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NEW YEAR’S DAY – SHAKESPEARE REWRITE: Kill Me Tomorrow, Let Me Live Tonight by Louise Gornall

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Happy 2014, everyone!! To celebrate the new year we have a Shakespeare rewrite by Louise Gornall. She usually writes urban fantasy, so I chucked her one of my favourite genres. This blue haired beauty is one of my bestest Twitter friends and I strongly suggest you go follow her. But first, read this. (And try to guess which of Shakespeare’s works it’s based on!)


Kill Me Tomorrow, Let Me Live Tonight
by Louise Gornall

Mum pulls her knife back and forth across her turkey breast. The perfectly polished silver blade catches the porcelain plate and makes a  screeching  sound. She smiles politely and dabs her lips with corner of her napkin.

“So, Oliver,” she says, reaching for the string of pearls around her neck. “Delilah tells us you’re an officer.” The words march out her mouth, coated in condescension. I lift my eyes and look at my father who appears to have frozen. The glass of Merlot in his hand hasn’t quite managed to meet his mouth.

“Yes ma’am,” Oliver says.

She doesn’t ask him to elaborate, instead she fixes a plastic smile, tilts her head a little to the left and raises her eyebrows.

Oliver gives me a brief glance before he starts telling my mother about his colorful army career. He talks, she twists her pearls and asks him questions that make my insides curl. I drink until my face goes fuzzy.

A thousand years later, dinner is over and Oliver’s entire life story is led in the middle of the table, spread eagle, panting and desperately seeking a cigarette.

My mother picks up the coffee pot. “White or…black?” she says, putting far too much emphasis on the black.

I choke.

It doesn’t matter how brilliant Oliver is. She can’t — won’t — see beyond the colour of his skin.

I need vodka.

“Would you look at the time. We really have to go,” I say, standing up, throwing my napkin in my dish, wishing I was throwing it at my mum’s face.

“You’re leaving? So soon?”

“We’re going to meet Charlie.”
My mum’s eyes light up. She loves Charlie, possibly even more than she loves me.

“Why didn’t you ask him to dinner?”

“I did. He already had plans.” I snatch hold of Oliver’s hand and drag him up off his seat.

“Goodbye, mother.” She kisses my cheek. I feel the sting of frostbite. “Send my love to Charlie. Tell him we’re looking forward to seeing him tomorrow.”

“I will.”

I bend down, lean into my father. “Goodnight, daddy.”

“Be good,” he says. I know his eyes are on Oliver. Not if I can help it, I think and flounce out of the room, dragging Oliver behind me.

****

The cold air hits me like a slap across the face and suddenly I feel sober. Oliver laces his arm through mine and we begin walking up the drive, leaving footprints in the fresh blanket of snow.

“Your parents seem to like Charlie.”

“My parents like anyone with money…”

“And white skin?” he interjects. I swallow nails.

“Who cares what they think? They’re vile. Horrible,” I say, pushing my lips against his. His mouth curls up into a crescent.

I continue listing all the things my parents are in between kisses, until he says, “You didn’t tell them we were married.”

“I told you I wouldn’t.”

“I didn’t think you were serious.”

“Why does it matter?”

He looks at his feet. I snatch his cheeks in my hands and lift his head. My thumb traces the bumps of a war wound under his left eye.
“I love you. That’s where I begin and end.”

My parents wouldn’t understand. They don’t know love. They don’t touch, don’t kiss, don’t cling to one another like the world is about to end. I’ve known Oliver a month and in that time we’ve shared more love than they have in twenty years.

The smell of stale liquor and cigarette smoke assaults my senses before we’ve even stepped into the bar. I breathe it in and exhale a blissful sigh.

The place is alive with laughter and music. It warms my insides like whiskey. Charlie is sitting at the bar, his face swallowed by his smile. He sees us, leaps up off his seat and ploughs into Oliver’s chest. I think of wild bears wrestling as the two embrace each other and exchange merry Christmas wishes.

“And who is this divine creature on your arm?” Charlie winks at me as he unwraps himself from Oliver’s embrace.

“Oh stop,” I tease and simultaneously flap my lashes.
He takes my hand, kisses it then spins me under his arm. Charlie and Oliver serve together. Without Charlie, Oliver and I might never have met.

“So, how did the big meet and greet go?” Charlie asks flashing two fingers at the bartender.

“It was ghastly.” I flail and throw a hand to my brow.

“Her parents think I’m a Neanderthal.”

“No?” Charlie replies, handing each of us a small glass overflowing with bourbon. I lick the sticky excess off my fingers.

“It’s true. They think he’s going to defile me.”

“Perhaps I should have told them I already have.” Oliver grins and throws his drink down his throat as Charlie and I laugh.

The world rocks back and forth, I feel like I’m on a boat. I’m tingling from the tip of my nose to the bottom of my toes. Oliver and Charlie have made friends with the pianist, they’re leaning against his piano, wailing to one another like a couple of warring cats. My cheeks sting from smiling.

I’m absently running a finger round the rim of my glass and making it sing, when someone taps me on the shoulder. I flick round, the face looking down on me puts a bullet in my mood.

“What do you want?”

“Is that anyway to greet an old friend?”

“You are no friend of mine, old or otherwise.”

“Don’t be like that.”

I look away, pick up my drink and watch the thick brown liquid splash around my glass. My unwelcome visitor, Nigel, sits by my side.

“Let me buy you a drink.”

I ignore him.

“Come on, Del.” He strokes the back of my hand with his finger and I fix a stare on him that I hope will peel the flesh from his bones. I’m more than disappointed when it doesn’t.

“What do you want, Nigel?”

“I wanted to say hello, maybe buy you a drink. I thought maybe with it being the season for forgiveness…”

“Well you thought wrong.”

He grins, all teeth.

“If you don’t forgive me our dance at your parent’s party tomorrow is going to be very awkward indeed.”

I feel like he just punched me in the gut.

“You’re not invited.”

“Am so. Your mother called this evening and invited me herself.”

“What if I don’t want you there?”

“I’ve all ready accepted.”

“Then un-expect.” He’s still grinning, it sours the liquor in my stomach.
He lifts his hand to my cheek, tucks a stray curl behind my ear and I am eighteen years old again, listening to this man promise he’ll love me forever.

“Del?” I startle and loose half of my drink over the side of my glass. Oliver’s glare flits back between me and the strange hand caressing my face. “Everything okay?”

“Can we help you with something?” Nigel says. He’s on his feet before I can take a breath. He’s half the size of Oliver, half his age too, but he squares his shoulders and juts out his box chin.

“Oliver, this is Nigel. Nigel this is Oliver, a dear friend of mine.” I see Oliver flinch when I say friend, feel it in the pit of my stomach, but I’m not about to start discussing my current relationship with my ex. This is not the time or the place. Oliver holds out his hand. Nigel doesn’t shake it.

“Nurse! Oh nurse,” Charlie calls from over by the piano. He’s chortling away, but I’m too busy watching Nigel and Oliver, trying to murder each other with silent stares.
“Del, I think I might be bleeding to death.”

“What?” My head snaps round to see Charlie cradling his face, rivers of red seeping through his fingers.
“Oh good Lord,” I squeal and snatch a Bourbon soaked napkin off the table. I hold it under his nose and tilt his chin with my fingertips.

“What happened?” Oliver asks. My shoulders drop. I’m sorry Charlie is bleeding, but I’m mostly relieved that Oliver is distracted.

The already waterlogged napkin is falling to pieces. A drop of Charlie’s blood drips on my hand, rolls down my wrist, slow and sluggish.

“Just started bleeding.” His words tumble from his lips in a drunken stupor and land in a pile on the floor. He wraps a sloppy arm around my waist and ushers me toward the bar.

“Barkeep, more of your finest napkins,” he yells. I look back over my shoulder, Oliver takes a step to follow us, but Nigel chooses this moment to take his hand and shake it.

*****

Charlie’s head pivots uncontrollably. I tug on his chin to keep it still.
“You’re making this impossible,” I snap. He finds this cute, flicks one of the curls from my forehead and giggles like a schoolgirl.

I can’t concentrate. Oliver and Nigel have been talking for ten minutes. Oliver keeps looking over at Charlie and I, his face crinkled with concern.

“All done,” I say, pushing a wad of napkin up Charlie’s left nostril. “Now breathe through your mouth.” It’s only taken six attempts to plug him up. Charlie lunges forward, kisses my cheek. His lips linger.

“You’re an Angel, Del,” he says. His voice lazy, sexy, just like it was the day he told me he loved me.

“Okay, Mr Baker.” I push him back. “Let’s get you home.”

I pull his arm over my shoulder. He leans into me, sags, and I feel the full weight of his one hundred and ninety pound frame hanging off my hip. Oliver sees me strain and dashes over.

“Need another set of hands?” Nigel is asking, but it’s too late. We’re already out of the door.

******

“What’s wrong?”

“Nothing.” Oliver says, turning his back on me. I lean over, plant my lips on his cheek.

“Goodnight then.”

He hasn’t mentioned Nigel since we got back. I know he’s sulking. It radiates off him, like heat from a fire. But if he’s going to be a baby about it, he can damn well stay in the dark. I slam my head back down on to my pillow and flick off the lamp.

“What did Charlie say to you?” his voice is shaky, darker than midnight.

“When?”

“When he kissed you?”

“He didn’t kiss me.”

“I’m not blind. I saw him.” I know then what him and Nigel were talking about. Nigel didn’t tell him about our affair. He told him about Charlie and I. Playing mind games is what Nigel does best.

“Charlie is like a brother to me. You know that. He’s like a brother to you too.”

“He’s in love with you.”

“Was.” It’s my turn to lie.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“There was nothing to tell.”

His breathing is heavy. I wait and wait, but he says nothing. My heart is charging. The darkness is suffocating. I close my eyes and wait for sleep to pull me under.

