Dracula: Evil Monster or Tragic Hero?

We’re talking Dracula over at Stitched Smile Publications today, and I thought I’d invite you all to the party. My lovely boss, Lisa, posed this question:

“‘Dracula and the Gothic Novel’ brings up the idea of the Byronic Hero, a literary character type made famous in the poetry of Lord Byron 100 years prior. This Byronic Hero is always male, strikingly handsome or at least attractive, alienated from society, troubled, mysterious, and usually somewhat threatening to the female protagonist. Sometimes this Byronic Hero is literally the protagonist of the story, but we can see his traits in many antagonists in Gothic/horror fiction too. Down through various movie versions, Dracula has been portrayed as either an outright monster, or a tragic Byronic Hero. How well does the Dracula of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” fit the mold of the Byronic Hero? Or is he truly “monstrous,” something outside of human experience? If he is monstrous, what are those traits that make him a monster? If he is a Byronic Hero, what specifically are those traits? Or is he a bit of both?”

Conversation and debate has ensued, with some of us on one side of the fence, and others staring at them from across the way. Here’s my own humble opinion:

I’m afraid I’m also going to have to jump on the “evil monster” side of the fence. Like James, I too have no problem romanticizing my vampires; I also enjoy Anne Rice, the Black Dagger Brotherhood is my favorite set of paranormal romance bloodsuckers, and Twilight is the guilty pleasure I’m ashamed to claim. However, in the case of Stoker’s Dracula, there are a couple personality traits that I believe blow him out of the running for tragic hero.

First, he’s purposely manipulative. He’s naturally compelling, due to his otherworldly nature, and he doesn’t hesitate to use this to his advantage. He uses Renfield and the man’s obsession more than once to advance his own motives. In the black and white film with Lugosi, Dracula has the ability to hypnotize with his eyes, again causing his victims to do his bidding against their will. His own agenda takes precedence over everything else.

Secondly, I would argue that Dracula is completely without empathy; rather, he is sadistic, taking pleasure in the suffering of others. He is amused by Renfield’s obsession and goes on to encourage it, with no thought to how it harms Renfield. He is overly pleased by the anguish both Harker and Lucy’s three admirers suffer in knowing their love interests are at risk. In fact, I think it’s safe to say he even feels a sense of superiority–he is able to lord his status as a vampire over the mere mortals, and views them as nothing more than a meal to sate his own desires.

Dracula is demonstrably more of a sociopath than a Byronic hero. He knows he’s evil, and he doesn’t care. His own desires, and his own survival, trumps all. He will do whatever necessary to get what he wants, he feels no remorse over it, and even goes a step further in actually enjoying it.

Now, if we were discussing the Wolf Man, I think I could make a strong argument for tragic hero. But Dracula? Stoker’s Dracula? Sorry. Can’t do it.

What are your thoughts? Are you with me, or against me? (It’s absolutely fine, by the way, if you’re against me.) 

Let the debate begin!

For more on this and other Gothic/horror literature discussions, please visit https://bc.instructure.com/courses/912645.

The Villain Inside

innerdemon

A lot of times, authors get asked why they write, or what inspires them to write. It’s a fairly cliche question, and I know many authors who are often frustrated by it, because sometimes, it can be a difficult question to answer.

Answers are usually similar, and often can be vague: I just have to. I can’t not write. I enjoy it. It’s fun. It’s my outlet. It’s how I express myself. It’s how I survive.

For me, it’s all of these things and none of these things. At different times, it’s a different combination of a handful. There are times I do have to write; other times, it’s just as easy not to. Sometimes, writing is fun. But more often than not, it’s an extremely hard and emotionally taxing thing, and it is definitely not fun. One thing I can say for certain is that writing is how I survive.

