yuletide
or Santa vs. the Reindeer

Twas the night before Yuletide, and all through the land
Santa Claus was preparing to make Christmas grand.
He went out to his stables, his heart full of cheer,
In a last ditch planned effort to rouse his reindeer.

The snow falling brutally as each crisp step cracked
And Saint Nicholas carried the toys he had packed.
When he entered the stables, two ravens sat perched.
All around them were symbols; the wood grains red smirched.

“Now, pray, what is the matter? What mean you birds here?
Have you come to cause trouble among my reindeer?”
The two ravens said nothing, then flew to the door.
Upon flitting, then quitting, they said, “Nevermore.”

“Nevermore?” Santa quoted, “Pray, what does that mean?
In a thousand past years, this beats all I have seen!”
Then they gave a good chuckle with wicked delight.
“Nevermore will you travel on Christmas Eve night!”

A look of surprise as the caws burst in cackle,
And Santa Claus saw Dasher break from his shackle.
Then the ravens flew out as the reindeer stood tall,
Captivating Saint Nick, who in fear took a fall.

“By the power of Christmas, what meaning is this?
Tell me, Dasher, now tell me! Just what is amiss?”
“Weihnachtsmann, some people, they know me as Woden.
In Asgard, I rule. I am Allfather, Odin!

Much too long have you punished these wood folk I see …
As the Lord of the Hunt, I will now set them free.”
And as Odin spoke, magic dispersed from each beast.
“They are reindeer no longer; each soul is released.”

Santa stood in much anger, scoffed, “We will just see.
Odin, you with your antlers can’t take them from me!
Now just look at you, fool, as some reindeer like god-
I will give you a whacking with my lashing rod!”

And as Santa approached swinging hard left and right,
Out of nowhere, the ravens dropped something in sight.
Odin reached out and snatched Gungnir, his magic spear,
Hoof like hands holding on as a battle drew near.

Father Christmas smashed hard with the rod in his hand,
But the spear Odin blocked with had much more command.
Back and forth the two parried, with nary a break,
And then Odin transformed Christmas lights to a snake.

After glow in its making, the brightly lit thing
Made its way around Santa, who started to sing
All the names of the reindeer, but he was ignored.
The serpent squeezed tighter, Santa cried, “I adored

Every single last reindeer that pulled on my sleigh.
And now look at you creatures! My, how you betray!”
From the shadows, the eighth one that Odin had been
Came and offered to Santa, “The age of these men

Now is ending for we are the dwellers who seek
To repay all the wicked and prey on the week.
No more presents and falsehoods from you in your lie.
Know that Midgard is free, as are we, so now die!”

Saint Nick slumped to his side and died in the stable,
The folk of the woodlands placed him on a table.
And as Odin then gathered his things and took flight,
“Merry Yule,” they exclaimed and they all took a bite …
James Matthew Byers resides in Wellington, Alabama with his wife, kids, a dog named after an elf, and two tortoises. He has been published in poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poem, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, is out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He also has a short story featured in their upcoming release, Unleashed: Monsters Vs. Zombies. Recently, two of his poems won Prose’s weekly challenge.

Find James Matthew Byers at:
Twitter: http://www.Twitter.com/MattByers40
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/Mattbyers40/
Wattpad: https://www.wattpad.com/user/JamesMatthewByers
Wordpress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com
Prose: https://theprose.com/JamesMByers

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Not Like It Used To Be

Families line the streets. Kids are bundled in coats, hats, gloves and blankets. Adults stand or sit in folding chairs, hands in pockets or laps, their excitement matching the children’s. A chill hugs each person tight. Teeth clatter, legs shake and dance; people trying to stay warm. Hot chocolate and coffee work for a while, but fade, leaving shivers along spines.

“How much longer, Momma?” they asks, young eyes and hearts waiting, hoping to catch a glimpse of an elf or reindeer or even Santa Clause. Maybe some candy will get tossed their way.

“Not much longer,” mothers and fathers announce, some happily, others with a chagrin that sits in their stomachs like heavy rocks. Christmas isn’t like it was when they were kids, back when December meant presents and eggnog and feasts, parties and family get-togethers, Christmas lights and holiday specials on television. Snow-filled streets meant sledding and snowmen, snow angels and snow ball fights.

There’s no snow this year; streets are covered in dust and dirt, debris from crumbling buildings, worn by time, weather and the passing wars. Few trees have stood the test of bombs and bullets. Fewer windows remain intact.

A breeze blows along Main Street, lifting grit and trash into the air. Many cover their faces, kids cry out from the sting of sand in eyes; some adults shake their heads and wonder why others choose not to wear protective goggles.

“Here they come,” a kid shouts. Others echo his words, sending a buzz along the road. Eyes open wide in anticipation and little ones squirm in their seats; blankets come off as they stomp their feet, kicking up clouds of dust.

Down the street a truck appears, adorned in reds and greens, its lights shining. The driver honks and waves a meaty hand as he passes through the crowd of onlookers.  Three fingers are missing. A pinky and thumb form an odd shaped L. “Merry Christmas,” he bellows. It comes out “Mare-wee Cwis-moss.”

The next vehicle inches along, yellow and orange lights cling to its exterior. The top of the car is missing, shorn off pieces of metal still jut out where the top use to be. A real beauty sits on the trunk, her feet inside the car. Her blond hair is singed at the ends, her once youthful face scarred on one side, an eye drooping, the eyebrow gone. A rusty crown sits atop her head. An unraveling sash across her faded blue dress reads Miss WW III 2038. She smiles. Her teeth are missing.

A marching band follows, horribly out of sync, no rhythm, none of them marching in unison with the ones in front, behind or beside them. Damaged horns squawk and squeal, bells clatter, hollow drums are rapped on with broken sticks from fallen trees, all forming a cacophony of noise that no amount of rehearsing could fix. Some of them are missing limbs, a foot here, an arm there, both legs over there, being pulled along in a wheel chair by a man with no arms and a limp, a rope tied around his waist. Distorted faces and twisted torsos make the rag tag orchestra a crowd favorite. Several other bands would follow, strategically placed along the length of the parade, but none quite as spectacularly grotesque.

A semi pulling a trailer creeps up the street. Women dressed in red and white striped bathing suits dance along poles to ancient Christmas Carols that few of the children have ever heard. Adults sing along to Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer and Holly Jolly Christmas. Few even notice the women. The new wave of freaks—the beauties of a long forgotten yesterday who have no blemishes on their faces and who aren’t walking with limps—stare out at nothing as they dance, cringing with fear at those gawking at them. Tears fill their crystal blue, green and brown eyes.

Cars proclaiming the holiday season inch along, large men behind the wheels; motorcycle riders doing wheelies and criss-crossing figure eights, careen about, almost going into the crowds, but pulling back at the last moment, much to the dismay of the thousands of onlookers. It is rumored that once a year a bike goes off course, taking out several spectators to the delight of those who are fortunate enough to take in the carnage. Smoke billows from rusty mufflers, engines growl, spit and sputter during turns, but none of the bikes slide out of control, maiming or killing folks along the streets. Children poke out their lips. The pain would be worth not being like the freaks dancing on poles for men and women alike to ogle and insult, to abuse as they see fit when the parade is over.

The first hour pushes well into the second one. As the end draws near a burnt orange fire truck looms in the distance, its tires dirty, ladder crusted in grime and rust. A wooden chair sits at the back, elevated. A large man with blush red cheeks and flowing white and gray hair, a beard down to his stomach and a red jump suit sits on the throne. A hole is in one knee, no black belt at the waist. His black boots are scuffed and his red cap is missing the dangly white ball that should be attached to its tip. At his feet sit several packages and bags, wrapped in newsprint and tied with twine.

The children scream, “It’s Santa Clause.” They laugh and cheer and clap; some of the adults cry. Santa didn’t look like this when they were kids. He wasn’t a scraggly old man whose rosy cheeks came from drinking a pint of illegal liquor before the Christmas parade. He wasn’t a man with a sack not full of goodies, but something much worse. He wasn’t this vision of insanity that the younger people know and somehow love.

The fire truck stops. Santa stands, reaches behind his throne, hefting a gray bag onto his shoulders. He waves a black glove at the crowd as he turns in a circle, a toothless smile noticeable even with the thick tufts of gray and white that cover most of his face from ears down. His eyes fall on a group of people huddling around a metal barrel, flames licking up from it. They warm their hands and roast marshmallows; the perfect picture of happiness.

Santa points. “Onward, Rudolph.”