*****

I force my eyes open, and as always, run my hand across the space beside me. My palm does not find the lumps and bumps of Oliver’s chest as it normally does. I’m stroking empty sheets. I sit up, pull the covers up to my chin and drown in the freezing cold atmosphere that envelopes my room.

The rest of the day drags. I spend it alone, buried in my blankets, reading and trying to sleep away a blazing headache.

Oliver strides through our bedroom door just after five. He’s wearing a grin as big and as bright as the sun. I’m confused, concerned, but he walks over and plants a kiss on my cheek.

“We’re going to be late for your parents’ party,” he says, strolling over to the wardrobe. There’s blood on his cheek.

“Where’ve you been?”

“Shooting.”

I laugh. Oliver abhors anything pompous and overtly British. Horse riding, shooting, the royal family. It’s one of the things we have in common.

“Your friend Nigel invited me.” My throat tightens.

“Why didn’t you tell me?”

“You never asked.”

Somewhere between dinner with my parents and our party at the bar, an ocean has formed between us. I should have expected it. This place has always been poisonous.
“Are you angry with me?”

“Of course not.” He slips off his shirt and pulls a crisp, clean white one off the hanger. “Are you planning on showing up to your parents house in bed sheets?” He winks, but I hear a seriousness in his words that makes me shrink.

“What if we don’t go to the party? What if we stay here instead?”

“Your parents would be disappointed.”

“My parents are always disappointed.”

“It’ll be fun,” he insists, buttoning up his shirt. “Give me a second chance to prove my worth.”

“Prove your worth? You don’t need to prove anything to anyone.”

He expels a laugh that makes the walls of our room shake. It’s thick and deep, distinctly patronizing.
“Get dressed,” he says, pulling his dinner jacket over his arms as he leaves the room.

*****

I’m wearing a red dress. It clings to every curve. The silk is cold, it makes my skin feel wet. My lipstick is the colour of blood and my neck is dripping with diamonds.

I’m charged, angry with my new husband for taking his self-esteem issues out on me.

I don’t know him here. I want to be back at the base, where past indiscretions are buried and he’s not being constantly reminded of the differences between us.

The first person I see when I step into the hall is Charlie. I free myself from Oliver’s arm, glide over and throw my arms around him.

“How’s the patient? Let me look at you.” I grab hold of his chin and inspect his face. I can feel eyes burning into my back. “Well the good news is you’re going to live.”
Charlie, picks me up and spins me round. Then, as always, he turns to his friend.

“What’s the matter with you? Face like thunder,” he says.

“Nothing a stiff drink won’t fix,” Oliver replies.

“Good shout.” Charlie throws his arm over Oliver’s shoulder and the pair wander off into the dining room.

A shadow falls over me from behind. “Curious fellow, that friend of yours.” Ice slips down my spine.

“What did you say to him?”

“Me? I didn’t say anything. It’s none of my business what you do, or who you do it with.”

I spin round to face Nigel. “That’s right. It’s not.”

The thing about Nigel is he has a way with words. It’s what makes him an amazing lawyer. He could argue black was white and end up convincing you of the same. Manipulating people is his sport.

“Stay away from us.”

“Not sure I can. I’m having far too much fun.”

“Darling, there you are.” Mum’s shrill voice cuts through me like a knife. She’s marching toward me, arms up in the air. I want to disappear.

****

“Let’s dance.” I grab hold of Oliver’s arm and pull him into the middle of the room. I can’t stand to watch him buddy up to Nigel a second longer. He wraps his bear arms around my waist and we sway in-time to some melodramatic, maudlin nonsense the band is playing.

“Don’t listen to Nigel. He’s very good at lying.”

“So, you were never with Charlie?”
I swallow hard, without meaning to, and he sees.

“Who is really the liar here?”

“I never lied to you.”

“But you didn’t tell me,” he growls and the couple beside us look over. I’ve never seen Oliver jealous before. It makes my skin prick.
“Nigel tells me you and Charlie are the reason your relationship ended.”

“That’s not true.” Mostly.

“So you didn’t find comfort in Charlie when Nigel was in America?”

“I…I…” The people around us have stopped dancing and are starting to stare. I feel like my dress has disappeared. He pulls me tighter into his chest. His fingers are pressed so hard against the bottom of my back I worry they’ll pierce my skin.

“I let you be alone with him. I let him walk you home. I let you undress him when he’s too drunk to help himself,” he snarls into my ear. “You must think I’m an idiot.”

I push myself back off him. Take a composing breath. “If you’ll excuse me, I have a headache.” I flee the room.

My mind is racing, my heart hammering at the back of my throat. I forget to watch where I’m going and collide with a chest.

“Del, what’s wrong?” Charlie. He runs the back of his fingers down my cheek. They come away wet. “Why are you crying?”

I hadn’t realized I was. My tongue has seized. I can’t talk. Sobs keep bursting from my throat. Charlie glances behind me then leads me into the nearest guest room.

“What’s happened?” He pulls a handkerchief from his breast pocket and dries my eyes.

“Oliver is upset. I’ve never seen him so angry.”

“Angry over what?”

“Over you and I?”

“What you and I? There is no you and I.”

“But there was. And Nigel has been poisoning his mind. His head is consumed with jealousy.”

“Stop crying. I’ll talk to him.” Charlie squeezes me and I sob into the nape of his neck. I feel safe.
“Tell him that he’s being ridiculous that you and I…”

The door slams shut. Charlie and I break apart so fast it makes me dizzy.

“Oliver, what on earth…” Oliver doesn’t give Charlie a chance to finish. He marches toward him and throws him arm forward. There’s a popping sound as bone connects with bone. Charlie wilts to the ground, blood dripping from the new split in his eye.

“What the hell is wrong with you?” I shout, but he pushes his hand against my mouth and we fall back onto the bed. He stares deep into my eyes. I’m drunk just inhaling the fumes on his breath.

“Harlot,” he growls. I shake my head in protest as he snatches a pillow. I wriggle, try to break free from his grip, but he has the strength of an elephant.

“I love you,” I say when he moves his hand to hold down my arms. “Please. Don’t do this. Whatever you think you know, you don’t.”

“You think I’m a fool,” he spits. He keeps saying harlot, over and over again as lifts the pillow to my face. Tears are rolling down my cheeks and pooling in my ears. I’m still shaking my head.

“Oliver, don’t do this,” I choke as he pushes the soft, sweet smelling fabric against my face.

I can hear him mumbling. Talking about an affair with Charlie that never was. Talking about idiocy. About self worth.

In seconds my face is numb. I can hear the ocean in my head. He sobs, but pushes down harder on the pillow. I hear him tell me he loves me before everything goes black.



CHRISTMAS DAY!! – MIDDLE GRADE: What Money Can’t Buy by Kristen Strassel

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IT’S CHRISTMAS DAY AND YOU SHOULD ALL BE DRUNK ON EGG NOG! Hope you are all having a WONDERFUL day, and here’s your present from me: a story by one of the best people you could ever meet. I love her. Kristen usually writes adult urban fantasy and horror, but today she channeled her inner child and wrote a story for children. Read this in between rounds of Trivial Pursuit.
 


 
What Money Can’t Buy
Kristen Strassel
 
“Don’t sit with me, Maddie.” Katelyn put her backpack on the bus seat. She used to be my best friend. This year she was more interested in being friends with the cheerleaders. Everyone laughed as I turned around, looking for a seat at the front of the bus. I didn’t cry until I sat down in the front seat, my face plastered against the window. They said worse things when I cried.
 
“Hey, Maddie,” Jake called to me from the middle of the bus. “Is your dad working tonight?”
 
Ignoring them didn’t work. I shrugged.
“I hope so. I’m going to go sit in his lap.” More laughter.
 
My dad worked as a mall Santa this year. No one would have known if Katelyn didn’t tell everyone. Now everyone in my class made a big deal out of having their picture taken with them, they’d even made a Facebook page with all the pictures.
 
I begged him to quit, but he insisted that working as Santa was the only way we could have Christmas.
 
Jake moved up to my seat. Of course nobody would be caught dead sitting next to me. He pulled on my braid. “So Mads, are you an elf? Do you make toys in a workshop? Santa’s little helper?”
 
“No.” I still didn’t look at any of them.
 
“She’s on the island of misfit toys.” Somebody yelled from one of the middle seats. I was the only one of the bus who didn’t think this was funny at all. Today was the last day of school before Christmas vacation. I didn’t know how much more of it I could take. I wished Christmas would just go away so I didn’t have to deal with this anymore.
 
“Maybe she can make herself a coat that doesn’t come from Walmart.”
 
“Maybe she can make some wooden boobs!”
 
I’d never been so glad to see my house in my life. Sitting in the front of the bus was good for one thing: I could get off before anyone could grab my bag, or push me back into the seat. I walked fast, watching for ice patches. If I was out of reach, none of the neighborhood kids could get one last swipe at me before vacation.
 
Our house was the only one not decorated on the block. My parents used to go crazy, competing with the houses on the block. It was awesome. We had a Santa sleigh and reindeers that lit up on the roof, and the way that the lights flashed, it looked like Santa was flying away after leaving our presents.
 
But everything changed after my little sister, Bella, got sick. Two years ago, she stopped acting like a normal baby. The doctors found a tumor in her brain. Some of the cancer that causes the tumor kept popping up in other parts of her body. Any day without new bad news about Bella was a really good day.
 
She didn’t come home much, lately. She’d just had a round of treatment to make the tumors shrink. The doctors said it was working, but I didn’t see much difference. She laid in that bed, connected to a bunch of tubes, and didn’t do much. Mom insisted Bella was always happy to see me.
 
“How do you know?” I asked her a few weeks ago. “She doesn’t do anything.”
 
“Don’t say that, Maddie.” My mom looked so tired, without her fancy work suits and makeup. She had to quit her job when taking care of Bella made it too hard for her to work. “Her face lights up when you walk in the room.”
 