I suffer from clinical depression and anxiety, and for anyone who hasn’t experienced those conditions, they can be almost impossible to accurately explain or describe. Mental illness in this country, especially depression, is so stigmatized and misunderstood–for the longest time I, like so many others, was hesitant to make my condition public because of it. We’re told to just get over it. Do something that makes us happy. Eat better. Get some exercise. Get some sunshine. Think positively.

If only it were that easy. If only doing all those things was enough.

It’s not. Not nearly.

Sometimes meds work. Sometimes they don’t. Sometimes being with people is a balm; other times, it’s exhausting. Sometimes the endorphins from a good workout just aren’t enough to drive away the barrage of feelings depressions brings with it.

Depression isn’t simple. Mental illness isn’t simple. And there isn’t an easy remedy to cure it.

But for me, writing is part–a small, singular part–of the “cure.” Because writing–and often drawing from personal experience–is how I get to exorcise my demons and get through the negative thoughts and emotions that I absolutely cannot allow to take over my life.

For example: I have three girls. They’re six, four, and 9 months. They are the joy of my life, and I wouldn’t trade them for anything in the world. But there are days when I resent their presence. There are days when I wish they were old enough to not need me to cater to their every need. There are days when I want them to leave me the hell alone.

I don’t get those days. Because they’re six and four and 9 months, and I’m their mother. I’m responsible for them.

I used to say–before I had kids–and I’ve heard multitudes of other people say, “I don’t understand how someone could ever shake a child,” or “I could never get to that point where I would harm my child.”

Now, it’s true, I absolutely believe I will never get to the point where I would hurt one of my girls. I never have. I never will. But I can definitely understand how other parents get to that point. I cannot count the times I have had to set one of my girls down and walk out of the room while they cried and screamed, because if I didn’t, I might cross a line.

I have thought about it. And I could pretty much guarantee you that every other parent probably has at some point, too–anyone who tells you differently is probably lying. And the fact that we think about it doesn’t make us bad parents. But I digress.

What I’m getting at here is that yes, I’ve thought about it. No, I’ve never done it. And writing is how I guarantee that I never will.

How? Because in my writing, my characters do all the things that I’ve thought about but never would. And when I’ve finished their stories, I’m so horrified by what I’ve put them through. At times I’m thoroughly disgusted. And that’s how I know I can keep from crossing that line. My characters follow through on the suicidal thoughts. My characters succumb to the depression. My characters give up the fight.

I make them go through my greatest fears. I make them suffer past the point that I’m willing to let myself go. I put them through the worst of the worst, in order to remind myself that I’m not there, and I can keep myself from going there.

My characters shake their babies. They take a loaded gun into a school full of kids. They look away when the child starts drinking the mop water laced with bleach. They ignore the cries. They lock the doors. They shut everyone out. They quit looking for help.

They are surrounded by the horror that is real; the horror that occurs in everyday life. They create it. They are it.

The fact is, humans can be the most loving, caring, sympathetic, and giving people. They can also be the cruelest, meanest, vindictive, and selfish people. They are both good and bad.

We are both good and bad.

I am both good and bad.

The good’s easy enough to handle. But the bad? It can be hard to look in the mirror sometimes.

It’s not easy to own one’s demons, whether those demons are the product of nature or nurture, personality or illness. We don’t like to show people our ugly sides. But the truth is, I have an ugly side. It holds a grudge. It judges people. It suffers from thoughts of self-harm. It tells the pretty side it’s not good enough, that it’s a failure, that it will never succeed in this dog-eat-dog world. It tries to convince me I’m worthless.

The ugly side is why I write, and specifically why I write dark fiction.

Because to find a good villain, all I have to do is look inside myself. She’s there. I just make sure the only place she wins is on paper.

