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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.


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NEW YEAR’S EVE – HISTORICAL FICTION: The Heart of Christmas by Jessie Devine

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Today we have a story as divine as the name of the one who wrote it – Jessie Devine. He’s snarky, witty and an excellent writer, and today he delivers the warm and fuzzies in his first ever historical fiction.
 
Happy New Year!
 


 
The Heart of Christmas
by Jessie Devine
 
 
“What’s that?” Emily lost the voices of her parents in the glow of the Christmas candles, but she hears her own name. And Pierre Beauchene’s, and that can’t be good.
 
Her mother and father look at her sharply and she clears her throat, trying not to sigh against her corset. She still isn’t used to the thing.
 
“Please, excuse my interruption mother and father.” She dips her head. “What’s that you’re saying about Mister Pierre and myself?”
 
Her father blows a grunt out from under his moustache. “Pierre Beauchene has made clear his intentions to court you. He has requested your accompaniment to the Holiday Ball.”
 
Emily shakes her head wildly before she thinks. Her light brown ringlets fly about her face. “No, no. I’ll not be going.”
 
“Why, you headstrong little—”
 
“I’ll not be going!” Emily rises without asking to be excused.
 
“You will sit down, Emily Rose.”
 
Emily crosses her arms and plops back down in the ornate, high-backed chair. Her gaze returns to the Christmas tree. I wish one of those candles would set it on fire.
 
“You could do far worse than the Beauchene boy. He’s sent you quite a lovely Christmas gift. I was going to wait until tomorrow, but . . .” He waves a hand at Emily’s mother.
 
The small woman scurries off. I don’t know how she moves so fast in that corset. It makes me want to puke.
 
Emily’s father waits in awkward silence, and she refuses to look at him. In a moment, her mother returns from the parlor with a large, flat box and lifts the most beautiful purple and black ball gown from it. For just a split second, Emily reconsiders. I might go to a ball in that.
 
It is a very beautiful dress. It must have cost a fortune! Not that the Beauchenes care about that—their ladies have a dress for every day of the week.
 
The purple fabric is so shiny it reflects the candlelight. It’s trimmed with spirals of black ribbon and lace, and it will touch the floor. It might even make her look like a lady. A real lady. The dress was obviously designed for the ball, with its off-shoulder cut and deep, daring neckline. Her own proper, high-necked bodice pinches her throat.
 
But, Pierre.
 
“I’ll not accept that. I’ll not be going.”
 
Her mother lays the dress on the table. “Won’t you even try it on?” Her voice is wounded.
 
Emily studies the fabric. It would look rather nice on me. “I suppose I might try it.”
 
She follows her mother upstairs, and their maid helps her out of her dress. Emily keeps on her drawers and her whalebone corset, and her camisole.
 
“Take off your petticoat, darling. We’ve had a fancier one made for this dress.” Emily removes her petticoat and the maid hands her a black one with white, damask embroidery.
 
“A black petticoat! Whoever heard of a black petticoat?” The idea positively delights Emily as she puts it on. Then she looks down at her stockings. “Oh no!”
 
“What, dear, what is it?”
 
“I shan’t wear white evening stockings with this dress!”
 
“Well, you can’t wear black daywear, darling.”
 
“I shall need violet for the ball,” Emily decides, and then she remembers she isn’t going.
 
“Then we’ll buy violet. But for now, wear white.”
 
Emily nods and the maid pulls the gown over the corset and petticoats and steel hoops.
 
“Oh, Emily! How lovely!” Her mother takes her to the mirror.
 
The dress truly does look lovely. Her waist looks very tiny. Black satin and lace ribbons weave through the violet fabric and make a V from her navel to her shoulders. Her small breasts don’t look so small now, the tops pushed up out of the bodice as they are. Layers of black lace and violet satin spill over the bustle in the back, and large, black bows tie up the skirt’s outer layer to create cascading ruches.
 
“Come, you must show your father.”
Her mother leads her back down the stairs, Emily prancing like a princess.
 