“How does she even know who I am?” I didn’t buy it. She’d been so sick for so long. Half the time she wasn’t even awake.
 
“Honey, of course she knows who you are.”
 
Every time Bella got a little better, my parents got so excited. For a few days, they were happy again, they didn’t fight. Those were the best days, but they never lasted. She always got worse again. And so didn’t everything else.
 
Some days, I wished Bella had never been born. Then nothing would have changed. My mom would be working at the law firm, and my dad wouldn’t have had to take that awful Mall Santa job. My parents would have had the time and the money for me to try out for cheerleading, and maybe I would have made the team. I hadn’t practiced in forever. Katelyn wouldn’t be embarrassed to have me as a friend.
 
No one was home. Dad was at work and Mom was at the hospital. We were having good days right now, the doctors insisted this round of treatment was working wonders. Hopefully someone would come get me soon and bring me to hang out at the hospital. It wasn’t the cheeriest place, but at least there were people around. I didn’t like being all by myself at home. Some of the older kids in Bella’s wing were really cool, when they felt good enough to hang out.
I was afraid to get too close to them. The worst days were when I went to visit Bella and found out one of my friends had died.
 
I microwaved some leftovers, I didn’t dare eat lunch at school anymore, and looked at the note Mom had left me for the day. She needed my help around the house now. Today’s list wasn’t long, just laundry. Laundry was easy. It did itself and I could do whatever I wanted.
 
After putting in a load of towels, I wrapped myself in my favorite blanket and decided to watch Elf. Dad’s Santa suit was the only decoration we had around the house. We were going to spend Christmas at the hospital.
 
My cell phone buzzed. I didn’t get up to check the message right away, it was probably just someone from school posting a new picture of my dad working at the mall. It kept buzzing, and I was scared to look. It could be important. It could bad.
 
It was my Nana. Get ready. I’m bringing you to see Bella.
 
“We have a surprise for you!” Nana exclaimed as soon as she walked into the house. She shook snow out of her hair.
 
“You do?” I could hardly believe it. It didn’t seem like anyone ever did anything special just for me anymore. But then I remembered we were going to see Bella, and my hopes fell back down.
 
“I’d tell you what it is, but it’s a surprise!” She practically danced in the foyer as I put my jacket back on.
 
I tried to make school sound like it was good on the way to the hospital. It was too embarrassing to tell her the truth. I didn’t say much to my parents about it, either. I didn’t want them to feel like they were the reason I didn’t have any friends anymore. They weren’t around enough to notice, anyway.
 
The hospital always smelled the same. They tried to make it festive, with garland in the hallways and the nurses in holiday scrubs, but it just made me sadder we were here.
 
I knew the nurses who worked in the pediatric oncology ward pretty well by now, and they smiled and waved when they saw me. I peeked in the rooms as we made our way to Bella, and all my friends looked like they were in good shape. I knew they had a special visit from some football players the other day, and I couldn’t wait to hear all about it. Maybe some of the cute ones showed up.
 
My mom sat on Bella’s bed, nothing different there. Nana kissed her on the head, then squeezed Bella’s hand, the one that didn’t have the IV in it.
 
“We have a surprise!” Mom said, almost in the same sing song tone Nana had said the same thing.
 
“Nana told me.” I tossed my jacket on the chair. “Is it OK if I sit on the bed?”
 
Bella watched the activity in the room, a good sign. A lot of times by this time of the day, she was already sound asleep after all of her treatments.
 
“Sure.” Mom moved over to make room for me.
 
“Hey, Bella.” I said as I sat down. Her eyes really did light up.
 
Mom put her hand on Bella’s tiny leg. Even though she was three, she wasn’t that much bigger than a baby. “Bella, honey, what do you want to tell Sissy?”
 
Bella sat up a little on her mountain of pillows, and took a deep breath. “Love you, sissy.”
 
I looked back and forth from my mom to Nana. I had to be imagining things. Bella couldn’t talk. Sometimes she could communicate by sign language, when she felt up to it.
 
“It sounded like she said, ‘Love you, sissy.’”
 
Mom nodded. “The speech therapist has been working with her, now that the tumor shrunk. She’s been teaching her little phrases.”
 
“Oh my God.” Tears fell down my cheeks, but I didn’t feel embarrassed about it. These were happy tears. And Mom and Nana were crying, too.
 
Maybe she was going to get better, for real this time.
 
“We wanted to surprise you with it on Christmas, but I just couldn’t keep it to myself any longer.” Mom blurted out, like she felt guilty about keeping a secret.
 
“It’s awesome.” I blinked back more tears. “I love you too, Bella.”
 
She wiggled around a little bit, looking happy.
 
“Does Dad know?”
 
“Not yet.” Mom couldn’t wipe the smile off the face. “It’s going to be his Christmas present.”
 
Some Christmas presents you couldn’t get at the mall, even if you worked there as Santa.
 



2 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – FUTURISTIC: by Juliana L. Brandt

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On this Christmas Eve Eve, Juliana L. Brandt taps into the Ghost of Christmas Future – pour yourself a glass of wine and enjoy this quick little number…
 


 
by Juliana L. Brandt
 
 
1 Volcanic rock crunched beneath Claus’s crimson snakeskin boots. Soft grey ash fell about his shoulders.

2 He took another step.

“We don’t gotta to do this Claus,” Frost shouted from behind him.

“No,” Claus took his 3rd step, “I’m sure we do. I gave you twenty-four hours to clear out of town, Frost. You’re still here, so now we duel.”

4 The pistol at his hip weighed against him. Claus kept his steps even.

“This ain’t your territory. I don’t know why you see fit to disrupt the community.”

“I’m merely taking back what was mine to begin with.” 5 “You’ve been naughty, Frost. It’s time the north fell back under Claus rule, and I plan on taking you down.” Claus tipped back the brim of his ten-gallon hat.

“The old rules shouldn’t apply. No one can control all the land.” Desperation snuck into Frost’s voice. “You keep the south. We’ll stop pushing at the border.”

“No.” Claus ground his heel into the earth. 6 steps gone, four left. The clouds above, heavy with smoking embers, hung low. Vapor clung about the shoulders of his duster.

7 Four generations past, no one would have contested his claim to this land, but the Clauses had become lax and the Frosts had snuck in. It wasn’t long before a perimeter had risen and the Clauses no longer reigned.

Frost’s 8th step came a moment behind Claus’s. A hesitation. A pause. “Don’t know why you think killing me will do any good. There are plenty of other Frosts after me.”

“Then I’ll take them all down too. You’re just a good place to start, is all.” He stepped again. 9. “You counting, Frost?” He called over his shoulder.

“10!”

Claus turned, flicking back the skirts of his coat. The revolver came loose from the holster. His finger found the trigger. A click. The kickback jerked his wrist, but his aim stayed true. Frost crumpled before he had freed his gun from his own holster. Burgundy blood blossomed across his shirt front.

Claus sheathed his pistol. One down. Soon enough, the world would be the Claus’s again. Under one rein. Winter, again, would be his.
 



3 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ADULT: Letting Go by Cassandra Page

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Christmas is getting so close now, so I thought you deserved a special treat – it’s Cassandra Page, author of Isla’s Inheritance, stepping out of her urban fantasy comfort zone into the world of the Adult. Cass is one of my nearest and dearest, and she’s a damn good writer. Check it out.
 


 
Letting Go
by Cassandra Page
 
 
Michelle decorates the house in silence.

In previous years, her home had been filled with carols and laughter. Her family decked the halls to Deck the Halls, and the night was anything but silent. At fifteen, Ben was too cool to hang baubles, and he’d ceded the right to top the tree back to his father after ten years of hogging the privilege. But Michelle caught glimpses of childhood delight behind his surly exterior, and hid her smile behind her hand.

That was before she found the emails.

Now she strings the tinsel alone, performing the familiar ritual not out of celebration but because she’s fallen into a rut with steep sides—too steep to climb. There is no joy in it. She hangs out his stocking next to hers, over the mantelpiece. The pair hang limply.

The phone rings, piercing the silence like a scream. A glass bauble slips from her fingers, shatters on the empty tiles beneath the tree.

“Hello?”

Silence on the other end. Then a familiar voice speaks. “Michelle.”

“Darren.” Her voice is as sharp as the glass shards. Glittering crimson.

“How are you?”

She fishes the dustpan and brush from under the sink, cradling the phone against her shoulder. “Fine,” she says. It’s even sort of true. She is hollow, mercifully empty of emotion behind carefully constructed walls. “Why?”

“Well, it’s the first of December, and I thought…” He trails off.

He knows her. After twenty years of marriage, he ought to. The first of December is when the decorations go up. And she’s alone.

“I’m fine.” A white-hot spot of anger flares, burning away some of the numbness. She grits her teeth, suppresses the emotion. If she lets anger in, the rest will follow. When she speaks, her voice is cool. “The divorce papers arrived yesterday.”

“You don’t have to do anything with them right now. Wait till after the holidays.”

“I signed them already.” She sweeps red shards onto the dustpan.

“Oh.” He sighs. “Did you want some company?”

“No.” She frowns. Why is he pretending to care? He left her after Ben— She can’t even think the word. “Is there anything else? I’m busy.”

He’s quiet for so long she wonders if he hung up and she didn’t notice. Then he says, “Have you read the emails yet?”

This old argument. When will he stop blaming her for what happened? “I read them last year.”

“Read them again. Properly, this time.”

“Leave me alone.”

“Goodbye, Michelle.”

She hangs up and tips the glass in the bin. It patters down onto a shrivelled banana peel, an empty milk carton, Darren’s discarded stocking.

It has been almost a year since her fight with Ben about the emails. Electronic love letters between him and that girl. Brittany. Bad enough that her boy was fourteen. Worse that the girl was so far from the wrong side of the tracks that she couldn’t even see them. Her older sister had died of a drug overdose; her father was an alcoholic who spent all his time at the RSL, feeding his welfare cheque into the poker machines.