The fire truck veers to the left as the driver mashes the gas. The engine revs, the truck lurches forward, black smoke spills from the exhaust. Bodies scatter as the grill and bumper strikes the crowd. A brilliant flash of orange, yellow and red emits from Santa Clause’s bag of gifts. The explosion follows, ripping the back of the fire truck apart. Santa evaporates in a spray of metal, flesh and shredded wrapping paper. The front of the truck smashes into a dilapidated building that collapses. Brick, metal and glass tumble to the ground, taking with it several more people and kicking up a large dust cloud. Fire engulfs the truck, the building and many onlookers. Others scramble about, searching for body parts, tossing pieces aside, frantically looking for…

“I found it,” a woman yells and lifts Santa’s head from a pile of rubble. His jaw is missing, along with one ear. An eye dangles from an empty socket. Her family and friends pat her on the back, congratulating her, some grudgingly, others with the genuine sincerity only offered by loved ones.

A collective groan emits from those seeking the Christmas prize. People gather their blankets and meager belongings. Kids shuffle with parents back to their cold homes, devoid of windows and heat, misery greeting them at their doorways.

A green car pulls alongside the woman, the back door opens but no one gets out. A white gloved hand extends from the darkness, and beckons her to get in. The woman hugs her family, tears streaming from her eyes.

“I’ll miss you all,” she says and steps toward the car.

“We love you, Mommy,” one little girl says and hugs her leg tight. She lets go, steps back. “You’ll be the best Santa ever.”

“You bet I will,” she says and lifts Santa’s head high in the air. Blood spatters her and her family, but she doesn’t seem to notice. She gets inside the car, to little fanfar. It speeds off, leaving the family waving. The little girl bends down, picks up Santa’s stocking cap, turns it over in her hands, and places it on her head.

“Daddy, do you think I’ll ever be Santa Clause?”

Her dad kneels, puts both hands on her shoulders. “Anything’s possible, sweetheart. Anything’s possible.”

The family leaves, father and daughter holding hands. They chatter about the parade, the fireworks and wonder about the body count. Still, some adults stand, shocked, dismayed by the events. Christmas wasn’t like this when they were kids…

 

The Ghastly Glittergrieve – A Christmas Cautionary Tale

At the same precise time every year,
come dark on Christmas Eve,
A blighted spirit springs to life,
the ghastly GLITTERGRIEVE.

As children try to fall asleep,
it’s scurrying ‘cross your ceiling,
A shadowy nook it’ll find itself,
(one prime for self-concealing).

No bigger than a walnut yet,
this nasty little shade.
Observing from his darkened perch,
to watch festive tables laid.

Invisible at first, he is,
for his acts of misfeasance.
But before the day’s events are done,
you’ll feel his Christmas presence.

He’s there for every opened gift,
for all wrapping ripped away,
for every garish Cracker pulled
each fateful Christmas day.

He’s watching, in the shadows hid,
for each present you reveal.
(This is a task he undertakes
with fervor and with zeal).

In small black claws, he holds his book
with your name etched within.
A black mark will be noted down
for every spotted sin.

For every time you grimace
at your gift of aftershave,
the demons sat there thinking,
“That is no way to behave.”

With each half-hearted “Thank you”
that trickles from your lips,
Against your name, he’s sad to see,
Another black mark slips.

Each cardigan you toss aside,
each pair of socks rejected –
To the scrutiny of the Glittergrieve,
you’re silently subjected.

The demon’s purpose is laid bare,
once revelries have ceased.
For every black mark in the book,
The beasts size has increased.

It’s midnight now, on Christmas day.
And everybody’s resting.
But you’re awake from too much wine,
stomach noisily protesting.

The tap’s turned on, to wash your hands –
your bladder now relieved.
But in the mirror, there it stands,
the ghastly GLITTERGRIEVE.

Dark eyes poke out through masks of skin,
all evil, black and hateful.
The faces from which it peers behind
peeled away from the ungrateful.

Atop his face of ruined flesh,
a faded paper crown.
A tinsel wreath hangs round his neck,
cracked baubles draped around.

It rises up, towering o’er you now,
a weird and twisted shape.
Red, Green and Gold and shimmering,
its crude wrapping-paper cape.

With practiced claws it steals your soul,
Your watcher’s now your killer.
In one fell swoop, you’re doomed to be
A demons stocking filler.

The lesson here? Be thankful for
your gifts, which are meant well.
And if you’re good, you will receive
Good tidings and no Hell.


meDavid Court was born and resides in Coventry, UK with his patient wife and his three less patient cats. A few years back David achieved minor internet notoriety under the pseudonym FoldsFive for his animated GIFs telling the entirety of the Star Wars Trilogy, a fact that he’s still jolly well proud of and insists on telling anyone at any opportunity. When not reading, blogging angrily on http://www.foldsfive.co.uk or http://www.davidjcourt.co.uk, drinking real ale, being immune to explosions, writing software for a living or practicing his poorly developed telekinetic skills, he can be found writing fiction.

A Christmas tale from the twisted mind of Ash Hartwell.

 

Left Under The Tree.

 

Ash Hartwell.

 

 

 

Bethany crashed to the icy pavement in the pitch-black alley, and immediately wished she had chosen not to wear the shoes with the kick-ass heels. During the office Christmas Eve party, where, incidentally, she had looked every inch the Partner-to-be, they had been the bomb, powerfully provocative yet subtle, blending into her carefully thought out designer outfit. But now in the dark and on freshly fallen snow they gave her the gait of a new born deer.

 

She sat up and took stock. She’d lost the heel on one shoe and torn one of her specially bought Christmas stockings but more importantly she had hurt her knee. It had taken the full force of her fall and she suspected she had cut it but it was impossible to tell how badly in the darkness of the alley.

 

In the distance a brass band was playing Christmas carols, and listening to the faint music as she gingerly climbed to her feet, testing whether her knee would take her weight, Bethany remembered why she hated Christmas. “You had it right first time, Mr. Scrooge. Bah humbug indeed!” She muttered as she hobbled along the alley, conscious of a burning pain in her knee every time her foot struck the ground.

 

With each faltering step she felt the high brick walls closing in, towering above her like the walls of an impenetrable Gothic castle. She cast a nervous glance towards the sky, half expecting to see a vampire-like figure standing on the ramparts, cloak billowing in the wind, large stone gargoyles at his feet, staring down impassively, awaiting their master’s command.

 

She felt like a little girl again, scared of the dark and frightened a monster might be lurking there ready to gobble her up. As a rational, level-headed woman of thirty she knew monsters didn’t exist, that they were the figment of her childhood imagination. But serial killers, now they definitely existed, and were far worse than any childhood monster. Monsters looked scary to make you scream, whereas serial killers looked normal, only revealing their inner monster when it was too late to scream.

 

Bethany reached a bend and saw the relative security of the well-lit car park tantalisingly close. She quickened her pace and almost fell out of the alley, slipping on the wet slush of well-trodden snow. Stood in the light she inspected her knee and was relieved to see only a superficial abrasion. Apart from a few snow-dusted cars scattered around the large Christmas tree in the centre, the car park looked deserted. At the foot of the tree, nestled under the lower branches was Santa’s Grotto; a tiny cabin where during the day children could have visit Santa and, for a small fee, met his reindeer. Beyond that was Bethany’s car.

 

She removed her shoes to relieve pressure on her knee caused by her lopsided walk and started to half walk, half hobble across the car park. At first the snow had a soothing effect on her tired feet but that quickly changed to a dull, numb pain and she was glad her trainers were waiting for her in the car.

 

As she hobbled passed the small hut that served as Santa’s Grotto the door opened and a figure dressed as Santa stepped out. He placed a large plastic sack next to the hut before pulling the door shut. Bethany took a quick look around but couldn’t see anyone else, she was still fifty feet from her car; her feet so numb she was barely to walk.

 

Santa looked up and stepped around the barrier before walking towards her. She tried to walk faster, but the pain seared through her knee with each step. She only had thirty feet to go now.

 

She gave the bearded figure a friendly smile. She hated those white bushy beards. They scared her the way they obscured the features of the person beneath, concealing their intentions.

 

Bethany was barely ten feet from her car but Santa was only ten feet from her, and his thick black boots were eating up the ground far quicker than her frozen, bare feet were. She willed her legs to keep moving and felt like every college-girl victim in every slasher movie ever made. She was helpless and injured; the perfect defenceless victim.

 

Santa was within a few feet now his large red suit threatening to engulf her. She tried to alter course desperate to evade his grasp but her knee burned with pain and she lost her footing. The compacted snow beneath her offering no traction for the manoeuver and once again Bethany sprawled across the snow.