Her father stands when he sees them. “Emily! Beautiful, just beautiful, dear. Pierre shall love it on you.”
 
Emily scowls. Her fingers toy with a lace ribbon on the side of the dress. She loves it very much. But not enough to spend the evening in Pierre Beauchene’s arms. “It’s quite beautiful, but we will send it back. I’ll not be going.”
 
“You will be going.”
 
Emily’s voice rises. “I can’t, father, I can’t.”
 
“Mind your manners, Emily!” her mother crows.
 
Her father slams his fist on the table. “What is so wrong with Pierre Beauchene? He’s a good boy from a good family!”
 
Tears are on the verge of spilling onto Emily’s face. “He’s—he’s a pompous ass!”
 
Her mother’s hand flies to her chest like she might faint. “I never! Wherever did you learn that sort of language?”
 
Emily rolls her eyes and sniffs. “Where else? Father called Henry Sivault that just a day ago.”
 
Her father glances at the table and shrugs. “Henry Sivault is a—”
 
“George!”
 
“Emily, that language is inappropriate for a lady. And Pierre’s family spent a great deal on this dress, to send it to you as a Christmas gift. The least you can do is attend the ball with him,” her father says.
 
“Maybe I’m sick of being a lady. I’m sick of Pierre’s rich family, and I’m sick of expensive Christmas gifts, I’m sick of the Holiday Ball! I’ll not be going!”
 
Her mother and father look at one another, and her father sighs. Emily fills with dread. There should be rage at that outburst, not sighing.
 
“We understand your feelings. But Christmas is about making an impression. The Beauchene family is one step down from French nobility. You must attend the ball with Pierre so the world may see you at his side in expensive fashion, and we may benefit from it. It is the same reason you shall marry him when the time comes. Do you understand?”
 
“What?” Emily demands. “I’ve not—”
 
Her father cuts her off. “It’s already been decided. Do you understand?”
 
The tears run down her face now. The corset, which is always too tight, now feels like it’s trying to suffocate her. She runs down the hall, past the study and the parlor, and out the front door.
She throws herself against the rail, sobbing. The back of her mind tells her it’s highly inappropriate for her to make such a display in public. But it’s dark. It’s night, and it’s freezing. It’s unlikely anyone will see her, and she can’t be in the house with her parents. Not now.
 
How could they do this? How? They know Emily doesn’t care for the Beauchenes. Not enough to attend a ball with him, and certainly not enough to marry him. “I can’t . . .” she whines to the empty porch.
 
“Hey there, miss. Are you alright?”
 
Emily jumps back from the rail. A boy a year or so older than her, perhaps seventeen, stands on the sidewalk. He looks the rough sort. The ends of his sleeves are dirty and the bottoms of his trousers are ragged. He wears shabby bowler hat slightly off-kilter.
 
Emily sniffs. “No. I’m not alright. I’m about to go to a ball tomorrow in this awful dress and marry a boy I don’t even like.”
 
He shrugs. “It seems an awful nice dress to me. You like beautiful, you do.”
 
Emily blushes. She knows she doesn’t look beautiful with her eyes puffed and red with snot in her nose from crying. But she curtsies, because it’s polite. “Thank you, Mister . . .”
 
“Aw, my name’s Michael. Ain’t no mister about it.”
 
“Mister Michael.” She walks right down the stairs to him and curtsies again. “Thank you for your compliment.”
 
He doffs his hat to her, and then he looks at the ground. “You don’t have any food, do you?”
 
Emily tips her head to the side. “Food?”
 
“I’m only looking for some food for my brother and mother. I thought I’d give them a right Christmas this year, but ain’t got nothing for it.” He looks awfully embarrassed.
 
“Oh, I don’t have any right now.” She touches the dress as if she’s searching for pockets. “There’s no room in this bloody corset.”
 
Michael laughs. She likes his laugh. “Never heard a lady say bloody before.”
 