Ben had stormed out of the house, hared off on his bike. The car hadn’t seen him in the dark.

The guilt claws at the walls around her emotions, tearing through them. Its talons are her grief, its wings her regret. She’s familiar with the beast. But before it can drag her down again, in a tangle of self-loathing and bourbon, a little mouse, curiosity, creeps in behind it.

The next afternoon, when the hangover recedes a little, she reads the emails.

***

The soup kitchen is bustling, the queue almost out the door. The first smell that invades her nose is of salty gravy, the next of unwashed bodies. She holds her breath and ducks inside.

“Hey, no cutting,” a bearded man mumbles, glaring at her from watery eyes.

“I’m not here to eat.” Her stomach churns. “I’m looking for someone.”

He smiles, gap-toothed. “Is it me?”

“No. Sorry.”

“Well, if you change your mind…” He winks, and she finds herself smiling back. Just a little.

“You might be able to help me. I’m looking for this girl.” She shows him the printout of the photo. It is pixelated, poor quality. Ben took it on his phone.

“Sure, I seen her. She’s up there.”

Michelle turns, squares her shoulders. Walks along the queue till she finds the girl.

“Excuse me.”

Brown eyes turn to her. There is no flash of recognition. Ben never introduced them. “Yes?”

“I’m Ben Rigby’s mother.”

Now there’s recognition. Also anger and grief. Brittany swallows the feelings, but Michelle can see they are old companions. As they are Michelle’s.

“What do you want?” Brittany says, eyes narrowed.

“To see you. I—” Michelle hesitates, looking the girl over. She’s the same age as Ben would have been, still a teenager, but looks older. Her hands are calloused from work; her bare arms bear faint green and yellow bruises, like bracelets.

“What?” The girl stares back, examining Michelle just as Michelle examines her. “If you came here to yell at me, forget it.”

“I didn’t. Actually, I’m planning Christmas dinner, and I wanted to invite you.”

Brittany’s mouth falls open. Then her expression hardens. “I ain’t interested in being your charity case.”

“It’s not about charity. I know you and Ben … cared for each other.” Brittany’s cheeks redden and she lifts her chin. Michelle looks down at her shoes, conspicuously expensive next to Brittany’s scuffed slip-ons. “I’ve spent the last year blaming you for taking him away from me, as much as I blamed myself for driving him away. And, well, Christmas is the season for forgiveness.”

“I don’t want your forgiveness,” Brittany says.

“No.” Michelle looks up, meets her gaze. “But I need to give it. If you’ll let me. I need to let go.”

The girl gnaws her lip, thinks for several moments. “I reckon Ben would want me to,” she murmurs. “Sure, I’ll come.”

Michelle feels something then that she hasn’t felt for almost a year. A tiny piece of joy. She gives the girl a piece of paper with details written on it. Brittany folds it, slides it inside her purse next to a battered photo. Ben smiles back at Michelle from the image, reminding her of Darren when they’d first met. She can’t help but smile back.

She pulls her phone out of her pocket. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, there’s someone else I need to invite.”
 



4 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – SATIRE: A Very Whedon Christmas by Angi Black

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Alright, you lovely ladies and gentlemen! Angi Black has done us the honour of writing an AMAZING satire. Read it, love it, and stick some words in that comment box at the bottom. Seriously, the title is ‘A Very Whedon Christmas’. GO!
 


 
A Very Whedon Christmas
by Angi Black
 
 
I sat at my desk, pouring over a story I was never going to finish. My editor had called four times and I’d ignored the ringing every time. I just wasn’t funny. There was nothing funny to me. I tapped on the keys wishing words as magical as rainbow-spewing unicorns would pour from my fingers. That didn’t happen. They looked more like the smiling pile of poo emolji on my phone.

I texted one to Bonnie, my editor.

The phone rang immediately. I picked it up, downing the last of my coffee.

“You missed deadline.”

“Fully aware, but trust me, you don’t want it.”

“Whether I want it or not, I have to have it. The anthology is happening.”

I huffed and puffed. “Tell me what to write then.”

I heard her nails clicking on her desk as she thought. “I don’t even care at this point, write me Christmas According to Whedon, for all I care, just have it to me by tonight. And make it funny!”

I sat there listening to dead air. Fine. Whedon Christmas it is.

**

A vampire with a soul, a slayer, and a witch walk into a bar.

They met up with Xander and danced to an emo 90’s band on a school night.

Ah, the good old days.

I deleted the joke. How do you write a Whedon Christmas? Hey kids, here’s Santa. He’s most likely a lovable demon whom you’ll adore and right after he’s redeemed and you’re feeling good about life – BAM – he dies.

Yeah. Merry Freaking Christmas.

I wracked my brain for good story ideas. How would The Night Before Christmas be different if it was a tale of Whedon? Maybe something like this:
 
 
T’was A Story By Whedon

T’was a story by Whedon, and all through the show
Your love for the characters was surely to grow.
But little Joss Whedon cares not one little bit
Their untimely end, so soon will they get.

The women were strong, not one needed saving.
They can fight crazy monsters without a head shaving.
Black Widow and Echo, and Zoe and Buffy,
Will always kickass, whether rainy or sunny.

The characters aware of their unusual plight,
Use witty banter to pull us into the fight.
They may not be perfect, or make the right choices,
But we root for the heroes with their snarky voices.

But after laughs and a cry and a cringe here and there,
A burst of song is coming, so please never fear.
Whether Lorne reads your soul or Dr. Horrible is reeling,
You can always count on Once More, With Feeling.

In Whedonverse, chaos is the order of the day
Fighting The Man is always the play.
The Mayor, The Alliance, the potent lure of power,
Order is the big bad sitting up in the tower.

Now Murder! Now Mayhem! Now heartbreak and fears!
On, Demons. On, witchcraft. On superhero tears.
To the deep darkest parts! To the edge of our soul!
Then tell us a joke to make big laughter roll!

Sometimes it’s goofy, and sometimes it’s rough,
But it’s always worth watching for any story buff.
A musical, a puppet, a sci-fi western in space,
In the big Whedonverse, they all have their place.

And then, just when you thought, what’s cooler than that,
Shakespeare at his house steps up to the bat.
With Wesley and Fred and Mal there to boot,
The movie shot in a month is just a real hoot.

Nothing is easy, not plain white and black,
Things are all gray, that’s a matter of fact.
Captain Hammer fights evil in sweet, singing style,
But Dr. Horrible still triumphs with a tear in his eye.

While Joss likes his heroes, and big storylines
He always makes time for the other little guys.
Like Xander and Tara and Coulson and Wash,
He’s happy to make their spotlight flash(ßMust be said with British accent to rhyme)

Each character is solid, a force all their own,
A story to tell, one that must be told.
As great as they are, they’re still individual,
But make them a team, they’re nearly invincible.

In the Whedonverse, you’ll meet lots of new faces,
But try not to worry because in all the right places,
You’ll see people you know and have come to love,
Fit seamlessly in, like a comfortable glove.

Sometimes Joss knows just when to quit,
Others get pulled too fast from his grip.
Firefly and Dollhouse, we miss you a lot.
Buffy season six, please run off to rot.

But to every project that’s been and the ones still to come,
To a place in our hearts, know you always can run.
For we Whedonites know it will all be all right
We hear those sweet words,
“Grr. Argh. And to all a good night!”
 
 
**
 
I looked over the words filling my screen. It could work, but what about plot. I mean, is Christmas a plot? Maybe I could make it easy and have a choir tell the story, like minstrels. Nothing is more Whedon than throwing in a song or two.

First, they can stop in Sunnydale:
 
 
Buffy the Vampire Slayer

You know Cordy and Willow
And Xander and Giles,
Dawn and Anya
And Angel and Spike.
But do you recall
The most badass slayer of all?

No?

She saved the world. A lot.

Buffy the Vampire slayer
Had a very pointy stake
And if you ever saw it
A big pile of dust you’d make.

All of the other Scoobies
Used to run and hide in fear
They always let poor Buffy
Save the day with her sweet gear.

Then one Graduation day
The mayor came to say,
Buffy with your plan so bright
Did you kill my Faith tonight?

And how Sunnydale loved her
As they shouted out, “Help me!”
Buffy the vampire slayer
You’ll go down in…well, the hellmouth, but really, that’s the same as history, right?

Next stop – L.A.:
 
 
Angel the Vampire

Angel, the vampire, had a tortured, hapless soul
With a leather jacket and the sewer track, and skin that’s really cold.

Angel the vampire, is a really old, they say.
He had a soul, but Buffy knows, Angelus came to life one day.

There must have been a loophole in that gypsy curse they cast,
‘Cause when the slayer dropped that ring, he came back to Earth at last.
Angel, the vampire, was as souled as he could be
But Xander would say, he could kill and slay,
So you better watch out, Buffy!

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Look at the Powers That Be.

Contrivancey, hey, hey, contrivancey, hey, hey,
Up in the clouds, Is that Cordy?

Angel the vampire, knew the LA sun was hot,
So he bought a convertible for his car, because he’s super smart.

All through the city, he saves them if he can,
Running here and there, jumping in the air,
Sayin’, “Please, don’t touch the hair!”

He follows Cordy’s visions, and sometimes Lorne helps out.
There’s Fred and Gunn and Wesley, too. Fang Gang, yo – shout out!

But Angel, the vampire, had redemption on his way
He saved and saved sayin’, “Don’t you cry, I’ll be back to brood someday.”
 
 
Then they can go to space, because every good story should go to space!
 
 
Carol of the Mal

Hark! Serenity
Sweet Serenity
Now flies away
Mal seems to say
“No, not today.”
Jayne is all that,
Bringing his hat.
Crocheted to say
I’m on ebay.

De-fine De-fine
Interesting.
Oh god, oh god
We’re all
Going to die.

Hey, River Tam.
Browncoat, I am.
Safeword you say
NO grenades!