 

Exhausted, Bethany lay still, face down in the snow and awaited the inevitable. Santa’s boots appeared next to her head and a large red knee touched down in the snow a foot or so from her face.

 

“Are you alright, Miss?” Santa’s voice was deep and old. She didn’t reply, the cold snow had numbed her face. Strong hands gripped her and with one swift movement he had spun her onto her back.

 

As he peered down at her Santa had a look of concern in his eyes. Bethany hated the deceit; the mock joviality. Santa hadn’t visited her since she was six. Not since she saw him doing those things to Mummy in her parents’ bedroom. Her father had left before the next Christmas and she blamed Santa for that.

 

Bethany lunged at him and forced the long spiked heel of her shoe into his face, it pierced one of his twinkly blue eyes. Santa barely cried out before falling forward; dead.

 

Bethany loved her kick-ass heels. She pushed Santa away and retrieved her shoe then dragged his limp body to the tree where she left him propped against its thick trunk. She took a bright red Christmas stocking from her car and pulled it over his head, obscuring his features. She didn’t know why but she always did that and this was her seventeenth year of killing Santa. One a year since she was thirteen and realised her dad wasn’t coming back.

 

Oh yes. Bethany believed in serial killers alright, but monsters? No way.

https://www.facebook.com/Ash-Hartwell-221249414606956/

Have a merry and safe Christmas one and all.

 

Christmas Mourning

There are times when you witness something happen to someone else that causes you to contemplate your family – parents, spouse, significant other, children or grandchildren; whatever applies to you, and spontaneously, you find yourself thanking God, Fate, the Universe or mere Chance – whatever your faith may rest in, that you are not the one being afflicted with such foul adversity. Grim calamities of this sort can be so absolutely grievous that they literally stop you in your tracks – the weight of a gigantic stone suddenly laid upon your heart; a crushing loss that you feel for them but only on some miniscule scale, comparatively, because you, after all, are only the spectator of their terribly real ruin.

It was such a tragedy that I found myself witness to one Christmas morning, several years ago, while still working as a cop. After shift change at 7am, our squad sat around talking about plans for the day, gifts bought for loved ones and who was going to go home when. There were four of us working an eight hour shift and Christmas was not known for being busy in our small city. Our sergeant made the decision that we would each take a two hour block and go home. Three people could hold the fort down and if something came up none of us would be more than ten minutes away. I chose to take the 9-11am block. One of the guys left to go be with his family and the rest of us sat around for a while longer chatting and telling stories about past Christmases at work when something of note did occur.

It was around 8am when Dispatch stuck her head into the squad room and told us that Rescue was responding to a possible DOA (Dead On Arrival). It was in my partner’s zone but having nothing else to do my sergeant and I both accompanied him.

When I pulled up and saw which residence the ambulance was parked in front of, my heart sunk. I knew it fairly well. I’d dealt with a teenage girl that lived there on multiple occasions. She’d been a spitfire from the time she was probably eleven years old, getting into arguments and fights and then later, when she was about fourteen, riding around with boys that were older than her who didn’t care she was a minor as long as she pretty beyond her age and might be willing to put out. I remember taking her home to her mother that day. I tried to talk sense into the girl, but it was in one ear and out the other.

I felt bad for the mother. She was widowed and had three kids to raise on her own, two younger than her problematic daughter. She was a good person; a God fearing sweet lady who exuded kindness and tried to do right by her kids. She worked two different jobs, to my recollection, in order to provide for her family. I would often see her outside her home talking with neighbors while I was on patrol in the evenings. I would stop and speak to her and see how things were going. She wasn’t one to complain despite her hardships and I quite admired her commitment, her poise and patience through trials and tribulations as well as the fact that she never seemed to grow cynical or bitter nor was she ever overcome with a relentless austerity that defined so many others I met.

As a cop in a small city you come to know some people a bit more than others. And even though you don’t really “know” them like a close friend, you’ve spoken with them enough and helped them out in times of trouble in a way which has created a connection that sustains a sense of closeness because of the intimate knowledge you have of their circumstances, knowledge that they might not even desire to reveal to friends and family for fear of feeling ashamed.

She was one such person I had connected with over a period of years. The sight of each other engendered mutual smiles and prompted us to stop and speak if possible. It was purely platonic but a genuine friendliness even if our interactions were usually brief and, more often than not, infrequent.

When I walked in I saw Richard, one of the EMT’s, knelt down by the couch where this sweet woman lay next to the Christmas tree, one hand resting against her neck even though his face clearly said he already knew she was not among the living any longer.

The tree’s lights twinkled and danced across all the gifts stacked around the base and against one wall. The room was toasty warm and though I was certain her face was cold, it appeared peaceful even if slightly slack and somewhat waxen from whatever illness had taken her during the night. She slept with the dead now and my heart mourned for her loss. A loss I saw on the daughter’s face, a girl of only sixteen who, now, this Christmas morn, had the mantle of mother thrust upon her. I watched as she consoled her younger sister, restraining her own grief to be strong for another.

What really left a long impression though was watching her try to deal with the little brother who was around four to five. He didn’t get it; didn’t yet understand the ramifications of mom not waking up to open presents with him. And so he asked to open presents and dragged one out from under the tree, eyes bright and hopeful for something good, something that he had asked for and keenly desired.

His sister chided him at first but couldn’t bring herself to say the words, to explain to him how mom wasn’t just sleeping and that the rescue workers and cops weren’t standing here in their living room on Christmas morning out of some warm sense of community and kindness to simply see what they had wrapped under the tree and maybe, while there, get some cookies and egg nog or another treat of holiday sorts.

And so she didn’t try at all.

She proceeded to pull out all his gifts and set them well out of the way. And there I stood, watching this clueless, blissfully ignorant boy open gifts and joyfully play with toys even as the gurney was wheeled in and his mother placed on it inside a black plastic body bag, zipped up, the pliable cover crinkling as it enfolded her face.

I offered heartfelt condolences, despite their impotence, and though her wants and my job and advice were almost always at odds, she welcomed it. But she knew my words and feelings did nothing to alleviate this newfound burden. It seemed to be already eating away at her grief, and the fear of overwhelming responsibility was hardening her heart even as I observed her watching her brother. A resentment birthed in her eyes because of what this new and cruel reality meant for her future – a future where she would now have to raise him for the next thirteen years instead of being free to do as she pleased in only two more years when she graduated high school…which surely would never happen now.

Before rescue left they informed us of the cause of death. She had been fighting breast cancer for some time but treatments had been unsuccessful. I was shocked. Her strength and fortitude was inconceivable. I had never heard her speak of it and she certainly had not stopped working her two jobs during chemotherapy. She truly was an amazing woman, who, to many, most likely appeared unremarkable beyond her relaxed congeniality. How completely wrong any were who thought such a thing.

As the ambulance pulled away, carrying the discarded flesh of a soul that certainly, in my mind, was now in heaven above, my sergeant and I and our other squad mate stood in the drive way and shook our heads and commented to one another about how fucked up the whole situation was, how good a person the mom had been and absolutely fucked all three of those kids were now. I commented on how every other Christmas after this would be heavy with sorrow, any festivities tainted with a recurring, unshakeable depression. We stood silent for some time waiting for their aunt and pastor to arrive and then someone finally spoke and said how immensely glad they were that it was not them or their family damned with such an ill fate. We all nodded in agreement, thankful for our better fortune.

Later, when I finally made it to my own house, late, but not caring because they were there, alive and well. I hugged my wife and played with my kids and thanked God that they were alive and so was I and none of us knew the terribly singular sense of bereavement gripping those kids even as joy rested upon our own household.

 

~~Mike Duke, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

A CHRISTMAS GUEST BY M.F. WAHL

The tree stood in the corner, it’s dark green boughs weighed down with long soft needles. They remained unadorned despite the wealth of glitter and sparkle in a storage tub nearby. The tub’s lid sat slightly askew, balancing on the rim, where it had been placed down the evening before. Nothing in that corner had moved since then, as though the Christmas decorations had been preserved in ice, much like the yard outside.

In a way they had. The coldness of a marriage on the rocks had taken it’s toll. Marty and Nadine had been at each other’s throats all night. Many of the barbed comments and dirty looks passed right over the children’s heads, but they felt the darkness, even if they couldn’t truly understand it.

Tempers flared, no one was immune. Like a swirling tempest, the sour mood sucked the joy from every little moment. At fourteen, Clara was the oldest of the four children, and the first to rail against her parents. “I hate this family!” she yelled, shoving her younger brother to the side as she stormed from the room.