Trapped

A stray thought knocks,
then nags,
playing freeze tag among
synapses.
Begging please.
No.
Not this.
Not now.
But as the walls close in,
breath grows thin
and becomes a limited commodity.
Lungs lock and capsize,
the key trapped inside,
swallowed by an irrational fear
that can’t be denied.
Heart races, then trips,
unable to keep pace
with the need to survive.
Get a grip–stay alive–
except there’s nothing
to hold on to.
No hope to get you through.
Nothing but a
dark, bleak chasm
that stretches and yawns
into infinity–
a mental maze of madness
with no way out.
And as you scream
and shake
and pray for release,
you face the unrelenting truth:
This never ends.
Not until the moment
your life really does cease.

Stranger at the Table

He sits at a table, a steaming cup of coffee at his wrist, the newspaper flipped to the business section. It’s easy to imagine he’s checking the New York Stock Exchange and NASDAQ, and he looks so serious, so fraught with concern, I almost call out to him. But then again, what do I know about stock exchanges?

I stand at the counter, mixing up a batch of pancake batter. I add some vanilla, not bothering to measure it out; I memorized the recipe years ago, and the motions are second-nature. As I pour the batter, I glance over at him, hoping the alluring scent will tempt him. But I know it won’t; it never does. It’s always a cup of coffee and the business section. No eggs. No sausage or bacon. Just coffee, and the paper for company.

His face is familiar—brown eyes nearly hidden beneath drawn brows, sharp cheekbones, and the very slightest of underbites. His fingers tap impatiently against the wood, waiting for the coffee to cool. After a moment, he raises the cup to his lips.

“Shit!” He mutters the curse, but I hear it, because I expect it. He always takes that first sip too soon and ends up with a scalded tongue. The corner of my mouth quirks, and I shake my head. He never learns.

I finish flipping pancakes and pop them on readied plates, then gather butter, jelly, and syrup. As I pass by and begin setting the breakfast plates down, I wait, hoping against hope he’ll acknowledge me. He just flips the next page of the newspaper and takes another sip from his cup.

I should leave him alone, I know, but I can’t help it—I break the silence.

“Anything interesting?”

He glances up, brows raised, surprised by my sudden presence. Then, with a shake of his head, his face clears, all emotion erased like chalk from a blackboard. He folds the paper and stands.

“Nope. Same old, same old.”

“Oh.” I nod, as if I understand what he means by that. The sound of footsteps clattering down the hall draws my attention. By the time I look back, he’s grabbed his keys and is headed for the door. Now—desperate—I do call out.

“Have a good day! I love you!”

He doesn’t respond and barely bothers to glance over his shoulder. Tears prick my eyes, and I swallow, trying to force my heart back into my chest. As our three children race into the kitchen and devour their food, I watch my husband of twenty years walk out the door.

 

~~Briana Robertson, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

authorpic

Briana Robertson is an emerging speculative fiction author, working primarily within the genres of horror and fantasy. Her love of authors such as Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Patrick Rothfuss, and J.K. Rowling has developed her own need to put pen to paper. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies, and broadcast on online podcasts. Her debut novel is in the works, set to release in 2017. She currently lives in the Midwest, with her husband, three daughters, and their Maine Coon, Bagheera. Be sure to visit her website, as well as follow her on FacebookTwitterInstagramWordPress, and Pinterest.

 

 

 

Song of the Banshees

The Bean Sidhe–or banshees–are fairies of Irish legend said to be the harbingers of death. It is said that each of the major ancient families of Ireland were blessed with a familial banshee, which would wail and keen when the death of a family member was imminent. When the “caoine”–or wail–of a banshee was heard, it struck terror in the hearts of mortals, for they knew that something terrible was due to happen any moment.

The banshee of the ancient O’Brien family was rumored to be named Eevul, and it was believed she held a position of authority amongst the other banshees; in times of great tragedy, it was said Eevul could summon the rest of the banshees to her side, where they would all keen together in a show of shared support and sorrow.

“The Caoine of Eevul” and “Song of the Banshees” are companion pieces I wrote regarding the banshees. I hope you enjoy.

banshee

“The Caoine of Eevul”

“They have forgotten us, Eevul. We are nothing more than legend to them now.”