Oh Serenity.
Sweet Serenity.
Capt Mal is the best,
Jayne stands the test.
Wash holds a stance,
Hello, it’s a lance.

No, never fear
Capt. Mal is here
Never, never, never, never take
Never, never, never, never take

Oh Serenity
Sweet Serenity
No, they’ll never take
The sky from me

De-fine, De-fine
Interesting.
 
 
And there could never be a choir stop of Whedonville, without a trip to New York.
 
 
The Avengers

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Tony Stark snarks, Jarvis remarks,
It’s Ironman in that suit.
Hawkeye charms
Hey! Nice arms!
Please shoot an arrow.
Captain America,
Gets a new style
Bruce Banner keeps a smile,
And through the halls of S.H.I.E.L.D. you’ll hear

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Loki comes to Earth,
Thor’s brother by birth,
Though he says he’s adopted.
Hulk gets to smash,
Just in time for the alien blitz.

See Natasha
(She’s Black Widow)
Convince Bruce Banner to join.
And make sure to look for
Stan Lee!

The Avengers, Must Assemble,
It’s time to fight for the city.
Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.

Suit up to fight, day or night,
Soon it will be Shawarma time.
 
 
I read back over my work, just thankful I’d completed the project. Happy with my words and what I thought to be terribly clever, I sent an email to my editor, prose attached. I began to close down my computer for the night when gmail dinged at me.
 
That was so quick, she must have loved it. Clicking the icon, I couldn’t wait for it to open. The screen lit, all white save one line. That had to be good news, right?
 
“I’ll go ahead and extend your deadline.”

Balls!
 



5 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – APOCALYPTIC FICTION: by J. Elizabeth Hill

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CAN YOU BELIEVE THERE ARE ONLY FIVE DAYS UNTIL CHRISTMAS? ME EITHER. Today the fantastical J. Elizabeth Hill begins the Christmas apocalypse. If you don’t know her, freaking follow her on Twitter. She’s ace, and so is this…
 


 
by J. Elizabeth Hill
 
 
I look around the yard outside the door leading down to our underground shelter, then down the road that leads to our town. The sky is grey overhead, the same shade as the ground. Snow mixes with ash as both fall, robbing the world of color. No one’s sure if the volcanoes have stopped. The radios stopped working a couple of days ago, so we haven’t had any news.
 
That’s bad, but even at twelve, I can tell things are getting worse. There’s almost no food left and now my brother’s disappeared. I have to find him before they shut the door for the night. Once that happens, no one will open it until morning, no matter what. They won’t even check who’s knocking, because it might be the others, those we turned away because there wasn’t enough room or supplies in the shelter. Ben, one of the grown ups, was talking the other day about how many they’ve refused to let in in the past week. He said if the others organized, they’d overrun us, but there’s no sign of them doing that. He called it a small mercy.
 
I understand why they can’t let everyone in, but I wonder if my parents were turned away, or if they’re just gone. I hope they’re at least out there and okay, but I don’t know anymore. I haven’t seen them for so long, not since before the sirens went off.
 
I look around again, trying to think if there’s anywhere downstairs I didn’t look, but I don’t think so. I’m almost certain he left and if he did, I know why. Last night, one of the grown ups had mentioned it was Christmas Eve as we were collecting our small ration of beans. Liam had brightened up for a moment, but then he’d asked how Santa was going to get to us without a fireplace. The shelter has an old furnace, enough to keep us from freezing, but Liam was certain it wouldn’t work for Santa. I don’t have the heart to tell my six-year old brother there’s no such thing. I’ve overheard some of the grown ups talking about how this might be the end of the world, depending on how bad the volcanoes are and how many have gone off now. How can I take Santa away from the kid?
 
The snowy ash is falling again, so it’s hard to pick anything out in the yard. Then I see it, a smaller shape than the other footprints, then another one a foot or so away from it. Footprints. And they’re the right size. I swear, then look behind me at Tom and Nick. Either they didn’t hear me or they don’t care if some kid who’s a stranger to them swears.
 
I take a step to follow my brother’s trail, but Tom calls after me.
 
“You shouldn’t go off, Matthew. It’ll get dark soon. You know what that means.”
 
I nod to show I heard him, but I go anyway. I’m all Liam has, and I have to find him. I can’t let anything happen to him.
 
Walking down the road in the dim light, my eyes never stop searching. I listen for any sound that shouldn’t be there. Only I don’t really know what our town should sound like when everything’s this messed up, so I jump at every sound, even my own coughing from the ash in the air.
 
The end of the road comes into sight and with it the rest of the town. It’s not much, really. Dad called it a wide place in the road, but he always smiled when he said it. Mom said it was a great place to raise a family. To me, it was the most boring place on Earth. Or at least it had been before the closest volcano had gone off.
 
I stop where the shelter road and Atterly Road meet. Atterly’s the major road in Vernon. Practically everything in town leads to it. From where I stand, I can just see the mouth of Tomkin, our street.
 
I’ve lost the tracks I’m sure were Liam’s. There are too many others around here, proof that there are still people around town. What if Liam’s been taken by one of them? Would they try to use him to get in the shelter?
 
The crash of glass nearby interrupts my thoughts. I see a chair lying in the street in front of David’s, the local diner. Someone’s tossed it out through the now broken front window. I hide behind a large tree, peaking around the trunk. I can’t let anyone sneak up on me and I need to know what’s going on.
 
I see two guys come out through the busted down door of David’s, each with a large sack slung over their shoulders. Both have cloths over their mouths, but they’re coughing a anyway, worse even than the grown ups who take turns at the door of the shelter. The two men talk for a few minutes, though I can’t hear what they’re saying. I think they’re arguing though. One shoves the other, but then they go off together. Grown ups never make much sense.
 
I wait as long as I dare before darting out to check that the two guys are out of sight. They are, and I breathe a sigh of relief. The street is empty.
 
Standing there at the corner, I try to decide what to do. Where do I even begin to look for my brother? My eyes are drawn again to Tomkin. I can see Mr. Smith’s house just a bit down the street, the porch columns wrapped in broad red and green ribbons. Our house is just three away from his. It’s not that far. I should be able to make it without anyone seeing me. I know I have to try.
 
I move as quickly as I can down Atterly, then turn onto Tomkin. As I pass Mr. Smith’s, I smell something familiar and look up to see smoke trailing from the chimney. I don’t stop or even think of going inside, though Mr. Smith’s always been nice to us. Maybe if Liam’s not at our house, I’ll try there.
The more I think about it, the more certain I am that’s where Liam’s gone. Last year, he discovered where Mom and Dad always hide our presents. He came running to me about it, as if he thought I didn’t know already. He might be after those, instead of looking for Santa.
 
I’m only one house away from ours when I hear a shout back down near Atterly. I leap over the hedge that borders the Richards’ yard without turning to see who it is. My back hits the ground and for a moment, the breath is knocked out of me. I hear running feet approaching and I know I have to move. If they saw me, they also saw me jump the hedge. I roll onto my hands and knees, the cold, crusted snow biting into my palms and fingers. Crawling toward the fake well, my chest is on fire the whole way. The moment I’m behind it I draw my knees to my chest and drop my head, trying to make myself small enough that whoever it is won’t see me.
 
“I’m telling you, it wasn’t one of ours. Do you think they opened the door at last?”
 
The voice is so close that I flinch. She’s got to be standing right where I went over. I pray she won’t see the trail I probably left in the icy, ash-laced snow.
 
“Probably. Can’t hide in there forever,” a male voice says.
 
I swear silently, using words Mom would yell at me just for knowing. Two of them, and both sounded like grown ups. I can’t possibly outrun them and the light is fading at an alarming rate. Even if I find Liam at our house and he comes with me willingly, I’m not sure we can make it back in time. The idea makes my stomach clench and my heart race, but I don’t have time for it.
 
“You think they’ve got any more supplies than we do?”
 
After a pause, the woman says, “I don’t know, Brad. Maybe. I mean, it’s the emergency shelter, but they built it during World War II. And that mountain went off before the scientists thought it would, and way worse. I’m not sure the supplies in there are any good. It’s possible we’re doing better out here than they are in there.”
 
She’s only partly right. They’d added to the canned food and other stuff, but the new ones were long gone. Now all we had were old cans of beans and corned beef, things like that. And every third or fourth one we opened was off. The grown ups were worried about it, but I was too busy worrying about trying to take care of Liam.
 
“Look, I’m not keen on waiting around here. I know you’re worried about some kid wandering around, especially with that bunch that blew through here yesterday destroying stuff, but we’re going to be in danger soon too. We need to get back to the house before dark.”
 
Brad sounds as anxious as I feel and I will them to give in to that. I need them to go away. I can’t possibly get anywhere without them seeing me, not if they’re standing there looking for me.
 
“But we can’t let a kid–”
 
“If the kid’s hiding, we’re probably not going to find them, not before we have to get back. Even if we do, whoever it is will probably be too afraid of us to let us help. Tara, be reasonable.”
 
After a long silence, Tara says, “All right. We’ll stop in to check on Greg though, and while we’re there, we’ll ask him to keep an eye out for anyone coming down this street.”
 
I hear them walk away after a moment, but I don’t move right away. They sounded so nice, like they were really worried. Were the others at the shelter wrong about those we’d locked out? What if they wouldn’t take everything, as I’d been told?
 
I shake my head and concentrate on listening for them or anyone else. I can’t afford to think about anything but finding Liam and getting us back to the shelter. It takes me a while to be sure I don’t hear anything. I peek around the fake well and no one’s there. I make myself wait for another moment, then run across the Richards’ yard, trying to stay low to the ground. I hop the low wood fence and land in my front yard.
 
It’s the first time I’ve seen the place since we evacuated to the shelter. Dirty snow lies everywhere, grey crusting the top. Our windows are coated with the stuff to the point that I can’t see in them. Mom would be pissed if she saw this. If she’s still alive. I’m starting to doubt that, though I keep putting on a brave face for Liam when he asks about them.
 