Marty called for her to come back, insisting she participate in the festivities, but short of physically dragging her from her room there was little he could do. It wasn’t long before he and Nadine were openly screaming at each other, and the younger children took refuge in their own rooms. So much for the Norman Rockwell Christmas decorating scene they had been trying to cobble together.

The next evening Clara sat in front of the TV, her arms wrapped around her knees, watching a show she only marginally enjoyed. That was fine, because her parents were fighting in the kitchen once again, and her three little brothers raced in circles powered by batteries that never seemed to run out. The house was loud and she tried to focus on smiling faces and the laugh track coming from the TV.

Before the end of the show she heard the front door bang closed, followed by the deep rumble of her father’s car as he fired up the engine and pulled out of the driveway. A few minutes later her red-eyed mother stepped into the living room and turned off the TV.

“Hey! I was watching that!” Clara snapped at her mother.

“Too bad,” Nadine replied, and crossed the room to the tub full of decorations. “It’s time to decorate the tree.”

“Yay!” cried Clara’s youngest brother, Jeremy. He was only eight and always eager to please. He skipped over to the tree, followed by Nathan and Bradley.

Clara stood and crossed her arms. “I don’t want to.”

Nadine pursed her lips unhappily and walked over to Clara. She wasn’t much taller than the teen anymore, but was still able to throw her weight around. Clara glared defiantly into her mother’s eyes. “This is stupid.”

Nadine was fast, and before Clara could react her mother lashed out, striking her across the mouth with her palm. “You’d better watch your mouth, young lady.”

Tears stung Clara’s eyes, but she blinked them back. Not wanting to be struck again, she slunk over to the Christmas tree and accepted a red metallic garland her mother held out to her.

That’s how the night went, the family nearly smothered by a cloud of anger, decorating the tree, trying desperately to cling to a thread of happiness. Except Clara, she didn’t see the point of decorating, or clinging, and with each bulb she hung her resentment grew, like the scowl on her face.

Soon enough the tree was laden with beads and bulbs and tinsel and twinkle. Nadine went back to the kitchen to cook dinner, and her brothers began playing again. Clara with the last golden decoration in her hand, searched for a place that wasn’t already festooned. The back of the tree had the least on it, so she slid between it and the wall. As she reached up to hang the ornament a black spot on a red bulb caught her eye.

It was a spider. Big, and black, with long hairy legs, clinging to the side of a shiny red bulb. Clara squeaked in surprise and recoiled, bouncing off the wall behind her, and back into the tree—and the spider.

Normally, she wasn’t afraid of spiders, but the thought of having one unexpectedly dancing on her shirt kicked her baser instincts into gear. She dropped the ornament from her hand and, squealing in terror, scrambled out from behind the tree.

“Ew, ew, ew, ew, ew!”

Clara danced around the room batting at her clothes as her brothers giggled. After a few moments she stopped, and panting, looked at them. “Spider…” was all she could manage though breaths.

Dinner proceeded as normal, with Marty arriving back home just before it was served. Clara’s parents were curt to each other, but didn’t return to earlier fighting. Her father even complimented the Christmas tree before the kids had to get ready for bed.

Clara had long since forgotten about the spider by the time she was brushing her teeth. She looked in the bathroom mirror, scrubbing, as she saw it creep up onto her shoulder. She froze, toothpaste foaming from her mouth, arm stiff. She didn’t want to panic this time and lose it, she wanted to knock it off into the toilet and flush it down.

Her heart sped in her chest as she tried to move slowly enough not to spook the arachnid. It was bigger than she remembered it. So big she could make out a few details of its face in the mirror. Two sets of shiny black eyes stared forward, unblinking, with a disconcerting quietness. Just below them Clara knew there were fangs, hidden by whiskered mandibles.

She crept toward the toilet, stepping softly and trying not to jar the thing on her shoulder, all the time keeping her eyes fixed on its reflection. It moved slowly across her shoulder toward her neck, and she suppressed a gag as it reached out a thick black leg that reminded her of a pipe cleaner, and stroked her throat.

“Be calm child,” it said in her ear. Its words were raspy, said in the echo of a voice, neither feminine nor masculine. Clara widened her eyes in surprise, but other than that, didn’t move a muscle.

“Please,” said the spider. “I’m not here to hurt you.”

“Mom! Dad!” Clara screamed, and batted at the spider on her shoulder. As her hand made contact she felt the stiff haired bristles that covered its body. She spun in a frantic circle trying to see where it went. “Mom! Dad!” she screamed again, as they both came running.

On the verge of tears Clara told them about the spider, but at the last second, looking up into their concerned faces, she left out the part about it speaking. They’d just think she was being crazy.

Marty dutifully checked the bathroom for the offending arachnid, and Nadine helped Clara check her hair and clothes. After they came up empty-handed they said goodnight and saw a nervous Clara off to bed, leaving the door open a crack at her request.

“That seemed like an overreaction,” she heard her father say as her parents descended the stairs.

“It’s just her hormones,” her mother replied.

Clara pulled her blanket up to her chin and replayed the moment in the bathroom over and over again, until she managed to convince herself that she imagined a talking spider. I was just scared, she thought, fear can do strange things to people’s minds.

Still, no matter what she told herself, she had trouble falling asleep. She couldn’t help but feel every itch on her body like it was the spider crawling on her skin. Eventually, she heard her parents go to bed, and she lay awake, staring at the ceiling until exhaustion finally closed her eyes.

Clara woke to a pressure on her chest, heavy, but not unbearable by any means. Almost as if a small cat were perched on her. She didn’t know what time it was, but it was still dark.

Half asleep Clara reached up and touched the weight on her chest. It bristled beneath her palm and she yanked her hand back as her eyes popped open.

“Please don’t scream,” rasped the spider.

Clara’s lips trembled and she breathed quickly, feeling the weight of the spider as it rode her chest up and down, up and down, up and down.

The moon shone through the bedroom window, just enough to illuminate the black shadow perched atop her, glinting off its many eyes.

“I’m not here to hurt you, child.” It reached out a long leg and touched Clara’s cheek. “I’m just here to talk. To help you.”

“Help me with what?” Clara whispered, her voice fluttering past her lips.

“Why didn’t you tell your parents about me?”

“I did.”

“No. Not about me. You told them about an ordinary spider. Perhaps a bit on the bigger side, but still a bland and ordinary spider. You didn’t tell them about me.”

Clara shivered beneath her thick down duvet. “They wouldn’t have believed me.”

“They wouldn’t have listened to you.”

Clara nodded, feeling a small ember of resentment from the Christmas tree charade still burning in her gut.

“They never listen to me,” she said quietly.

“I know,” the spider replied. “I witnessed everything from the moment your family selected your tree from the lot. I saw how they treat you, and I hurt for you.”

Clara nodded in the dark, watching the spider’s eyes sparkle as it spoke, her fear slowly being consumed by the tiny flame fanned to life from the ember.

“Am I crazy?” She asked the creature on her chest.

“Does it matter? If you were, its your parents fault, not yours. Look at how selfish they are. If they truly cared about you they would just be happy.”

For the first time in her life Clara felt like she was speaking to someone who understood her. No one, not her friends, not her dumb brothers, no one understood her situation. Everyone thought her parents were so nice. They couldn’t see the cloud that hung over their house, poisoning the very air inside. Choking the life from her so stealthily that no one noticed.

Clara felt her cheeks flush with anger, and balled her fists under the covers. She hated her parents and her whole stupid family.

“What do you want to do?” asked the spider.

“I want to leave and never come back.”

“Now is as good a time as ever.”

“I can’t sneak downstairs without waking up my mom.”

“What about the window?”

The spider rose from Clara’s chest and sidled next to her on the bed. As it moved she felt the lightness of empty space and it almost felt foreign. She scooted to the foot of her bed and peeked out of her window at the white powder covering the rooftop. They were only one floor up. If she hung from the gutter it would only be a small drop into snow.

“I don’t have any shoes.”

“You don’t need them. It’s not really that cold outside.”

“Maybe I should just wait.”

“And endure one more day in this house? I thought you hated your parents, look at what they’ve brought you to.”

Clara nodded. “You’re right.”

She quickly dressed herself and layered on two pairs of socks, then grabbed her coin bank. It was a dolphin jumping from a wave, her favorite animal, but missing its dorsal fin. Last year Nathan had broken it, and although her mother tried to repair it, eventually the piece fell off and was lost.

Quietly Clara slid open the window and a cold blast of air hit her. It was almost enough to make her close it again, but she felt one of the spider’s legs on her arm, reassuring her.