Emily giggles. “I’ve never said it before, either. Just, hold on a moment. I’ll get something from the kitchen.” She turns to go back up the stairs just as the front door opens.
 
Her mother gasps. “Emily! Get away from that urchin!”
 
“But, don’t we have a bit of bread we can spare for his Christmas dinner? He has none.”
 
“No! George! Emily, you get inside this instant.”
 
“But, mother—”
 
“We don’t associate with that sort of riffraff. George! George!”
 
“I best be going, Miss Emily. I don’t want to get you in trouble,” Michael says. His face is turning crimson, and it stabs Emily’s heart.
 
“No, just wait.”
 
Emily’s father stands in the arched doorway next to her mother and points at the ground at his feet. “Come here, now, Emily.”
 
“I will right when you get him some food for his family for Christmas.” She laces his hand with Michael’s. He looks at her in utter shock, and she holds on tighter so he can’t get away.
 
Her father looks around the deserted street in horror like someone will see them. “You get inside this instant before you get a whipping,” he hisses.
 
Emily blinks. She hasn’t had a whipping in years. It’s just not appropriate now that she’s “a lady.” At least, that’s what they keep telling her. But here her father is, threatening her right on the front porch for anyone to hear.
 
And why? Rage hotter than any she’s ever felt swells in her chest, and her disgust with her world solidifies in that moment. “You are awful!” she cries.
 
Her father marches down the stairs, and Emily’s eyes fly wide.
 
“Run! Michael, run!” Hand still locked with his, she barrels down the street away from her father.
 
“Where are we going?” Michael shouts.
 
“I don’t know! Somewhere they won’t find me!”
 
They race hand in hand down the sidewalk and turn left onto a street harboring mostly shops. Michael pulls her into an alley between buildings, and they crouch behind some rickety stairs to the back door of a pastry shop.
 
Breathing heavily, Emily glances at the ground. Her dress is muddied and her kid slippers are totally destroyed from the run, delicate as they are. She bites back her laughter as her father grumbles past their hiding place.
 
A minute later, he hasn’t walked back past.
 
“Now where?” Emily whispers.
 
“Shouldn’t I take you home?” Michael asks.
 
“No, no, not in a million years.”
 
“But, won’t they have the police out searching for you?”
 
Emily looks up into his gray eyes. “Ha! My parents would never alert the police. They’d be too embarrassed. Don’t worry; I’m not going to get you in trouble.”
 
He glances at her face. “I’m not worried about me being in trouble. I’m always in some sort of trouble.”
 
Emily scowls. “I’m always in trouble too.”
 
Michael sighs. “It’s Christmas Eve. Don’t you have nobles to entertain and food to eat and gifts to receive?”
 
She grunts and plops back on her bottom, right into the slushy mud. “I’d rather not.” She urges all the disgust she has into those three polite words. Then a different worry jerks her eyes back to his. “Do you not want me here, Mister Michael?”
 
“No! That’s not at all what I meant.”
 
“Then what is it?”
 
He shrugs and stares straight at the ground. “You’re so pretty, and kind like a little angel.” His eyes meet her sparkling blue ones and touch the ringlets around her face. “And it’s my fault you’re out here; it’s my fault you’re in trouble, and it’s my fault you’re going to miss all the feasts and fancy things.”
 
Emily shakes her head. “Michael, Christmas isn’t about fancy things.” She takes his hand and holds it right against her chest. “It’s about this.”
 
He closes his eyes and feels her heartbeat against his palm and smiles. Then he jerks his hand back like he’s offended her bare skin by touching it. “Are you sure?”
 
She cuffs his ear and laughs. “I’m sure.” She stands up, the tattered ends of her purple-and-black skirts brushing the ground. “Let’s find something for you to eat.”
 



2 DAYS TIL NEW YEAR’S DAY – SPACE OPERA: Contact Made, Contact Lost by J. C. Michael

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On the day before New Year’s Eve we’re visiting outer space in J. C. Michael’s Space Opera short short story. This is a far cry from his usual genre, horror, but he pulls it off admirably.
 


