Tag Archives: short story

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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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.
 



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!
 



7 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – in the style of GREEK MYTHOLOGY: The Christmas Scroll by Rob Kristoffersen

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There are only seven days until Christmas, so in honour of such an occasion, today Rob Kristoffersen unfolds a scroll of Herculean proportions (see what I did there?) What better way to ring in the final week ’til Christmas than with an Odysseus-esque tale?
 
(This made me giggle a tad. In a good way.)
 


 
The Christmas Scroll
by Rob Kristoffersen
 
 
“Today the Christ birth is celebrated with the arrival
of the preternatural being and the human.
The magi gifted domain to celebrate His birth,
man feasts with Behemoth and expels Satan’s hand
on the good earth.”

 
– Romanos the Melodist… probably

 
 
No one ever expected that one of the codices found at Nag Hammadi, Egypt, would have ended up in the hands of Carl Gustav Jung, but it did.
 
Two brothers, literally digging for shit (fertilizer), unearthed a library near the Jabal al-Ṭārif caves containing numerous codices (leather bound books). At first, they tried selling them, splitting them up to maximize profits. They got uneasy; they started to burn them.
 
The only one to get out of Egypt was purchased by a Belgian antiques dealer. After numerous failed attempts to sell the manuscript, it was acquired by the Carl Gustav Jung institute in 1951 and remained among their collection even after Jung’s death in 1961. When it was finally returned to its homeland in 1975, scholars dubbed it the Jung Codex, the first in the series. They also noticed that there were pages missing.
 
A debate raged for decades as to the whereabouts of those missing pages, and until recently, they remained hidden.
The funny thing about grave robbers: nothing remains in their hands for long. It’s a cut throat world and the past can only remain hidden for so long.
 
This is the Christmas Scroll, so named for its rolled nature, most likely done by Jung himself. It’s in Coptic, most likely translated from Greek. It’s author is unknown, and as a Gnostic work, it’s largely ignored by the Christian community.
 
In the time of Christ’s resurrection; when the thirty year old martyr appeared before His disciples and fulfilled His promises, He left the Earth. His physical presence dispersed, but continued working through the miracles of humanity, most notably, the conversion of Paul of Tarsus on the road to Damascus.
 
After He made John the Revelator, Jesus took the rare creatures from the Earth.
 
Mankind saw turmoil. Those who aligned themselves with the Christ figure were crucified like He was. Nero’s particular form of cruelty could be heard by violin, and it sounded like burning. Nero would fade; Rome would see the rise of Christ.
 
During Man’s time, the demons no longer walked among men, trying to steal their souls. The angels watched, but from a distance. For 300 years, man progressed. He became closer to God and closer to the Earth, until the demon Krampus walked the earth. Satan created him and sent him every December, his month of choosing being a mockery of Christ’s birth in the spring time. Krampus was of large stature; tall, with a large set of horns on his head, a tongue that jutted from his mouth often. His legs and ears resembled a goats, and he was completely covered in white fur. The legend of Yeti in the high Himalayan hills were attributed to him, as his loud roars would echo off the mountain tops.
 
Krampus would emerge on December 5th with a basket hanging over his back, walking the town of Myra in Lycia. He would take three children every year and violently shove them into his basket. He would feast on the flesh and sins of mankind to sustain himself for another year.
 
God saw this and devised a plan. He would send a human, but not Jesus; his time was over, though his second coming is foretold. God sent Nikolaos of Bari, one of the signers of the Nicene Creed at the First Council of Nicea and Bishop of Myra. God granted powers of the Divine unto him. He would urge everyone to remain indoors on the 5th day of December, and to leave a pair of shoes outside all their doors. When Krampus was defeated, he would leave coins in everyone’s shoes as a sign of the peace to come.
 
Nikolaos would walk with an empty scabbard at his side, and a rod in his hand. His robe shone red against the night sky as a beacon of hope. Krampus would walk the streets of Myra and Nikolaos would meet him. They would battle each other with the powers they were granted, and good would always win.
 
Of the powers granted to Nikolaos, the greatest was love. To Krampus love was like the sharpest sword against the fairest skin. Krampus would leave the Earth every year in defeat and would leave it forever in Nikolaos’ final year.
 
When Krampus had taken his final steps from the good Earth, Nikolaos would walk from house to house, placing the coins in every shoe. When the citizens of Myra heard the sound of coin hitting shoe, they would emerge, one by one from their homes.
 
On the 6th day of December, there would be a feast. Nikolaos would call forth Behemoth, for he carried the feast in his mouth. Together, Myra would partake. When the feast was over, a great rumbling would come from the sea. Leviathan would emerge from the sea and a great fish rode his back. When that fish touched land, he would take human form, and the great Monk Fish would lead the people of Myra in prayer. When the prayers were lead, and the Monk Fish was finished, he would return to the sea on the back of Leviathan; Behemoth would return to the ground. Man would find peace for another year.
 



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.”

***
 



10 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – ROMANTIC COMEDY: Cherry Pie by Meghan Schuler

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People, today I bring you something truly special. Meghan Schuler – writer of horror and mystery – has created a ROM COM for your reading pleasure. A ROMANTIC COMEDY. AND THERE’S MUSIC. This, Meghan informs me, is the second song Emmy dances to.
 
(She hated me for this, by the way. You’re welcome.)
 