“Are you coming?” she asked.

“Yes,” rasped the spider, and climbed onto her back. It felt even heavier than before. Awkwardly, Clara stepped out onto the roof.

The snow was crisp and cool beneath her feet, and the wind cut through her sweater, but now that she was outside Clara was determined. Just as she had imagined, she hung from the gutter and dropped into the snow bank near the side of the house. Enjoy Christmas without me, she thought spitefully as she headed toward the road, the big black spider clinging to her back like a many-legged backpack.

She walked, head down against the wind, shivering, and telling Spider her new plans. The coin bank she clutched to her chest probably had enough in it to buy a bus ticket. All she had to do was get a pair of shoes.

“Any charity box,” Spider whispered in her ear. “They’re overflowing this time of year. You might even find a pair in your size.”

“And a coat.”

“That’s the spirit.”

The snow was beginning to cake around Clara’s socks and her body heat melted what stayed close. She shivered as she trudged, feeling like Spider was getting even heavier.

“You’re growing.”

“You’re just seeing me more, child.”

Clara nodded, her face feeling frozen. She didn’t understand what that meant, but was running low on energy.

Soon they were out of town, headed toward the small city nearby. There she knew that’s where there’d be charity bins and a bus station. Just as the streetlights disappeared the sun began to rise.

Clara trembled uncontrollably. “You made it through the hard part, Clara,” coaxed Spider. “The sun will bring warmth with it.”

But it didn’t. Clouds obscured the sky and let loose a fury of snow and wind that pelted her chapped face, feeling like needle pricks. Her feet were numb now, as she dragged them in the slush on the side of the road. She tried not to think about them as she walked hunched over, burdened by Spider’s weight.

“It’s getting late, they’ll be looking for you, Clara.”

Clara said nothing but began peaking over her shoulder to see if there were any approaching cars. She spotted the first car’s headlights not long after and ducked into the underbrush along the side of the road. After it passed she tried to stand, but stumbled under the weight of Spider.

“You’re getting too heavy for me.”

“You’re giving up. I thought you were better than that. I got you this far, don’t disappoint me now.”

Clara sighed. She was so tired and so cold. All she really wanted now was to get back into her nice warm bed.

“That ship has sailed, Clara. What do you think will happen when they find out you’re gone?”

Tears slid from Clara’s eyes and froze on her cheeks as she stood, staggering under the weight of the enormous creature embracing her from behind. She tried to take a step forward and fell to her knees.

“Get up,” rasped Spider. Its words floating overtop of the wind. “Get on your feet.”

A sob broke from Clara’s throat as she tried to stand again. Her socks, frozen to the snow around them, pulled away and she stepped barefoot toward the road, trying desperately to carry herself on red swollen feet. Her legs wobbled again and she fell, catching herself with her hands before her face hit the icy ground.

“Get up.”

“I can’t,” Clara managed through sobs. Her eyelashes were beginning to freeze.

“You must. You’ll show them.”

Clara rose to her hands and knees, ice slicing at her bare palms, her coin bank lost somewhere in the snow far behind. She fixed her eyes on the side of the road and crawled, chest heaving as she cried.

“Not too close to the road, Clara. You don’t want to be found.”

The weight of Spider was almost unbearable and Clara felt as though she might break under it.

“Not too close.”

She felt the tips of Spider’s legs, like large pointed branches, digging into her sides.

“I said not too close!” Its rasp was loud in her ear, angry, overtaking the howling wind of the storm.

“Get off!” Clara yelled, her voice cracking. She reached for the side of the road, barely able to see, dragging herself next to it, hoping she was close enough to be found.

Spider dug its legs harder into Clara’s sides, piercing her sweater, and her skin. She screamed in pain.

“Get away from the road,” it rasped.

Clara reached behind her and grabbed one of Spider’s legs with her hands. It was so big she could barely wrap her hands around it. As she tried to pull the creature from her back it dug its legs in further, jabbing points between her ribs.

Every sob, every breath Clara took now came with pain. Pain so sharp it almost shut out the cold. Almost. She was too cold to shiver, and too weak to fight. Clara’s hands slipped from the leg and she collapsed under Spider’s weight by the side of the road.

Ahead a bright pair of headlights cut through the falling snow. A pick-up truck slid to a stop and Clara could see Christmas lights strung around its bed. They twinkled merrily, as she closed her eyes.

So cold.

So cold.

So cold.

 


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Horror, thriller, sci-fi … all are synonymous with author M.F. Wahl. Dark plots and a keen focus on character development will keep you chained to each frightful word. Wahl is a proud member of the Horror Writer’s Association and her first novel “Disease” is will be released by Stitched Smile sometime next year. Visit http://mfwahl.com/ for more information, or to get on the mailing list. You can also find Wahl on Facebook and Twitter.

Beginning picture credits: “Frozen Spider’s Web” by Matthew Harrigan

How Grendel Stole a Christmas …

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How Grendel Stole Christmas

Christmas in the Hall but not the Spirit of the Feast
Came to pay a visit, no, instead a vicious beast
Barreled down the doorway shifting shape and size in bounds
Scattering the party as they fled beyond the grounds
Grendel had awakened to the noisy revelry
Sounds of someone singing, drunk on mead and sin’s debris
Fetched him from his hollow, burning hunger in his gut
Pressing him to follow, breaking into glutton’s rut
Holly hung around the doorway dropped beneath his feet
Men and women parted trying hard to make retreat
Pine and wooded anthems fell beneath the mighty wrath
Grendel came for dinner, clearing presents from his path
Gold and poultry pardoned as the first four victims fell
Eaten in an instant in his merry, mangled hell
Nothing short of mayhem on this hallowed, special day
Grendel’s nails delighted as his claws began to slay
Men in greater numbers, up to thirty torn in two
Blood and guts adorned where once were festive nature’s hue
Hrothgar sat unflinching and untouched, but saddened still
He alone survived while watching Grendel gnash and kill
Merry Christmas, Daneland, there’s no dangling ornate wreath
Santa isn’t coming, just the grind of Grendel’s teeth …

James Matthew Byers resides in Wellington, Alabama with his wife, kids, a dog named after an elf, and two tortoises. He has been published in poetry journals and through Jacksonville State University in Jacksonville, AL, where he received his Master’s in 2010. His epic poem, Beowulf: The Midgard Epic, is out now from Stitched Smile Publications, LLC. He also has a short story featured in their upcoming release, Unleashed: Monsters Vs. Zombies.

Find James Matthew Byers at:
Twitter: @Mattbyers40
Facebook: https://m.facebook.com/Mattbyers40/
Wordpress: http://jamesmatthewbyers.wordpress.com

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Terrible Toys (A Christmas Poem) by Lisa Vasquez

Twas the night before Christmas when under the moon
A feeling of sadness was followed by doom
The children were still in their beds drenched with red
While toys giggled madly and danced on their head
A doll with one eye held a knife in the air
The Robot ate entrails with Ole Mr. Bear
Mother let out a scream high and shrill
While Barbie and Ken went in for the kill
I crawled to the stairs to make my escape
To be met at the top by a man in a cape
“Let’s go to work” he whispered to Jack-in-the-Box
Who sprung on back, followed by Fox
Army men shouted out into the hall
“The bigger they are, the harder they fall!”
I let out a shout and attempted to run
And that’s when the cowboy … he pulled out a gun!
“Howdy Partner” he said with a growl
“Get him!” the wolfman said with a howl
I grabbed my son’s bat and swung it around
I smashed the Robot , I kicked down the clown
Then what to my wondering eyes did I see?
The tree had grown teeth and was coming for me!
The elf on the shelf laughed as he taunted
“There’s nowhere to go! This house is haunted!”
The lights were hung ‘round my neck with great care
Little green men tied me into a chair
I cried and I begged, “Please let me go!”
Behind me I heard, “Ho! Ho! No!”
St. Nick came around me and gave me a grin
“You’ve been naughty,” he said, tapping his chin
He turned to the toys and they all gave a cheer
“It’s time to begin! Santa is here!”

 

 

Author_Lisa_VasquezBy design, Lisa Vasquez creates horror with vivid, dark, and twisted words and images that not only drags the reader in between the pages, but onto the covers that house them, as well. When she releases her grasp, readers are left alone to sort through the aftermath those images leave behind; each one becoming a seed that roots itself within the soft confines of their psyche. She takes this passion for writing horror and uses it to mentor other authors and volunteers as the Publisher’s Liaison for the Horror Writers Association. In January 2016, Lisa took her commitment to the next level and opened an independent publishing house, Stitched Smile Publications.