On the walkway, I see what I was hoping for. Footprints, though they’re barely visible under the fresh snow. But it’s not exactly what I wanted to see. Liam’s small ones are there, but so are larger ones. I can’t tell which are older and which are newer. Did someone follow my little brother back to our house? Is Liam even still here?
I can’t go in the front door. For one thing, anyone might be watching. I don’t know who’s out there. But that’s okay. I know another way in, if it isn’t locked.
 
I run along the side of the house toward the back, looking everywhere for watchers as I go. Suddenly I fall to the snow, my palms stinging as I try to catch myself. My feet are tangled in something. I look back, first to see if anyone’s there and coming for me, then to see what I tripped on.
 
It’s a belt, one I know well. It’s his favorite after all.
 
I glance around but there’s no sign of Liam or any more of his clothes. I’d check for any remaining signs of what happened, but I’m sure there won’t be anything left after all the flailing I did on the way down. I grab the belt and scramble back to my feet, running for the small window beside the deck, just above the ground.
 
Mom was forever telling us to leave all the windows of the house locked. Every time she found one unlocked, she fixed that. And I would come along behind her every time to unlock this one. It wasn’t an act of defiance. I just liked to go out and skateboard in the park at night. It was quiet and the stupid, cool people from school weren’t around to give me a hard time. The question now was whether Mom had discovered it unlocked before she and Dad left that last time.
 
I slide my fingers around the frame until I find the end of the fishing line. I tug lightly and the latch moves. The window opens a little. I pry it the rest of the way open, then look in the basement. Nothing’s out of place there. Along one wall, I see the boxes of seasonal stuff Mom keeps. Kept.
 
Rather than think about this, I climb through the window and drop to the floor. The sound of the window closing behind me is loud in the silence, but I know from experience it’s not even loud enough to be heard in the living room above me.
 
I make for the stairs and head up, skipping over all the places where they squeak and creak. At the top, I crack the door open and peer around. When I don’t see anyone, I open it all the way.
 
There’s dust and not much else. No one’s in sight, and I hear nothing. I don’t see any footprints in the dust here, but it’s the back end of the house, so I didn’t really expect to. As I make my way up the hall, I’m amazed at the way the floor is coated. I look back at my footprints, clearly visible. Mom would have a fit. It’s got to be the ash in the air causing this.
 
The front hall finally gives me some sign that my brother’s at least been here. His footprints are there, going to and from the door, but I don’t let it discourage me. All the footprints actually stop in front of the narrow glass panel beside the door and I can see smaller, grey handprints on the white curtain there.
 
I follow the tracks up the stairs and, to my surprise, most of them lead to our parents’ bedroom, not his. When I get to the door, I hesitate. I haven’t seen any sign of a grown up here in the house, so he’s probably alone, but what if he’s not? I know I’m letting fear take hold. I can’t afford to, not if we’re going to make it back to the shelter, but I can’t stop it.
 
I open the door and just about laugh with relief. There’s Liam, sitting in the middle of the bed with Dad’s box of mementos. It’s always been my little brother’s favorite thing and no matter how many times Dad tells him not to play with the stuff in that book-sized box, Liam goes straight for it every time he can. Only usually he’s got it spread everywhere, and this time he’s just holding it in his lap as he stares at me. There’s a bruise on his forehead, but he looks okay other than that. Except his eyes are wider than I’ve ever seen them. If he wasn’t smiling, I’d be more worried than I already am.
 
“I knew you’d come, Matty.”
 
Ugh. The nickname I hate the most. It took me forever to teach him not to call me that around anyone, not even Mom and Dad. Still, I’m so happy to see him I don’t really care this time. I cross to the foot of the bed.
 
“You can’t run off like that. We have to get back.” I try to hold off the scolding tone, but I’m failing. “What were you thinking?”
 
“I had to drop my letter to Santa off.”
 
I stare at him. “There’s no mail pick up anymore, Liam.”
 
“But Santa’s magic. He gets the letter the moment you drop it in the box.”
 
“Who told you that?”
 
He rolls his eyes at me. “Everyone knows it. All the kids at school were talking about it, how we shouldn’t let our parents take our letters, because they don’t need to.”
 
I decide not to argue with him. “Come on. We’ll talk about it when we get back to the shelter.”
 
“No! We can’t go now, Matty.”
 
Glancing at the window, I try to judge the time. It’s hard, with the windows so grimy and the sky always grey, but I’m sure the light is slipping away faster than ever. “There’s no time to argue. We have to go now. If we run, we can probably make it back in time.”
 
I reach for his arm, but he scoots back on the bed, all the way to the pillows.
 
“You’re not listening!”
 
Trying not to sigh or yell, I say, “Then tell me.”
 
“We have to wait here because Christmas isn’t over yet and Santa might still bring them.”
 
I can’t believe what he’s asking. He knows it’s dangerous outside the shelter. He’s been told that by everyone, yet he wants us to stay out here. “What did you ask for that’s so important?”
 
He looks down at the box and chews his lip, telling me I haven’t masked my irritation as much as I’d hoped to. His reply is too quiet for me to make out, even in the otherwise silent room.
 
“What was that, Liam?” I ask in the kindest voice I can manage while every instinct is screaming at me to just grab him and drag him back.
 
“Mom and Dad.”
 
I can only stare at him. Suddenly I wish I’d told him the truth, that Santa’s a myth. Instead, I’m stuck with this line of crap. “I don’t think he does that sort of thing.”
 
“But he has to. When I wrote my letter, I told him he had to bring them home, because then you’d smile again.”
 
“What?”
 
His eyes are shining now in the dim light. “You never smile anymore, and you don’t play. You’re not fun. You act like everything’s fine but it’s not. You’re sad all the time and you’re getting all grown up and I hate it, Matty. I want my brother back!”
 
I feel like someone punched me in the gut. Have I really been like that? The more I think about all the extra stuff I’ve been doing, trying to show we can pull our weight around the shelter, the worse I feel.
 
“Please, we have to stay until the day’s over. There’s food in the pantry. Remember? We didn’t take it with us. We can have a dinner that’s not beans. Our Christmas feast. Please, Matty?”
 
I look into his eyes and sit on the edge of the bed. I don’t have the heart to tell him what I really think will happen, anymore than I can bear to tell him Santa’s not real. Besides, I want to believe with him. I want to wake up in the morning and find our parents have come home. It’s a stupid idea after so many days, but I hope for it all the same.
 
With a heavy sigh, I nod and Liam throws his arms around me in the most crushing hug his little body can manage. When his grip finally eases, I grab the blanket from the end of the bed and wrap it around him. Darkness is falling anyway, so it’s too late to get back tonight. “We’ll stay until morning, then go back.”
 
“We’ll take Mom and Dad with us.”
 
He grins at me and my throat closes up for a second. I pull the comforter around us. At least he’ll still have me in the morning, and I swear to myself I’ll do better at being his brother. He deserves that much, since he can’t have his Christmas wish.
 



9 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – STEAMPUNK: My Brother’s Christmas Wedding by Bridget Shepherd

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I am so excited to be bringing you a steampunk Christmas story by the one and only Bridget Shepherd. I love steampunk, so I’ve been really excited about this one, and Bridget doesn’t disappoint. Although she usually writes sci-fi, fantasy and horror, Bridget kicks some clockwork ass in My Brother’s Christmas Wedding, so sit back and enjoy.
 


 
My Brother’s Christmas Wedding
by Bridget Shepherd
 
 
I slipped through the hive of bustling workmen rushing all manner of brass statues, figures and gears through the grand ballroom entrance without drawing more than a glance. Everyone here was fresh off the Fine Mechanical Services airship. They’d know my father and brother’s faces but not mine. Being the second son had its perks. It helped that I had dressed down in a black shirt and grey vest with matching slacks. At this time of day I should have been wearing an afternoon suit and jacket, preferably in brown or blue. Changing clothes four times a day had always seemed like a waste of time to me.

I ascended two flights of stairs and met Mrs. Mina Judson, the house staff overseer, on the mid-level balcony. My mother had asked me, without my father’s knowledge, to ensure that the decorations would be perfect for my brother’s Christmas wedding. Mina wouldn’t like this one bit. Sure enough, she wrinkled her nose when she saw me.

“Good afternoon to you too.” I smiled sardonically.

“Those mourning gloves give me the creeps, milord,” she said, staring at my hand like it might strangle her of its own accord.

“They’re not mourning gloves, Mina,” I said, though we’d been over this before. She’d been with the family since I was three and Martin five, and we were as close to friends as our stations allowed. “They’re work gloves. The black grease stains anything.”

“The Honorable Arthur St. Gale should not be wearing work gloves. On a lord, any black gloves look like mourning gloves.” She crossed herself superstitiously. “What’s milord’s fiancé going to think when she sees you in those?” She folded her arms over her well-worn mahogany corset and cream shirt.

“Good thing I haven’t got one then, isn’t it?” I grinned.

“As I heard it, you will soon enough.” It was her turn to grin.

“What in the world do you mean?” Please let her be kidding, I thought.

“Mr. Henley told me that Lord St. Gale has already drawn up a short list of suitable ladies. Lord Thornton will be married by December’s end. Milord will be married in the summer, no doubt.”

Lord Thornton was my brother Martin’s courtesy title as firstborn and heir to our father, the Earl of St. Gale and Viscount of Thornton. Mr. Henley was my father’s valet and the information was likely accurate. Me, engaged? I should have known this day was coming but it still hit me like an iron wall.

“If she doesn’t like them then she’s not the girl for me,” I managed to mumble, but the problem was so much deeper and more widespread than that. For one thing, I only felt that kind of attraction toward men. The enormity of my discontent with my lordly duties began to overwhelm me. I needed to do the one thing in my life that made sense to me. I needed to work on the machinery. “Anyway,” I said before Mina could say anything more on the subject, “mother asked me to personally oversee the installation of the mechanical decorations.” She made a face like she very much wanted to tell me that wasn’t a job for a man of my position, so I added, “You know my mother’s father dabbled in engineering and mechanics, and taught me what he knew. While you may find it unseemly, mother wants me to make sure the workmen don’t cut corners for Martin’s big day.”