“Aye, I know. But they are still ours, and we have our duty.”

She turned then, arms outstretched, meeting the gazes of each woman in turn. “Sisters, long has it been since the great families of Ireland left our emerald shores and sailed away to that far off new world. But that does not change who they are. Or who we are.”

“But they will not hear us. They will not know.”

Eevul shook her head. “Some will hear. Some will know, and that will have to be enough. What’s coming–what the dawn will bring–it will touch each of our families. We are the Bean Sidhe of Ireland. We have no choice but to keen.”

She waited, letting her words hang in the cool, crisp air of the autumn night. One by one, her sisters nodded; their assent brought a sense of relief, but no joy. Her heart heavy, she turned and led them to their faerie hill.

Since the beginning of time, they’d stood here and sang. Back when the Tuatha Dé Danann ruled and the faeries ventured from their raths, free to dance along the wind. Always, this had been their place. It was still, and forever would it be.

Mist rose from the grass as the banshees crested the mound. Intertwining, it embraced them, welcoming them like long lost lovers. Eevul breathed deep, accepting the mantle of power as it settled on her shoulders. Her fate was not an easy one to bear; it was heavy, cumbersome and often, unwanted. But it was hers. Theirs. Tonight they would carry it together, worn with grief, yet led by duty.

Tall and proud, she stepped to the head of the circle, her sisters gathering around her. She raised her arms and lifted her face to the sky, crimson locks raining fire down her back, skin pale in the moonlight.

“Now is the time, sisters. Take my hands, as I take yours. Share my sorrow, as I share yours. Sing my song, as I sing yours. Will you do this?”

“I will.”

“Aye.”

“So shall it be.”

A chorus of consent surrounded her, the voices of her sisters raised up in acceptance. Warm fingers gripped hers, locking tightly. She held on, grateful. Their presence blanketed her in comfort, enveloping her and granting her the security necessary to do what this night demanded. She needed her sisters, for they were all she had left. It was true; the O’Brien’s had forgotten her, letting her fade into nothing but a myth.

If that only were so. But she could not forget.

When all had joined hands, when the circle was complete, they began. Standing upon their ancient hill, arms outstretched and raised in offering, their voices lifted in a wailing lament. The sound was shrill, yet harmonious, as the plethora of their voices blended into a single keen of mournful despair.

Power flowed, racing across the land and over the sea, carrying their song far and wide. The wind rose up, whipping through Eevul’s hair, her silver robe slapping against skin chilled by desolation. It mimicked their notes, shrieking through slumbering villages and across barren graveyards, where only the ghosts of the dead dared to walk.

Through it all, Eevul endured the shattering of her heart. Come the dawn, many would be lost. She could not save them. All she could do was hope, futile as it was, that perhaps, if the gods were willing, her people might somehow hear her. Twin tears streaked down her cheeks, but her voice did not falter. She couldn’t stop the sign of sadness, but she was too proud to fail.

For what seemed an eternity, the harsh melody of the banshees sounded. In their beds, wrinkled men shivered and old crones shook. They heard. They knew.

Finally, the strength of her voice gave out; her song ended. One by one, the voices of her sisters died away until only an eerie silence remained. Goosebumps popped up along her flesh. She ignored them. Tossing her head, she again met the gaze of each of her sisters in turn.

“You have done well this night. I thank you. May each of you find peace in the coming storm.”

Nodding in return, they all dropped hands, laced fingers falling away, the circle shattered into pieces. With whispered murmurs, they turned and moved down the hill, fading away, swallowed up by the darkness.

Eevul watched them go. A dissonant peace settled over her, as it always did after a keen. There was nothing more she could do. Sending up a prayer that the gods be merciful, she closed her eyes and disappeared into nothing.