Her work can be found in several anthologies, and her upcoming, full-length novels will be released in 2016. For more information and updates on Lisa’s work, you can find her at: http://www.unsaintly.com or on Facebook (facebook.com/unsaintlyhalo), Twitter (@unsaintly), Instagram (unsaintly)

 

The 12 Nights of Christmas

Why can’t we have ‘the twelve days of Halloween?’ Why does Christmas have a monopoly on almost two whole weeks of the year? It’s not fair, I tell you! So just for fun, for those who–like me–walk on the darker side of life here is: The Twelve Nights of Christmas. (I dare you not to sing it.)

On the first night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

A corpse swinging from a pear tree.

hangingtree

On the second night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the third night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the fourth night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the fifth night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the sixth night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the seventh night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the eighth night of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Eight hosts mutating,

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the ninth day of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Nine witches cursing,

Eight hosts mutating,

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the tenth day of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Ten reapers reaping,

Nine witches cursing,

Eight hosts mutating,

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

On the eleventh day of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Eleven sirens singing,

Ten reapers reaping,

Nine witches cursing,

Eight hosts mutating,

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

**drum roll please!**

On the twelfth day of Christmas the shadows showed to me:

Twelve vampires feeding,

Eleven sirens singing,

Ten reapers reaping,

Nine witches cursing,

Eight hosts mutating,

Seven stalkers stalking, 

Six zombs a’slaying,

Five Demon kings,

Four carrion crows, 

Three Frankensteins,

Two turn to wolves,

And a corpse swinging from a pear tree.

~~Ash Hartwell, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

Do You Believe in Magic?

Julian shuffled his feet as he stood in the long, winding line at the Mills. Shoving his hands into the pockets of a pair of jeans a few inches too short, he huffed out a harsh breath. Out of the corner of his eye. he caught Mrs. Newall’s disapproving glare, but he didn’t care. This whole thing was stupid. Shrugging his shoulders and letting his head droop, he settled into a hunch, determined to let the whole world know exactly how he was feeling.

Around him, the rest of the kids from Bell Street Orphanage bounced on their toes, strained their necks, and brimmed with excitement. They were too far away to see anything yet, but that didn’t keep them from trying. The annual trip to see Santa was one of two major field trips the unwanted kids of St. Louis and its surrounding areas could count on; a guaranteed chance to get out from behind the oppressive walls of their lot in life. For one day, they could pretend to forget who they were. They could pretend to be someone—anyone—else. They could pretend to be normal.

Julian knew that’s what they were doing; he’d spent countless years doing the same. He remembered vividly the excitement that welled up at the first sight of the man in red. It was so great you squeezed your arms tight around yourself, trying to contain the joy, desperate to hold yourself together—if you let go, you might burst apart from the strength of it.

And of course there were the lights and sounds and smells of the season. Everything was so bright; windows glistened, Christmas lights twinkled, colors sparkled so much it made your eyes hurt. The scent of cinnamon left a slight singe on your nostrils before being overwhelmed by the sugary sweet smell of vanilla Christmas cookies. Voices mingled into a cacophony of anticipation, impatience, and good cheer. In the midst of it all, you could barely contain your joy at simply being a part of it.

And then there was the hope, both best and worst of all. That feeling that maybe, just maybe, this might be the year. The year that instead of a bicycle or a new set of drawing pencils or even that Wii for the group room, you might get what you really wanted. Yes, Julian knew exactly what was going through the minds of the others. He could see it in the glow of their eyes, the width of their grins, the barely noticeable strain in their linked fingers.

He wasn’t sure he believed in God, and if the Man upstairs did exist, Julian didn’t know whether he should pray that God let the others hold onto their dreams forever, or wake them up to the cold, harsh truth of reality; he couldn’t decide which was worse.

The line crawled forward. As they came around the far end of a caramel corn booth, set up specifically for the holidays, one of the girls let out a yelp. Jumping up and down, little Katie’s finger shook as it pointed across the room. Julian glanced around. Ah, yes. There he was. On an oversized throne-like chair, his trusty elf at one side and a live reindeer on the other, sat good ‘ole St. Nick. Glancing over again at Katie, Julian’s chest ached, and he sent up a quick plea. Couldn’t hurt, right? God, please let her never figure out he’s not real. Don’t take that away from her.

As they continued to inch toward the Christmastime set-up, the anticipation grew as the others got their first good looks at Santa. Mrs. Newall’s shushes became louder and more frequent the closer they came to the front of the line, but she couldn’t hide the look of satisfaction in her eyes as David and Katie and Michael and Kane took turns pulling on her hands and pointing at every holiday detail that caught their eye.

She wasn’t a bad sort, Mrs. Newall. Unlike other directors Julian had heard tales about, Mrs. Newall actually seemed to care about them all. So had Mr. Newall, when he’d been around. But he’d died five years ago in a car accident. They weren’t parents; they had too many kids to look after to get that personally involved with any one of the orphans. But on some level, Julian believed Mrs. Newall loved them all, in her own way. She did the best she could, anyway.

“Julian!” His head snapped up at the sound of his name. Mrs. Newall gestured him forward hurriedly. “Please pay attention!” Lost in his thoughts, he’d failed to move ahead with the rest of the group. Immediately, he crossed the three foot gap separating him from the others.

“Sorry, Mrs. Newall.”

She pursed her lips, but didn’t say anything more. Meeting her gaze, he quickly looked away. He’d seen the impatience in her eyes—it seemed to always be there when she looked at him these days—but he’d also recognized the compassion tinged with sadness, and he didn’t want to see it. Couldn’t see it. It hurt too much.

After what seemed like forever, the kids from Bell Street reached the front of the line. Julian watched as Katie climbed up into that inviting lap and without any hesitation listed every desire of her five-year-old heart. Santa watched her raptly, listening with great intent as she asked for a new dolly, an Elsa costume, a Disney princess playhouse, and the ever impractical pony. When Mrs. Newall gently urged her along, Katie threw her arms around the man’s neck and squeezed tightly. Julian’s heart swelled as Santa hugged her back; he couldn’t stop it.

This wasn’t real, he knew that. Katie wouldn’t get everything she’d asked for. Mrs. Newall couldn’t afford that much for each child and state funding had been severely limited. He wasn’t supposed to know that, of course. But was it his fault Mrs. Newall’s bedroom and office was just above his, and her voice carried through the air duct in his ceiling? Anyway, the point was, Katie didn’t know this wasn’t real. She believed every bit of it—Santa Claus, flying reindeer, elves, magic. He couldn’t help but appreciate the beauty in that.

It wasn’t too long before all the other kids had taken their turn and only Julian was left. The guy posing as Father Christmas, whoever he was, motioned with his arms, inviting Julian to take a seat on his knee.

“Thanks, but I’ll stand if that’s alright.” He heard Mrs. Newall’s soft reprimand behind him, but kept his eyes on the bearded face staring up at him.

“That’s perfectly fine. Merry Christmas, son. What’s your name?”

Julian tried to hide the wince at being called “son,” but the pinprick to his heart, given recent circumstances, stung.

“Julian.”

“Well, Julian, it’s an honor to meet you. I’m guessing you know who I am?”

“Yup.” Well, who you’re pretending to be, anyway. But there was no point in ruining the fun for the others.

“Good, good. And how old are you, Julian?”

“Twelve, sir. Nearly thirteen.”

“That’s a fine age. A fine age. Tell me something, Julian. Being that age, do you believe in magic?”

Julian’s gaze shot up at that and met a steady stare. Those eyes … There’s something familiar … But no. It was impossible. Julian fidgeted, uncomfortable with the question. Meeting that stare again, he heard himself answer honestly.

“I want to, sir.”

Santa’s mustache shifted, as if he were pursing his lips, and the way he rubbed his beard thoughtfully made Julian wonder just what the man in red was considering. After a moment, he nodded, as though he’d come to a decision.

“What would you like for Christmas, Julian?”

A family. The words nearly tripped off his tongue before he gave them a sharp tug and swallowed them back. Unbidden, thoughts swarmed his mind, pictures emerging and fading, one after another. A tall, muscular man with buzzed black hair and stubble along his jaw. A woman with blonde hair and blue eyes, her willowy frame a misrepresentation of her strength. An old bike pulled out of a garage, covered in cobwebs and dust. The same bike, scrubbed until it shone, with new tires and an Avengers seat cover. Jack-o-lanterns carved and placed along front porch stairs, their candlelit grins alight with mischief.

