Today’s Christmas story comes from one of my nearest and dearest, Laura Hughes (that’s @MittensMorgul to some of you.) Laura put fingers to keys for you lovely people and created a Yuletide horror for your reading pleasure. She usually writes fantasy, urban and otherwise, but this foray into horror inspired her to give her new WIP a tinge of the scary.
Lock your doors before reading this one, boys and girls, lest you make like Wham! and give your heart away this Christmas time…
Hey Baby It’s Cold Outside
by Laura Hughes
Thirty minutes. He promised himself it wouldn’t take any longer than that, and he’d already found the perfect ring. Two days before Christmas, even thirty minutes inside the mall felt like years. Between the panicking masses of last-minute shoppers, the forests of fake greenery and even faker snow, tired-looking elves, a skeevy Santa, screaming kids, their haggard parents, and the endless melange of horrible holiday songs piped in from every direction, he was more than ready to escape back out into the depressing sleety slush and four P.M. darkness of the parking lot.
They’d only been together a few months, but he knew this was the right move. It wasn’t an engagement ring. It was a show of intent, he assured himself. He wanted to be with her forever, and maybe someday they would be, if she was willing to keep him.
He couldn’t keep his hands out of his coat pocket, as if the neatly wrapped box tucked inside had taken on some mystical magnetic property. He ran the rest of his errands in a daze, only coming out of his reverie long enough to pay for his groceries and not get himself killed driving home.
He fully intended to set the little box under the tabletop Christmas tree in the living room of his small apartment. If she weren’t coming over for Christmas dinner, he wouldn’t have bothered setting up the tree in the first place. It seemed appropriately festive, if not a little cheesy, the day he’d bought it. Now that the time had come to use it for its intended purpose, it seemed cheap and gaudy compared to the significance he’d attached to her gift. He clutched the golden box to his chest, and then absentmindedly shoved it into his shirt pocket. It felt right, to keep it close to his heart.
Christmas Eve brought a cold front that turned the mucky slush into a frozen wasteland. He worried she’d want to cancel their plans, but she assured him she wouldn’t miss their Christmas together for the world. She told him she’d spent weeks making his present, and didn’t want to wait even one more day to share it with him. One of the perks of falling in love with an artist. Her passion would keep her warm on her walk to his place. He was also certain it could keep him warm, too.
He smiled and tapped the box, still in his breast pocket, in time with his racing pulse. In a moment of madness, he could’ve sworn he felt an answering thrum from the ring. Nerves. Just nerves.
He chuckled under his breath and returned to the kitchen. He’d poured himself into cooking the perfect holiday dinner. The table was set, finished off with a cluster of candles that looked like candy canes and pinecones. It was sappy and tacky, but he didn’t care anymore. She made him feel a little squishy around the edges, and he was okay with that.
Pumpkin pie cooled on the counter. Dinner was on the table. The last tray of gingerbread baked, and filled the entire house with the festive aroma. The kitchen timer and doorbell ding-donged simultaneously, and his veins coursed with a sudden adrenaline rush. A split-second decision drove him to answer the door, to not leave her standing out in the cold, even if it meant a few burnt gingerbread men. He was sure they’d understand. What’s a few scorched cookies when the alternative was letting his one true love slowly freeze to death out on the doorstep?
He opened the door and all but dragged her in from the cold. She stood smiling up at him, but he could only stare down in wonder. How could he be allowed to keep such a perfect creature? It didn’t seem possible that anyone could be so happy to see him. Especially her.
She grinned wider. “Aren’t you going to get that?”
“What?” He frowned, confused, dazzled by her to the point the rest of the world faded away.
“The kitchen timer?”
Realization dawned just before the smoke detector would’ve chimed its protest on behalf of the incinerated army of gingerbread men. He said a few silent words over the fallen soldiers before consigning their ashes to the trash can.
She’d hung up her coat and made herself comfortable on the couch by the time he returned from the impromptu funeral. A large silver gift bag sat on the coffee table in front of her. Armed with a couple of glasses of aromatic mulled wine, he decided dinner could wait a few more minutes. He placed one of the warm glasses in her frost-numbed hands, and made a toast.
“To the restorative powers of love. And mistletoe.” He grinned, with a glance up to the cluster of leaves and berries hanging above their heads. And then he leaned in and kissed her.
Her eyes widened briefly in surprise, they clinked their glasses together, and then drank. She watched him over the rim of her glass, a secret smile of I know something you don’t know crinkling the corners of her eyes.