***

The sun rose on New York City early that morning. Lissa O’Brien woke, discomforted, the echoes of an unknown voice resounding in her head. A dream … She was sure she’d had a dream. But her mind was an empty page, offering her no hints. Why did she feel like something was wrong?

She sat up, groggy from sleep and rubbed her eyes. Glancing around, her gaze fell on a note next to her pillow. Her husband’s sloppy handwriting scrawled across the paper.

Hey honey, had to go into the office early this morning. Didn’t want to wake you. I’ll see you tonight. I love you.

A chill scuttled down Lissa’s spine as an unexplainable sense of dread settled over her. Her husband never went into work early. Why today? And why did she feel as though she’d never hold him in her arms again? It had to be that dream. Something about that dream …

She shook herself. She was being morbid. Silly. She just needed coffee. Swinging her legs from the bed, she rose and walked into the kitchen. Out of habit, she grabbed the remote and flipped the television on.

The scream that ripped through her lungs was one of shock and denial. Her legs collapsed beneath her. As she slipped from consciousness, her gaze passed over the wall calendar hanging above the television. The date seared itself along the back of her eyes.

September 11, 2001.

“Song of the Banshees”

There is a hill in emerald Ireland.

‘Tis an old faerie hill the old men say

and when the wind blows fierce off Ardmore Bay

the banshees appear and their voices blend.

Their long locks crimson, skin pale as the moon,

they stand on the hill, their strong arms spread wide

wailing and keening with sorrowful pride

warning the folk of an impending doom.

On a cold, autumn night, some years ago

the banshees’ shrill wails rose mournful and long

yet harshly harmonious was their song:

An omen to mark the coming sorrow.

On the next morn, three thousand miles away,

the two towers fell before our shocked gaze.

~~Briana Robertson, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

authorpic

Briana Robertson is an emerging speculative fiction author, working primarily within the genres of horror and fantasy. Her love of authors such as Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Patrick Rothfuss, and J.K. Rowling has developed her own need to put pen to paper. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies, and broadcast on online podcasts. Her debut novel is in the works, set to release in 2017. She currently lives in the Midwest, with her husband, three daughters, and their Maine Coon, Bagheera. Be sure to visit her website, as well as follow her on FacebookTwitterInstagramWordPress, and Pinterest.

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

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?”

 

 

 

Flash Non-Fiction Saturday: Hopeless in AA by Mike Duke

noose

I was barely out of the police academy and still on field training when I saw my first suicide, a quite memorable one at that. Kind of thing one never really puts out of their mind. Patrolman Fancher and I were given the call to go secure the scene until a detective arrived since all suicides are investigated as possible homicides until proven otherwise.

When we arrived the family were outside of the apartment complex, crying, snotting and hugging all at once, unleashing their emotional agony with a reckless abandon that I actually admired though I felt completely incapable of offering any consolation. The son also displayed significant anger and could not stay still but instead pulled free from one family member just to stomp around a little before someone else grabbed him and hugged him again. He was a grown man and not small in the least.

He had been the unlucky relative to find his father in the master bedroom, hanging from a closet door of all things. Not knowing whether he was dead yet or not the son grabbed a knife and lifted his father’s corpse up with one arm while cutting the makeshift noose with the other. A quick check made it clear that it was too late. That’s when he called 911 in tears and full of rage at what his father had done.

Officer Fancher, my field training officer, told me to secure the room and not let anyone in while she spoke with the family. When I got upstairs the guy was stiff but he appeared to be just chillin’, his body leaned back on the wall, left elbow resting on a short dresser and both feet wedged under the foot of the bed, legs locked out straight. A large ottoman was pushed off to the side. According to the son it had been positioned firmly between the bed and the closet door, supporting his father’s body just minutes ago. Now, rigor mortis was the only thing keeping the man’s body upright.