Julian blinked furiously, his eyes stinging with the prickle of tears. Glancing away, he berated himself. Stop it, you crybaby. You always knew it might not work out, and it didn’t. Crying won’t change that. And besides, nearly-thirteen-year-olds don’t cry. You’re practically a man. Act like it, for chrissakes.

Sucking in a deep breath, Julian turned back to the mall Santa.

“You don’t have to worry about me. Just take care of the others. They need it more than I do.”

Before the fake Santa could respond, Julian turned and walked away, making room for the next kid awaiting his turn. Hearing the click of Mrs. Newall’s sturdy pumps behind him, he glanced back, expecting an admonishment. Instead, she watched him with something akin to pity. Which was so, so much worse. Shoving his hands into his pockets, Julian hunched his shoulders, gluing his gaze to the floor. It was bad enough he couldn’t get away from his own disappointment. He didn’t need to see hers, too.

***

            The next two weeks dragged, Christmas Eve looming ever closer, yet inevitably so far away, until finally it arrived. The atmosphere at Bell Street was electric, charged with anticipation. The younger kids couldn’t contain their excitement as Mrs. Newall dragged out the ancient Christmas tree and arranged its fake branches. The giddiness only grew as boxes were opened and colorful garlands, strings of popcorn, and various ornaments were revealed. Shouts of “Can I hang that one?” and “Put it right there, Mrs. Newall!” rang through the rooms, bouncing off walls and ceilings.

Julian couldn’t bring himself to join in the celebratory activities. God knew, he wanted to. He just … couldn’t. Not this year. Not after what had happened.

He’d been so close, so positively sure, this was it. Finally, after years of having no real family, no real home, he was going to be adopted. He just knew it. Except … He wasn’t. Why? Why didn’t it work out? What did I do wrong? He’d been wracking his brain for weeks now. Had the fight really been it? Is a single broken nose going to cost me my future? One misstep?

Dan and Rita McFarland were a fairly young couple. Dan was a pediatrician, Rita a real estate agent. They had a nice, two-story home in St. Peters, with a fenced-in backyard, and a Great Dane. Rocco. God, he loved that dog. Especially at night, when the dumb thing would climb into bed with him and take up all but about two inches of the full-sized mattress.

Julian had been skeptical when he’d first met his new foster family. They just didn’t seem the type. Especially not to take an adolescent. A baby, sure. Or maybe even a bubbly youngster, like Katie. But a kid like him, nearly in his teens, and bound to have a full set of built-in issues? Not a chance.

Still, they were welcoming enough, and their place was so much better than the orphanage. He had a room all to himself, with a TV and an Xbox One. Rita cooked dinner every night, unless she had a late showing with a client. Then Dan would cook. Which meant Dan would grill. Julian would chase around the backyard, throwing a tennis ball for Rocco, or sometimes he’d just sit and chat with Dan. It was nice, talking to Dan, with the scent of charcoal singeing the air. The guy didn’t treat him like a kid; he talked to Julian like Julian was a man, instead of talking down to him. They argued about football; Julian had grown up in St. Louis, so what choice did he have but to cheer for the Rams? Dan, on the other hand, was a Bears fan for some unknown reason. Didn’t really matter, since neither team had had a decent season in years.

And Rita? Rita was prime mom material. Like her husband, she was careful to treat Julian more like someone closer to being grown than a kid. Still, she was free with her affection, never hesitating to wrap her arms around him in a hug and place a kiss on his head. Every day when he got home from school, she’d greet him that way, with a hug and a kiss and a “Hey, how was school today?”

Of course, they didn’t hesitate to discipline, either. He hadn’t meant to get in that fight, he really hadn’t. But that jackass Joey Rand just couldn’t keep from running his mouth about how Julian was just the McFarlands’ charity case, and nobody really wanted a “stupid orphan boy” like him. Joey had been on the pavement, blood gushing from his nose, before Julian realized he’d hit him. After a talk with the principal, Dan and Rita gave him a grounding to go along with his week of detention. No TV. No Xbox. No phone. It was hell. But the next time Joey started spouting crap, Julian just walked away. The guy wasn’t worth it.

Apparently, though, learning to walk away came too little, too late. Because it wasn’t long after that initial fight Julian found himself headed back to Bell Street, his dreams smashed against its walls.

“Julian?”

Yanked from his thoughts, he glanced up from the copy of Percy Jackson and the Sea of Monsters, sitting forgotten in his lap.

“Yes, Mrs. Newall?”

“It’s time to start heading up.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Rising, he glanced over at the clock on the wall. Nine o’clock. Yeah, the other kids would all be climbing into bed right about now, desperate to get to sleep. They all knew Santa wouldn’t come if they didn’t. Slipping his book under his arm, Julian cracked his knuckles and headed for the stairs.

“Night, Mrs. Newall.”

“Julian.”

“Yeah?”

“I’ve packed up your things.”

He swung back to her, his eyebrows knitting.

“What? Why?”

“You’re being placed tomorrow.”

His heart dropped into his stomach. No. Not again. He couldn’t take another foster home. Not this soon.

“Tomorrow?”

“Yes.”

“On Christmas?”

“Yes.”

“Why?”

“You know how the system works, Julian. I—”

“No, I mean, why tomorrow? Why on Christmas? Why can’t it be in a few days? Why can’t it wait? Please, Mrs. Newall, don’t send me away on Christmas. What about Katie? And David? And the others? I need to be here for them, I need to be! Please! Please don’t send me away on Christmas, please! Please, Mrs. Newall, don’t! Don’t!”

Tears streamed down Julian’s cheeks as he panicked, his words pouring out in an uncontrollable babble. This can’t be happening. It isn’t fair! If he couldn’t have his own family, the least he could have was the others. They were like his brothers and sisters, and yeah, he wanted to be adopted—they all did—but that didn’t mean he didn’t care about them all. What would they do without him? What would he do without them? Not on Christmas. This couldn’t be happening on Christmas.

Mrs. Newall’s arms came around him, pulling him into a tight embrace. He latched on, desperate for an anchor, any demonstration that somebody cared, at least a little.

“Julian. Julian, calm down! It’ll be okay, I promise. Shh. It’ll be okay.”

His words died away, leaving only his tears to stain the front of her shirt as she held him. Her hand stroked down the back of his head, pulling his hair away from his wet cheeks. He burrowed in close, and for the first time since he’d known her, he never wanted to let go. In this moment, not only wasn’t she a bad sort, she was all he had. This—Bell Street—was all he had. And it was going to be taken from him. On Christmas.

Finally, he pulled away, resignation settling in his chest. Apparently, the cards were never going to fall in his favor. Might as well get used to it and start facing it like a man. Tears are a waste; they always will be.

“Merry Christmas, Mrs. Newall.” Turning away, he trudged up the stairs and climbed into bed. A while later he heard the rustling of what surely was Mrs. Newall placing wrapped packages under the tree. Santa was making “his” appearance; too bad he wouldn’t be granting Julian’s wish. Julian rolled over and settled in, but it was well into the night before sleep claimed him.

***

            “Julian? Julian, wake up.”

Julian groaned as the sound of Mrs. Newall’s voice pulled him from sleep. Opening his eyes into the barest of slits, he realized it was still dark. Very dark. Geez, what time is it? Rolling over, he sat up and rubbed his eyes.

“What is it?”

“There’s a cab waiting for you downstairs. It’s time to go.”

“Huh?” He gave his head a good shake, trying to knock the sleep loose. “What time is it?”

“Seven-thirty.”

Good grief. He was pretty sure he hadn’t fallen asleep until at least two. “Why so early?”

“It’s just the way it is, Julian. Now hurry up and get dressed, the cab’s waiting. I’ll take your bag and meet you downstairs.”

Julian watched her go, too tired to fully embrace indignation. Early in the morning or late tonight, what did it matter? He was being ripped away from the only family he could claim on Christmas Day. Better to get it over with, he supposed. Kind of like ripping off a Band-aid.

He tossed on the pair of jeans, white t-shirt, and black hoodie Mrs. Newall had left out for him, then shuffled down the stairs. Reaching the bottom, he glanced towards the living room with the lit-up tree. It was empty. Weird. The younger kids never slept this late on Christmas mornings; you were lucky if you made it to six before being pounced on. It was the one morning the Newalls had never complained about being woken up early, the one morning where the kids’ impatience was indulged rather than reprimanded.

“For goodness’ sake, Julian, quit dawdling.”

At Mrs. Newall’s nagging, Julian shrugged. He headed for the front door and stepped out onto the porch.

“Where are the other kids?”

“They’re still asleep.”

“Oh.” He rubbed at his chest, hating that he wasn’t getting the chance to tell the others goodbye. Especially little Katie. He would miss her the most.