 
Contact Made, Contact Lost
by J. C. Michael
 
No MegaHD. No three dimensional holography. No TrueSound. It was an old fashioned image, barely four days old. A flickering picture distorted by static, hypnotic and beguiling. As the man watched the child in the picture he felt a longing which crushed his heart. He wished with every fibre of his body and soul to be able to touch the young boy, to hold him close, to smell his soft golden hair, to fall asleep in each others arms. The wait for the recording to arrive had been torturous, but it was here now. Nothing else mattered, he would watch it, and watch it again. The silent child opening his presents. The smiles. The hugs from his mother. It was a scene of domestic, Earthside, bliss, marred by the absence of one thing. A character who should have been central to the scene. A father. Him.
 
​“Captain, are you ready?”
 
​The voice barely registered. The Captain couldn’t even have said who had spoken despite knowing every member of his 55 man crew better than members of his own family. Better than the child who held his attention captive, and refused to let go.
 
​“Captain?”
 
​An explosion shook the whole ship and the image almost vanished, yet it held, as did the spell it had cast over its viewer.
 
​“We need to go Captain, now.”
 
​It was a pointless comment. The Captain would go down with his ship. Yet not out of duty, but out of an acceptance of the futility of leaving. An acceptance which had caused him to shut down and be left with a single point of focus. The son he had never seen. The now eight year old boy he’d left behind whilst still cocooned in the comfort of his mother’s womb.
 
​The escape shuttle was half out of the launch bay when another explosion hit the I.S.S Trafford, the pride of the deep space exploratory fleet, and it crashed into the exit doors killing everyone on board. The Captain continued to stare at the screen as his bridge broke up around him, his transition from life to death passing him by and leaving him as the ghostly master of a spectral ship doomed to forever drift through space as Intergalactic War raged about it. History would remember Captain Ronald Christian as the man who woke the enemy. The man who led the fleet into what had been viewed as empty space, but which had housed a warlike race previously unaware of mankind, and for which the first response was attack. One day his son would enter that war, and exit it a hero.
 



3 DAYS ‘TIL NEW YEAR’S DAY – SLASHER: Vixen by Mina Vaughn

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As we get closer to the new year, I give you a story that’s a little on the racy side. Mina Vaughn has written you all a slasher – and I wonder if you’ll be able to tell which genre she usually writes…
 


 
Vixen
by Mina Vaughn
 
When I awoke, eyes swollen and chin itchy from dried blood cracking as I moved, all I could see was a faint red light. Fear sunk in my stomach like that doughnut in the office that you didn’t really want, then regretted after you wolfed it down almost whole. I blinked, realizing I wasn’t in my office. Not really. This place was my just my second job.
 
And there was nothing office-like about it, I thought with a smirk, eyeing the festively adorned walls.
 
“Vixen,” a voice hissed, snapping me back into reality. My hand moved to wipe my bangs out of my eyes, but it remained immobile.
 
Shit.
 
I glanced down and saw that I was tied to a chair. Ironic. Around my neck was a sign that read, Vixen.
 
He wasn’t wrong.
 
The man, apparently the source of the red light, walked from the bar’s doorway and out of the shadows. Toward me. I saw the glint of silver in his hand and no longer questioned my situation. He was most definitely the serial killer I had heard about on tv. The one who went after strippers.
 
“You got the wrong gal,” I said drily, wishing for swig of scotch to rinse out the coppery taste of my own blood. And to dull the ache I knew would take days to fade. “I’m no stripper.”
 
“Something tells me you’re lying,” he hissed. “And that something’s your little leather bikini.”
 
I glanced down. Right. That.
As the man came into full view, I unsuccessfully stifled a laugh, letting it slip from the corners of my sore, puffy mouth. “Seriously? The red nose?”
 
Mister Serial Killer was wearing a reindeer headband and a light-up nose. Now if only his knife was part of the joke.
 