At a glance, it looked like the guy knotted a couple of neck ties together, secured one to the door knob on the inside of the closet door, slung it over the top, cinched it around his neck, then jumped up, throwing his legs out. Gravity did the rest. I imagined it was a quick break, instant and painless. I couldn’t imagine someone just laying across the ottoman slowly choking to death. But based on his face I wasn’t too sure.

The tie had cut deep enough into his neck that it was obscured, and his eyes were wide open and slightly bulging. But what really made me question the quick death theory was his tongue. It had swollen so large that it filled his open mouth, pressing just beyond the lips. Not a pretty sight. I wasn’t sure but I thought that might not have happened unless he strangled to death instead of a nice clean neck break.

I looked away, not wanting to see his face any longer than I had to. I scanned the room, scavenging around for any parting notes or indicators of why he had done it.

A man could have choked on the irony.

Lying on his bed were the following items: an AA booklet, an empty 40 oz. Schlitz Malt Liquor Bull, a Bible and a small Polaroid picture book that contained his “private moments” with one woman, maybe more. I couldn’t tell for sure. Faces weren’t really the highlighted areas.

Hell of a set of memorabilia to be reminiscing over just before you leave this world. My brain wandered as I looked around, wondering what personal demons beyond alcoholism had ridden him into hopelessness. My thoughts were derailed by a most unusual sound.

Eeeeeennnnnnk.

It came from behind me, where the body was. I spun around and looked. Nothing. I brushed it off and kept looking around.

About a minute later, it came again.

Eeeeeennnnnnk.

This time a little louder but still from the same direction. I spun around. Again, nothing unusual in sight. I started looking around in other areas to see if I could locate the source of the noise. I was looking under the bed when it came once more.

Eeeeeennnnnnk.

I wasn’t one to believe in “ghosts” at that time, though I was an X-Files junkie, but it was starting to wig me out a little. I turned and decided to fix my eyes on the corpse and see what, if anything, might happen.

It took about a minute or more of staring at those vacant eyes and the bulging tongue, but the sound finally came again.

Eeeeeennnnnnk.

Right in time with the father’s head sliding across the wall on a downward arc, albeit just an inch.

I let out an uneasy chuckle. I had experienced a palpable tension before, now I just felt plain foolish. Rigor mortis was starting to relax and with it so was his posture. He was ever so slowly, on his way down. Imperceptible increments, unless one was watching.

He kept creaking his way across the wall the rest of the time I was there, and even though I knew what it was it was still a bit disturbing, standing in a room with a dead man slowly falling down.

I was glad when the Detective got there.

 

–This short is pulled from Mike Duke’s personal experiences as a small town cop.

Mike Duke, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

mikeduke

I’m 44, married 25 years, and have a son and daughter who are both grown and out of the house (pretty much). My German Shepherd, Ziva, is my baby now.

I was a cop for 12 years (and even spent a few years on the SWAT team) before getting into the training industry. The last 10 years I’ve been teaching military, law enforcement, bodyguards and private citizens High Speed, Tactical and Off Road Driving and Hand to Hand Combatives. I also did a few bodyguard gigs.

I have been writing since high school off and on but started to tackle it with conviction in 2009. I’ve self-published two short novellas – Ashley’s Tale and Ashley’s Tale: Making Jake and one short story – The Awakening. Stitched Smile Publications will be publishing my novel Low before the end of 2016, plus I have a story in their Monsters vs Zombies anthology.

 

Flash Fiction Saturday: The Rise of Agoraphobia

I look over the order and click “confirm.” Rocking back in my chair, I can’t help but feel sick. I’ve never ordered groceries online before. Why would I, with at least five grocery chains within ten miles of my home and a personally owned market two blocks away?

I was on my way out, keys in hand and about to turn the knob when I stopped, swamped by an overwhelming wave of dread, and I realized I couldn’t go out. Not today.

Not now.

I’ve been watching the news, of course. Who hasn’t? I know about the attacks. Recent events have changed everything, and no one is safe. Neighbors who have peacefully lived side by side for decades are now mortal enemies. Families are being ripped apart. Everyone thinks they know the best way to handle the descending chaos, and anyone who disagrees is no more than an obstacle to be demolished and tossed aside.