“Thanks for everything, Mrs. Newall. Merry Christmas.”

“Merry Christmas, Julian.” The look on her face was odd, almost as if she worried she’d never see him again; he doubted that was likely. His last foster experience hadn’t worked out so well. What were the chances this one would be any better? Her eyes were bright, but he couldn’t tell if it was due to a sheen of tears or the reflection of the porch light. When he held out his hand, she ignored it and pulled him into a quick hug. Just as quickly she released him and gave him a nudge in the direction of the waiting car.

“Go on, now. Don’t keep the driver waiting.”

He studied her for a moment more, then headed down the stairs. A cold burst of wind caught him as he stepped out from under the porch’s roof. He pulled his hood up, shivering inside the hoodie. Just as he reached the door of the car, Mrs. Newall’s voice stopped him.

“Julian!”

He turned back.

“I’m proud of you, Julian.”

Her words sucked the breath from him; she’d never said that to him before. No one had. A ball of heat welled in his chest, warming him until he no longer felt the cold. Tears welled in his eyes. His voice cracked when he replied.

“I love you, Mrs. Newall.”

“I love you, too. I always will.”

With a nod, Julian opened the door, the cab’s heat blasting his body. He slid in, shut the door. He didn’t stop himself from looking back and watching Mrs. Newall until the car turned a corner, and she disappeared from sight.

Settling into the seat, Julian stared at his hands, paying no attention to where they were going. It didn’t really matter, after all. His thoughts drifted, from one nothing to another, vague images playing endlessly in his mind.

“Kid. Hey, kid!”

Julian jerked his head up.

“Huh?”

“We’re here.”

“What? Where?”

“Where I was told to take ya. You wanna get out?”

Julian sat up, glanced out the window. Immediately, his stomach churned. He looked back over at the cabbie.

“What is this?”

“What?”

“Is this some kind of sick joke? Because it isn’t funny!”

“What are you talking about, kid?”

“It’s not funny! Get me out of here!”

“Kid, look, I don’t know what your problem is, but this is where I’m supposed to drop you off.”

“It can’t be. There’s gotta be some kind of mistake.”

“No mistake. 645 Plum Tree Drive. See?” He held up a piece of paper with the address hastily scribbled.

Julian looked out the window again. His heart pounded, bruising his ribs. His breath came fast, the gusts razing sharply against his ears. Disjointedly, he popped the door handle, kicked his feet out, and stood. With a thunk, he heard the trunk release. Walking around, he fished around blindly until he found the strap of his oversized gym bag. He slung it over his shoulder, banged the trunk shut.

Then he just stood there and stared. Damn, it looks just the same. Except for the Christmas lights, of course. And the Nativity scene. And the reindeer made out of twigs sitting on the front lawn. But other than that? Just the same.

Belatedly, he recognized the sound of an engine and glanced over. The cab was heading down the block, stopping at the corner, turning. Then it was gone.

Julian looked back at the house. Sweat broke out on his forehead despite the cold. What am I supposed to do now? Go in, he imagined. Except … Is this really happening?

He forced himself to take a step, then another. A tiny burst of cold stung his nose; it took a moment before he realized it had started to snow. As the snowflakes fell, slowly at first, and then more rapidly, he continued to take hesitant steps toward the front porch. Reaching the stairs, he stepped up. Then again. And once more.

He heard the baritone bark, but kept his eyes glued to the front door. He couldn’t bring himself to look in the window. He was too scared this wasn’t real, and if it was a dream, he wasn’t ready to wake up yet. Reaching the door, he raised his hand, then dropped it. He needed to knock. That was what you did when you came to a closed door. You knocked. Knock on the door. C’mon, Julian. Just do it. Raise your hand, make a fist, and knock.

His knuckles barely brushed the wood, but it was the best he could do. The barking got louder, more insistent. There was the sound of what he guessed were claws scratching against the door.

Down. Down, Rocco!”

Julian heard the voice through the door. He recognized it, but still, he didn’t believe it.

The door opened.

And there they were. Dan and Rita, their faces bright with smiles. Julian barely got a look at them before he was tackled by the Great Dane. Slobber covered his face and hands as Rocco licked at him, dowsing him in doggie kisses.

Julian brought his hands up instinctively, petting the dog, hugging him, before he tried to set the animal away from him. A strong hand reached out and took Rocco by the collar, pulling him back into the house.

“Julian. Julian!”

Julian forced himself to focus. He looked up at the man and woman he’d been so desperate to call dad and mom, their faces so familiar, and yet in that moment, totally foreign.

“Come in, son, before you freeze.”

Dan’s arm came around his shoulders, ushered him into the foyer. The bag slid from his arm and disappeared; he assumed Rita took it. And then they were walking into the living room. A huge tree stood in the corner, surrounded by wrapped packages. And sitting on the floor was Katie. Michael. David and Kane. Every kid from the orphanage was there.

“Julian!!” Katie screamed his name, dropped the baby doll she was holding, and raced across the room. Julian stumbled as she tackled his legs, hugging him tightly. Just as quickly, she let go and ran back to her Christmas present.

“I … I don’t understand …”

Dan came to stand in front of him and slipped an envelope into his hands.

“Maybe this will help.”

Woodenly, Julian slid his finger under the envelope’s flap, lifted it, and pulled out what was within. It was an official-looking document, a letter of some sort.

Dear Mr. and Mrs. Daniel McFarland,

            After much time and consideration, the state of Missouri has determined to grant your request for permanent guardianship of Julian John Murray. It is hereby decided that on this date, the 20th of December, 2014, you gain and retain guardianship of the minor in question and thereby take on the responsibility of him and his well-being.            

            Signed by,

            The Honorable Judge Mary E. Clarkson

Julian read the document, then reread it a second and then third time. Finally, he looked up. His breath shook, as did his hands.

“Is this real?”

Rita smiled and nodded. “It is.”

“But … How come … Why …?”

“Why did we have to send you back?”

Julian managed to nod.

Rita leaned it and hugged him while Dan explained. “We knew after the first few months we wanted to not only foster you, but adopt you. But the state has certain requirements that have to be met, and in order to meet those requirements, we had to send you back to Bell Street until the process could be finalized. We wanted to tell you, but if for some reason we’d been denied, we didn’t want you to have the extra disappointment of knowing we wanted you, but couldn’t keep you. At the time, it seemed like a better idea to not say anything until we were sure.”

Julian just stared, frozen.

“I’m sorry, Julian. I know it must have hurt like hell when we sent you back, but please believe us, we were trying to cause you as little pain as possible.”

“But … I’m yours now?”

“Yes.”

“As in, I live here now?”

“Yes.”

“Forever?”

Dan and Rita laughed. “For as long as you want to be here, you can call this home.”

“And … Can I …”

“Can you what?”

“Can … Can I call you …?”

“Yes, Julian, absolutely. We hoped you’d want to.”

Julian threw his arms around Dan. No. Not Dan. Dad. Julian threw his arms around his father, holding on for dear life. After what seemed like forever, he let go, only to turn and hug … His mother.

Finally, tears rolling down his cheeks and laughter pouring from his mouth, he pulled away.

“So … What is everybody else doing here?”

“We wanted you to spend Christmas with us, but we thought you might also want to spend it with the rest of the kids from Bell Street, and in order for us to surprise you the way we wanted, Mrs. Newall couldn’t give you a chance to say goodbye to everyone beforehand. So we invited them all for the day.”

Julian couldn’t quite take it all in. How awesome were these people—his parents—that they would assume and understand his need to bid farewell to his old life and the people who were part of it? That they would know how important it was to see Katie open her gifts and squeal in delight? To watch Mrs. Newall smile secretly with satisfaction as her kids found joy on this day … Except, wait. Where is Mrs. Newall? Surely she wasn’t spending the day at Bell Street?

A knock sounded behind him, and Rocco let out a series of barks. Looking up at his mom and dad, he waited for their nod, then walked to the front door. His front door. Opening it wide, there stood Mrs. Newall, a smile stretching from ear to ear across her face.

“Welcome home, Julian.”

***

            It wasn’t until Mrs. Newall and the other Bell Street kids had left, their smiles wide and hearts full, and his dad was tucking him into bed that the realization struck.

“You were Santa Claus!”

Dan looked over, then sat on the edge of the bed and smiled.

“Yes.”

“I knew I recognized your eyes! But I … It was just too hard … I couldn’t…” He trailed off, unsure of how to finish.

“I know. So tell me something now, son.”

“What’s that, Dad?”

“Do you believe in magic?”