“Begging Lady St. Gale’s pardon, I’m not the only one who finds it unseemly,” Mina said, “I can’t imagine them being very keen to work with you, milord. They’ll turn a cold shoulder as often as they can get away with.”

“What do you mean? Once I’ve shown them my skill shouldn’t they accept me?”

“It’s not about your skill, milord, it’s about your breeding. These workers would find me upscale while I’m decidedly middle class. The senior mechanics are upper working class and the junior mechanics and general laborers are lower. They’ll do their job because they have to put food on the table down below, but many of them resent your father and everything he stands for.”

“I’m not my father.” The venom in my voice surprised us both.

“I-I know,” she said, “I wouldn’t dare to talk about this with Lord St. Gale. Have I overstepped?”

“I’m sorry. No, I’d rather hear your thoughts.” I respected my father but on a bad day I’d call him a bloody tyrant under my breath.

“The fact is, they don’t know you, milord. Many of them have built up resentment, even rage coming from poverty down below. Many of these decorations,” she indicated the tall bronze statues and gold plated Christmas trees, “could feed their family for weeks, some even months. I’ve got a cousin down there who even I send money to when I can.”

I thought about it and frowned. “Frankly, I don’t know why we have so many expensive decorations, or a hundred sets of fine clothes for that matter. And I wish I understood large-scale economics, but I’m afraid I don’t.” I sighed.

“Milord really isn’t cut out to be a nobleman is he?” She smiled wryly.

An idea clicked into place like the last gear of a panel.

“You’re right,” I said, “that’s how I’ll do it.” I turned to leave.

“Milord?”
 
“I need to go talk to Jory. Thanks, Mina,” I said over my shoulder and trotted off.

*
 
Lucky for me, Mr. Jory Stedman, my father’s chief of security, had a soft spot for me. I explained that Mina felt my being a nobleman would get in the way of my mother’s task for me and therefore I had decided to go in disguise. I assured him that if my father found out what he was doing for me, he would blame me and not Jory. The next day Mina reluctantly introduced me to the supervising mechanic, Cole Ferris. Except I wasn’t the Honorable Arthur St. Gale anymore. I wore a mechanic’s uniform and my nametag read “Arthur Porter.”

“Mr. Ferris,” Mina said smoothly, showing no trace of the discomfort she must have been feeling, “might I introduce Arthur Porter. Here is his reference from Mr. Stedman.” She handed him a document stamped with the official wax seal. “He is a relative of Mr. Stedman who would be very much obliged if you would allow him to shadow your men. Of course, Mr. Stedman has made the arrangements for his wages. This will not deduct from your men’s existing pay in any way.”

“I won’t turn away extra help as long as he’s capable.” Ferris shrugged. “I reserve the right to show him the door if he gets in the way.”

Something passed over Mina’s features, I couldn’t be sure if she found the thought of him kicking me out unthinkably unseemly or unthinkably hilarious. Either way, she maintained her composure and said, “Of course.”

“Welcome aboard, Porter,” Ferris said and offered his gloved hand. A gentleman would have removed his glove before shaking but I appreciated not having to bother.

“Thank you, sir,” I said and gave him a firm gloved handshake. Mina must have been dying inside.

“I got Miller here shadowing me already,” Ferris said. A big gruff looking fellow behind him nodded to me, then glanced at Mina but didn’t acknowledge her. “He’s a transfer from an energy plant down below. So, you’re shadowing David Weldon.” Ferris turned to a man polishing brass figures a few feet away. “Oi, Carlson, grab that extra tool box and show Porter here to Weldon. Tell him he’s a local to shadow him. My authority.”

“Yes sir,” Carlson dropped his rag and rubbed his gloves on his pants. “How are ya?” He gave me a quick handshake. “It’s this way.” He turned to head off toward the small auditorium.

“Thank you for the introduction, Mrs. Judson,” I said to Mina.

She twitched. “You’re most welcome,” she said, swallowing the “milord.” Miller made a disgusted sound. I was beginning to think what Mina had said was true. He seemed to associate her with my father’s offices and didn’t find her worthy of thanks.

Carlson led me through the small auditorium. Despite its name, it still had space for both a dance floor and dining room seating for one hundred people. Mother had asked me to pay particular attention to this room as the groom’s banquet was to be held here next month and it was meant to be themed after Martin’s favorite Christmas decorations. I looked around furtively for estate servants who might recognize me but as I’d thought, I saw nothing but Fine Mechanical Services workmen. Relieved that my plan was not in danger of discovery, I took in the many works in progress all around the room.

On two sides men assembled eight foot tall nutcracker soldiers and mice. During dinner, a chamber orchestra would play a theme and they would spring to life and lumber across the dance floor, opening their mouths and raising their swords on cue. I knew because we’d had a much smaller set made by my grandfather which was among Martin’s favorites. Good for Mina for thinking of them.

Three giant brass Christmas trees with gold plated branches and tiers of rotating candle rings sat in various stages of completion. Elaborate flashing-candle arrays replaced the usual chandeliers. Everything was coming together nicely. I just wondered where the trains were. Martin had a fascination with trains that I didn’t think Mina would overlook for this occasion. I spotted a foot long brass train engine sticking out of a crate filled with train cars. It sat off to one side and a young man of similar age to Martin and I stood a few feet away working on an automatic meat slicer. He looked up when Carlson said “Hey, Weldon.”

The first thing I noticed about David was the warmth in his brown eyes. He shook my hand firmly as Carlson explained Arthur Porter’s situation in life.

“Great to have ya,” he said as Carlson left. “How’d ya like to get to work on setting up the punch bowl serving arm?” He said it with such enthusiasm that I smiled, knowing he shared my love for these machines.

“Would love it.”

I grinned and pulled the lid off of the labeled crate which was already on the temporary work bench. From the first piece I pulled out I saw the thing was a mess—just how I liked it. I vowed internally to get the thing working better than it had when it was new. David looked at the state of the punch bowl arm and then at me. Apparently satisfied, he got back to work securing the blades in the meat slicer. We worked in happy silence, the sounds of the fifty or so other workers providing cheerful background noise. The rusted iron in the arm’s joint began to pleasantly glide after a little spray and hammer. I recalibrated the spring loading action and had just finished applying a polish to the brass when David finished the meat slicer.

“That’s a great job ya done, Porter,” he said as we carried our machines over to the cooking appliances table. “It’s dinner time now. Would ya join us in the airship mess hall?”

“Thanks, but I’ve got other arrangements.” I wanted to go with him but I’d be missed at dinner and they weren’t getting paid any extra to feed another mouth.

“See ya tomorrow then?” He offered his hand.

We shook. “Wouldn’t miss it.”

*
 
I worked on cookware, serving ware and the odd automatic shoeshine machine the rest of November, until one day, three weeks into our time together, he asked for my help.

“Ya got a real eye for this work, Porter, maybe you can troubleshoot a little problem with me.”

“Bring it on.”

He led me over to the long neglected crate of trains.

“When I saw these trains on my list I knew I wanted them to run overhead here where Lord Thornton will be able to watch them while he’s dining. Seems trains are a favorite the lord and I share,” David said, gazing up at the ceiling like he could already see them chugging along in the air. This was the first time we’d talked about anything other than the machines. He hadn’t scoffed at my brother’s name. I wasn’t sure if that meant he didn’t hate the nobility or if he took such pride in his work that the art came first.

“That sounds like a wonderful idea,” I said. I knew Martin would love it.

“The problem is the fresco,” he said, pointing at the arches and angelic figures painted into this section of the high ceiling. “Can’t exactly drill holes in something like that.”

“Do you have any old train engines?” I asked.

“We have a few but nothing presentable for this kind of event.” David squinted at me like he was trying to read my mind about where this was going.

“That’s okay, they won’t be seen.” I grinned slyly. “Got any match-calibrated magnet boxes?” Grandfather had used them to put floating toys in our nurseries years ago.

David brightened. “If the middle attic above this room is accessible then you’re a genius.”

My face hurt from smiling so hard but I couldn’t stop. “I can get the key from Mr. Stedman.”

“Perks of knowing the local guy, eh?” He beamed at me and I realized that I liked this guy. Really, really liked this guy.

*
 
I went to Jory for the key and David went to get the magnet boxes from the airship. We met up at the door to the middle attic. It was nestled between the small auditorium and the guest rooms above. I felt like some damn kid sneaking around on Christmas night. I opened the latches, pulled a lever and the mechanical lighters brought all the wall candles to life. Boxes of summer decorations and sporting equipment were stacked two high on snaking rows of racks built up to the low ceiling.

“If these run the whole way we’re screwed,” David said.

“I haven’t been up here in years, but if I’m right, they don’t.” Everything looked so small now. The shelves were so tall when I was six years old and running amok anywhere and everywhere inside the estate walls.

We made our way through the maze of racks. As I had hoped, when we reached two thirds of the way through, the shelves ended. The rest of the room was like a ghost from my past. Illuminated by two small windows on the right, each chair, sofa and table was covered with a dusty white sheet but they were all exactly where I remembered them.

“When I was a child,” I said, “there were many live-in servants who had children. I used to play in here on rainy days.” I didn’t add that my father had forbidden me to and my mother had covered for me. My mother’s father had been possessed of some unusual views when it came to just about everything, including whether a gentleman should wear greasy work gloves from time to time, and whether or not a nobleman’s child should be allowed to associate with servant children.

“Hell’s bells, this is a common servant’s living room? Not just for the butler’s family or something?” David lifted a few sheet corners and whistled at the fine furniture.

“Is it not like this on other sky cities?”