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I had planned to go the market; it’s close, the owner is amicable, and his prices are fair. Besides, I’ve always taken pride in supporting small businesses. But while he’s always had a smile for me before, that might not be the case today. No. Today he might meet me with a bullet. And that’s if I’d even make it that far.

Two houses down there’s a woman and her teenage son. They’re not like me. A month ago that wouldn’t have made a difference. I’d have smiled and waved as I walked past, and they’d have smiled and waved back. But just yesterday I watched someone throw a rock through their window while screaming obscenities. That someone was like me. I highly doubt they’d smile and wave at me now.

I don’t want to go out there. I don’t want to get hurt. I’ve done nothing wrong. None of us have. But people are getting hurt. People are getting killed.

I don’t want to die. But I will if I go out there. Because they hate me. They all hate me. I don’t know why; they didn’t used to. But they do now. And I wonder: Do I hate them, too? I don’t think so. But I don’t trust them. I fear them. I’m scared of each and every one of them, and so now I’m ordering my groceries online.

The sun is going down when I flip on the television. Every main channel is airing a “Breaking News” segment. More riots. More shootings. More death. It’s everywhere. As I watch the news, alarmingly numb, a shot rings out.

My heart jumps into my throat. My skin breaks out in goosebumps. I race into the kitchen and duck beneath my table. Oh, God. My door! Is it locked?

Another shot fires past, and outside I hear angry voices. I cover my ears and try to drown out the ugly words. I fail. I can feel the hatred like a stab in my gut; pain shoots through me. Why can’t they all just stop? It doesn’t have to be like this. It doesn’t!

I’m rocking back and forth on my heels while sobs rip their way out of my chest. I don’t know how much time passes. The room gets darker and darker. For a while sirens pierce the silence while stripes of red and blue flash like strobe lights against my windows. Finally it’s quiet.

I open my eyes and find myself sprawled on the kitchen floor beneath my table. I must have fallen asleep. I sit up, careful not to knock my head on the hardwood above me, and groan. I’m stiff and cold.

I’m about to crawl out from my hiding place when the doorbell rings. I freeze. Who is it? Who’s here? What do they want?

A knock follows momentarily. Peeking out, I can see a shadow shifting beyond the blinds that cover the pane of glass in my front door. Then a face appears. I duck back beneath the table, disappearing from sight.

The doorbell rings again, followed by a shout. “Juniper Foods!”

The groceries. They’re here to deliver the groceries. I need to get up, go answer the door. But I can’t. Because what if the delivery person is like my neighbors? What if they’re not like me? What if they hate me, just like everyone else?

The food could be poisoned. They could be carrying a knife, or a gun, or God knows what else. I want to yell at them to go away, but then they would know I’m here. So I sit beneath my table, curled up in a tiny, tight ball, and wait for them to leave.

I don’t want to die. But I will. Because I can’t go out there, and I’m too afraid to let them in here.

The knowledge should elicit some sort of response, but all I can feel is a dull resignation. And an untimely sense of irony.

Fear–the all great and powerful equalizer. It’s the one thing that connects us all and in the end destroys us.

 

~~Briana Robertson, Author, Stitched Smile Publications

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Briana Robertson is an emerging speculative fiction author, working primarily within the genres of horror and fantasy. Her love of authors such as Stephen King, Shirley Jackson, Patrick Rothfuss, and J.K. Rowling has developed her own need to put pen to paper. Her short stories have been published in several anthologies, and broadcast on online podcasts. Her debut novel is in the works, set to release in 2017. She currently lives in the Midwest, with her husband, three daughters, and their Maine Coon, Bagheera. Be sure to visit her website, as well as follow her on FacebookTwitterInstagramWordPress, and Pinterest.