“Dancer, Prancer, Cupid,” he seethed with each step toward me. “Ever notice how all those who mocked Rudolph sounded like stripper names?”
 
My mouth fell open and I felt a few flakes of blood drop into my cleavage. “You can’t be serious.”
 
The angry, ugly reindeer man with the knife lunged toward me. “Do I look serious?” His eyes flashed and he gnashed his yellow teeth at me.
 
“Of course you don’t look serious,” I deadpanned. “You’re wearing a light-up nose.”
 
His grimace faltered and he slashed his sharp santoku (I’ve taken my share of cooking classes, ok?) at me. “Slut. You’ll pay soon. Have fun dancing in your grave.”
 
I wiggled in the restraints for a second and realized he was an amateur. “Buddy, look around you. Does this look like any strip club you’ve ever been to?”
 
His beady eyes flicked along the room’s black walls—mistletoe wrapped floggers, a candy-cane striped riding crop, and an assortment of adorable paddles with festive holiday sayings on them. Naughty and Nice were my personal favorites.
 
“What the hell is this place?” he asked to himself, to me, to the Christmas tree adorned with ball-gag ornaments.
 
I had thrown him off, good. So far three strippers’s bodies had been left in their clubs in the last three days. If the news had known he was wearing a fucking Rudolph suit and calling the dancers by reindeer names, the story would be national news.
 
I’d survive to tell them.
 
We thought we had nothing to fear, here. In fact, I was the one who told the bouncers and security to go home early to be with their families. They knew I could take care of myself. Hell, I beat their asses on more than one occasion. And they loved it.
 
“It’s a kink club. Now, be a good reindeer and dash away, y’all.”
 
He lowered in front of me, and I smelled his rotten breath in my face. I didn’t flinch. “Confident little whore.”
 
This guy didn’t know he was digging his own grave.
 
“I’m not a whore,” I whispered.
 
He leaned in closer, unable to hear my quiet statement.
 
“I’m a Domme.”
 
I contracted the muscles in my arms and sure enough, the ropes slid off my torso in a split second. His method was amateur, as I had noted before. Mine, however, was flawless. As soon as my hands were free, I grabbed his head and brought it down onto my knee, eyeball flush with my kneecap. I heaved his weight off me with my arms and bound feet as he slid across the floor.
 
I freed my feet before attempting the knots that held my thighs down. I knew I could do serious damage without even standing up as long as he rushed me again. Which, after swiping at his knife, he predictably did. Dumb oaf. Reindeer were never known to be intelligent animals, right?
 
I skittered the chair backward a few steps, then right as he lunged at me with his knife, I swung my newly-freed stillettoed heel up to make contact with his throat. I heard a sick gurgle and an angry roar as he sunk down to the floor. I had managed to get the last of the ropes off my legs and now the chair and the bindings were mine, as they should be.
 
I dragged his mothball-smelling body to the chair and he protested weakly. I could see he was bleeding heavily, but he’d make it. Unfortunately. Using the skills I had honed over the years, I tied him to the chair with tight precision. I threw in a little pain, too, pinning his hands behind him in reverse prayer.
 
Pray for those girls you killed, you sick fuck.
 
His eyes lolled in his head, watching me as I finished immobilizing him in my web. Not to devour, as I am wont to do, but to hand him over, red nose and all, to the authorities.
 
“Aren’t you going to spank me?” he asked, eyes hazy with bloodloss and a new, confused sort of lust. I knew his type, the misogynist who thought women were weak and dirty.
 
I was just dirty.
 
“I could take something off the wall here and beat you until you were tenderized like a sirloin,” I said, picking his knife off the floor, measuring his gaze. I pulled the ball from his nose and shoved it in his mouth, like an apple in the mouth of a slaughtered pig.
 
I promptly picked up the phone behind the bar and dialed 911 with the tip of his knife.
 
“I’ll leave the spanking to your new prison friends. I think they’ll do a little more than laugh and call you names, though. You won’t like their reindeer games.”
 



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.”