“They call St. Gale a prize catch for an honest servant,” David said. “They say Lady St. Gale has a soft spot for her servants. Seeing this I believe it.”

Pride swelled in my chest at my mother’s kindness.

“And… none of your family or friends ever caught hell from Lord St. Gale then?” David looked at me like he wasn’t sure he should even be broaching the subject.

“I tend to fly under his radar these days,” I said wryly.

David blinked at me. “Is it not true then? Rumor is that any servant caught stealing, even food, loses a hand before he’s turned over to a jail down below. The lady’s the carrot and the lord’s the rod, they say.”

I went cold in the clammy attic. My father, have a man’s hand cut off?

“I-I don’t know anyone it’s happened to, anyway. No one talks about it.” Doubt formed a knot in my stomach.

“Sorry to ask,” David said. “Truth is, I’ve been penning a list of injustices.” He looked embarrassed. “I don’t rightly know what I’ll do with them, who I’d give them to, but I think people ought to talk about these things. The lords ought to abide by a kind of justice that’s fair. I try and get at least two people with firsthand knowledge of an injustice before I add it to the list. No sense writing up some bloody list of rumors.”

“Wow.” I was struck speechless. David Weldon, charismatic mechanic. David Weldon, man of fairness and justice. “You-You’re amazing.”

He turned beet red. “I don’t know.”

“I’d propose to you on the spot if I could,” I blurted, then flushed too.

David chuckled. “At least we could confirm whether Lord St. Gale punishes for that.”

“What would he chop off then?” I laughed.

David’s face fell.

“Wait, you’re not telling me…”

He nodded gravely. “It’s confirmed on St. Risden.”

I went pale.

“I know, no man wants to think of that, but it’s a real danger for some men,” he said quietly, and I saw then that he was like me.

“David,” I said, realizing I’d been thinking of him by his first name all along.

He caught the tone in my voice. “Then you’re..?” he asked barely above a whisper.

“Not only am I a man who loves other men, but I’m also Arthur St. Gale. The Earl’s second son. I’m a nobleman in love with mechanics. And I’m in love with you, David Weldon.”

David gaped at me and I steeled myself for rejection. I saw my mechanics career crashing and burning. It could never have lasted anyway, I thought.

But then, David kissed me.

*
 
After taking—ahem—far longer than necessary in that old middle attic, we had the magnet boxes installed in the tops of the shiny brass train sets and in the bottoms of the motley train engines. We left the latter running on a track and returned to the small auditorium with the former. Using a wooden ladder, I held up each engine until the matching engine passed by overhead and the magnet boxes zeroed in on each other. All in all we had five rings of train sets each floating along in the opposite direction of the one next to it.

“It’s perfect!” David shouted.

I grinned and almost fell off the ladder.

*
 
Mid December was upon us, and that meant David switched from fixing machines and designing displays to checking over the work that the junior mechanics had done without direct senior supervision. Not being an official Fine Mechanical Services workman, I wasn’t allowed to officially grade anyone so David gave me some homework.

A decoration’s interior would be designed and assembled in part on the airship and then matched with the gold plating and other fine pieces which belonged to and were kept here at the estate. This way the internal mechanics could actually be improved from year to year. My assignment was to compare a list of components and their respective weights with the weight that the preassembled pieces had been logged as when they were brought in for final assembly here at the estate. Of course, David expected them all to match up, this kind of comparison was only routinely done on parts made outside of Fine Mechanical Services, but since I had never performed such an examination before he considered it good practice for my future. Sweet that he thought I had a future in mechanics.

When I got to the grand Christmas tree directly behind the podium where my father would give his speech to Martin, I found a large discrepancy. I called David over.

He frowned. “You actually found something?”

“The spinning mechanism in the midsection of the tree is unaccountably heavy, look.” I pointed out the figures in the documentation.

“It must be some kind of upgrade. Maybe an extra stabilizer?”

“There’s another grand Christmas tree near the door.” I ran my thumb down the page until I found its figures. “Why upgrade only one?”

David sighed. “No dinner for us then. We’ll check it out after everyone’s left for the day.”

*
 
He went back and finished his examinations of the juniors’ work and at the end of the day when everyone had cleared out for dinner we both went hungry and opened up that sucker.

Doing so saved my father’s life. The middle spinning mechanism had been replaced with a time-bomb set to go off at the exact time my father was scheduled to be in the middle of his speech.

“My God,” I said. “What do we do?”

“Close it slowly,” David said. “And we’ll call the King’s explosive experts.”

Before I could, a slot that had read “set” flicked to a red panel that read “tamper.”

“Damnation!” David scrambled for a tool kit. The clock that had been ticking normally sped up and up, ringing in my ears.

“Have you done this before?” I asked hopefully.

He stuck a screw driver in the status slot and pulled it back to “set,” then to “off.” “Hold this,” he barked. I grabbed the handle from him and held it firm against the machine’s resistance. David sprayed an instant-dry fixative into a vent in the front of the bomb.

The ticking slowed.

And stopped.

“Oh God, thank God,” I gasped.

“Never,” he said.

“What?”

“I’ve never done that before.” He looked at me with a twitchy smile.

“Oh God.” We both laughed in hysteria.

Once we had composed ourselves, David and I closed the tree back up like nothing had happened and quietly took the matter directly to Mr. Stedman. David researched who had been assigned to that piece of the tree and it turned out to be Mitch Miller, the new guy shadowing Ferris. Somehow Miller had found out that we knew and was caught a few hours later trying to leave the city by trash barge. One of the King’s own explosives experts would be in the next morning to dispose of the device and take a sniffer dog around to check for any other explosives.

Mr. Stedman was called in to give an account to my father and, inevitably, David and I were named as his saviors and my whole charade was exposed. He called us to him separately. David would see him in his official receiving room and I would be sent into his study like the child he still considered me to be. Mother met with me in the adjoining library before I was to see him.

“He thanked your friend properly,” she told me, “your case is obviously more complicated.” She smiled sympathetically.

“Exposed because I saved his life. Good grief, the irony.” I groaned.

“What are you going to do with yourself, Arthur?” she asked, straightening my tie and tucking it back into my vest. “How are you going to have a happy future under your father’s thumb?”

“How do you have a happy life under his thumb?” I quipped.

“Your father has his problems,” she replied, “but he’s a smart enough man not to try to rule his wife the way he tries to rule his sons. Don’t worry about me, I have a happy life.”

I looked into her wise hazel eyes and believed her. “Does father chop off the hands of thieves before he sends them down below to jail?”

Her expression saddened. “Legally, he has the right. There’s nothing I can do besides try to counsel mercy.”

“And Martin? Will he continue that practice when he is Earl?”

“Oh, no. I’ve taught my boys better than that.”

Well, that was something at least. “And what would you recommend for my life then? The priesthood?” I asked somewhat feverishly.

“Why don’t you join Fine Mechanical Services?”

“Wha-” I sputtered.

“I looked it up,” she continued, smoothing the collar of my jacket. “Your father can’t disinherit you legally under the crown unless you commit a crime. Joining Fine Mechanical Services is not a crime. Just don’t tell him about your boyfriend.”

I sputtered some more and stared at her incredulously.

“I’m your mother,” she said in the same matter-of-fact tone, “I know everything.”

I shut my mouth and tried not to turn red.

“Stand up, shoulders straight.” She clapped me on the back. “Go in and face your father.”

I took a deep breath and entered my father’s study. I spoke to him frankly for the first time in my life.

*
 
Needless to say, my father was infuriated, but not enough to cancel Martin’s wedding. It helped that, as much as he considered my choice in career a wasteful embarrassment and mar on the St. Gale name, I had just saved his life. I told him not to worry about the mar. I was happy to keep the name Arthur Porter and leave my identity as Arthur St. Gale a secret until it suited me to reveal myself. Arthur St. Gale would be a target and I couldn’t put David in danger. As far as the servants of the house knew, Arthur St. Gale was going away to study business economics. And for all I knew, my father would actually pay tuition to a university to keep up the ruse. I couldn’t have cared less.

*
 
Christmas week was a wonderful success. Martin loved the trains, and the day after the groom’s banquet, he invited David and me to see him privately.

“Thank you for coming, and again for the trains.” He shook our hands, gloves off this time. “Mother’s told me everything and I wanted to tell you personally that you have my support. There are many areas where I agree with my mother rather than my father, and I hope you’ll feel more at home in St. Gale in ten or fifteen years when father’s retired and I take on the earldom.”

“Thanks, Martin,” I said and hugged him for the first time since we were kids. “I’m sorry we haven’t spent more time together as adults.”

“We’re on different paths, little brother.” He clapped me on the back, another trait he got from mother. “I’ll find a way to write to Arthur Porter, don’t worry about that.”

“I’ll count on it.”

“Lord Thornton, if I may,” David said and withdrew a folded envelope from his jacket pocket. “I took the liberty of copying you this list of injustices I have discovered in my travels around the kingdom. They are something a man of integrity like milord ought to be aware of.”

“David tries to get two firsthand witnesses before he adds anything to that list,” I added, and nodded for Martin to take it.

“Thank you for entrusting me with this list, Weldon,” Martin said solemnly as he took the envelope from David.

*
 
On Christmas Day, after the wedding and after Martin and his new bride had departed for their honeymoon on a luxury aircruiseship, David and I met in our cozy little middle attic. To our surprise, mother had furnished it like a bedroom, complete with candles and flower petals.

“She went overboard.” I rolled my eyes and blushed.

“It’s the sweetest thing I’ve ever seen,” David said, beaming.
“I should be grateful,” I said, becoming pensive. “Who knows the next time we’ll be able to safely sleep in a bed together.”

“Let’s enjoy it, worries are for the morning.” David sat down on the edge of the bed. “But before that, know this, Arthur. I love you. I’ll never tell your secrets, and you can always rely on me as a reference for your mechanical skills.”

“I love you too, David Weldon.”

***