“Burnt cookies aside, everything smells delicious,” she said at last.
“Shall we eat first, then?” His hand went unconsciously to his pocket yet again. “I thought maybe we could exchange gifts first.”
She thought about it for all of two seconds before nodding firmly. “Yes. I don’t want to wait any longer. You have to see your gift.”
Without waiting for him to go first, she shoved the gift bag into his lap with an eager sparkle in her eyes. All the delight of an entire childhood’s worth of Christmas mornings radiated from her. He’d never seen anyone so excited to give him anything. He’d never known anyone who could do this to him, turn the very blood in his veins into jet fuel. A glance from her could set his insides ablaze.
“If you’re sure,” he said. He didn’t care if she was sure. Her energy was contagious. He tore into the crinkly tissue paper around his present with the enthusiasm of a five-year-old, while she watched on with undisguised glee.
“It’s rosewood,” she said, as he laid the delicately carved box on the table. “The inlays are rose quartz and jade. Do you like it?”
He ran his fingers over the smooth lid, and caressed the three-dimensional rose vines crafted of semi-precious stones that wrapped around the sides. It was only a little bigger than the index card box he kept all his mother’s beloved recipes in, but he could feel her love for him in every hand-carved inch of it.
“You made this? For me?”
She nodded, but couldn’t meet his eyes. “Merry Christmas, my love.”
He gulped back a tear. He wouldn’t let himself cry. “No one has ever made me anything so beautiful. I love it. I love you.”
He clasped her hands in one of his, and leaned in to distract her with a kiss while he drew the box from his pocket. When he pulled back from her lips, he slid her gift into her hands.
“I hope you know how much you mean to me,” he said, answering the questioning look on her face. “I hope I haven’t overstepped my bounds.” He nodded at the tiny box, acknowledging the significance of what lay inside.
She gently bit down on her lower lip and her fingers trembled as she raised the gold-wrapped package up between them. He held his breath, and she carefully picked the wrapping apart. She took her time, trying not to tear the paper, as if it was as precious as the gift inside.
His hands closed around hers, around the box, and he helped her raise the lid on its stiff hinge. “Merry Christmas, sweetheart.” The box popped open with a muffled click, and she gasped at the sight of the carefully chosen ring inside.
“Ruby is your birthstone, right? And diamond is mine.” He plucked the ring from its nest, its large ruby gleaming between two smaller diamonds, and slid it onto the ring finger of her right hand. She looked as if she were about to object.
He stammered out an explanation. “This is only a promise of things to come. No pressure now. I just wanted to show you how much I love you, how much you mean to me. I intend to keep this promise. I want to share the rest of forever with you. When you’re ready, it can go on your other hand.”
She sighed, and looked up from their entwined hands, from the twinkle of her new ring, into his eyes. “I am ready, you fool.”
She leaned in and kissed him. Her hands slid up his arms to encircle his neck, and he scooted closer, dragging his lips down her jaw to the hollow below her ear, mumbling love and gratitude and wonder into every inch of her skin. She all but purred under his attentions, sighing out words he couldn’t decipher.
The rest of the world fell away, until they were the only two things in all of creation. Her hands grew warm against his spine. The base of his skull throbbed in time with his thudding heart. He couldn’t remember anything but the feel of her against his lips, but the warmth of her hands intensified until he could hardly bear it any longer. Still, he couldn’t break away from their embrace. The thudding in his skull became a wild flutter. He couldn’t feel his body, but caught a confused glimpse of her face as he slumped backward onto the couch. The fluttering was nothing more than a high-pitched scream now. And then silence.
She sat up and withdrew her hand from behind his head, now resting on a throw cushion, eyes forever frozen open and glazed over. A soft sigh escaped her lips as she watched the ring shine with a new light on her finger.
“Thank you.” She pulled the ring off and shifted it to her left hand. “We’ll always be together now, my love. I promise. For the rest of forever, your soul with mine.”
She stood, opened the box she’d carved for him, and held it above his chest. She spoke the rest of her spell over his body, then plunged her bare hand into his chest. His heart had stuttered out its last beat, and she tore it free of its moorings. It fit perfectly into the box she’d crafted to hold it.
She finished her wine, wrapped her coat around her shoulders, and walked back out into the frozen winter wonderland. She had her true love with her always, for the rest of forever, heart and soul. It was a very merry Christmas, indeed.