 
Cherry Pie
by Meghan Schuler
 
 
“You did what?” Livy asked, her mouth hanging open. I blushed and turned away, my face hot. I hated blushing. I always looked like a lobster and every time I thought I was over the blush, I’d just blush more.
 
She pushed my shoulder when I didn’t answer and I buried my face in my coffee.
 
“I don’t believe it. That’s so unlike you!”
 
“I wanted to surprise him,” I muttered, the coffee scorching my tongue. Great, so I’d look like a lobster and not be able to taste food for a week.
 
“Oh, he’ll be surprised all right,” Livy said, sitting back in her chair. She shook her head at me, grinning in disbelief. “Is this after your big dinner?”
 
“It’s not a big dinner,” I said, probably for the millionth time. Just because Connor and I have been dating for a year doesn’t make it a big dinner.”
 
“Um, Emmy? Yeah, it does. This is your first serious relationship. You two were made for each other!”
 
I pulled my cup away from my face, looking at Livy with uncertainty. “Are you sure?”
 
She rolled her eyes, tossing her stick-straight brown hair over her shoulder.
 
“Seriously? You met at a bookstore. You both like reading. And the History Channel. And… whatever else you bookworms do. Look, he’s got a good job, he’s a nice guy, he’s got that nerd-cute thing working for him. You’re set, sweetie pie.”
 
I dropped my elbow onto the table and my chin into my hand. “What if he hates it?”
 
“Laugh it off! Have you two even—“
 
“Livy!” I hissed, the blush returning.
 
“Well?”
 
I pushed back from the table and slumped. “I mean… yeah. I guess.”
 
“You guess? You have or you haven’t.”
 
“Yes. But then we agreed to not get each other gifts, and now I feel awkward,” I said, blowing a lank strand of hair out of my face.
 
“I doubt he’ll be getting you the same thing this year,” Livy said, smirking.
 
“I hate Christmas.”
 
“Oh, you do not. Come with me. We’ll getcha something nice picked out for your dinner.”
 
I let Livy pull me out of my chair, scooping up my coffee cup with my free hand. I hadn’t bothered unbuttoning my coat and I was warm as the cold wind greeted us at the door. I might not hate Christmas, but I did hate snow. As we crunched our way into the shops, thoughts of last Christmas flooded back to me, the awful music and the first time I’d met Connor.
 
I had just jabbed the speaker in the ceiling with a broom to turn the slow, irritating “classic” of ‘Frosty the Personified Snowman” off. I missed and punched a hole in the tile. A throat cleared behind me and I jerked the broom down, sending a shower of white dust down on the man below. I scrambled down the ladder.
 
“I am so sorry,” I said, hands twitching uselessly. I wanted to brush the dust off, but thought it’d be too invasive. The guy took care of it.
 
“I’m looking for the classic literature section. I think I keep getting turned around,” he said, pushing his glasses back on his nose.
 
He was only a few inches taller than I was, with short sandy-blonde hair, thick squared glasses, and a lop-sided grin. I thought I was going to melt into a puddle at his feet.
 
I managed to nod, cursing myself as I turned away from him. Get it together, Emmy.
 
“Um, it’s right over here. We’re rearranging for the holiday season and it just got a bit out of hand,” I stammered. “Was there a particular book you were looking for?”
 
“Sense and Sensibility.”
 
“Oh, really?” I asked, unable to keep the surprise out of my voice. He just blinked.
 
“Yes, for my Austen class. It’s not that I don’t have it, it’s just that my copy is basically a mess of sticky notes and annotations. It’s a bit difficult to read like that.”
 
“Here’s the classic. And your Austen,” I said, pulling the book off the shelf.
 
“Actually, I’m Connor,” he said, laughing. He held out his hand.
 
I handed him the book and immediately looked away. I really was about to melt.
 
“Emmy,” I said. Of all things, I bobbed a curtsey. It was all I could do to keep a straight face.
 
Connor just laughed again, taking the book. “Thank you.”
 
“Was there anything else?”
 
“No, this is it. Is the register at the front?”
 
“Yeah, follow me,” I said, still not looking at him as I walked back to my counter.
 
He stayed behind me, picking his way around stacks of books, the soft soles of his shoes whispering along the carpet.
 
“It’s quiet in here. Are you the only one working tonight?”
 
“I’m the only one ever working. It’s my book shop,” I answered, stepping up to the till.
 
Connor’s brows were raised. He was impressed. I couldn’t hide the little grin that hung on my lips.
 
“What do I owe you?”
 
“Nothing. Take it.”
 
“I can’t just take it,” he said.
 
“Yes, you can. I won’t take your money.”
 
“How about coffee then? Let me buy you a drink.”
 
And that was that. We’d spent just about every day of the last year together, in person or on the phone. I smiled just thinking about it, ignoring Livy’s tug at my arm was she pulled me into a store.
 
Livy shoved something at me, spun me around and pushed me into a curtain before I realized it wasn’t a curtain, but the fitting room.
 
“Hey, wait, what?” I stammered, tripping into the small chair in the room.
 
“Put it on. Where’s Connor taking you anyway?”
 
“Nowhere you’d ever go,” I answered.
 
“Ugh, upscale or lowbrow?”
 
“Middle of the road? It’s a cafe.”
 
Livy huffed. “Can we agree on a nice dress?”
 
“Are you kidding? It’s freezing!”
 
“Tights, Emmy. That’s what tights are for. And cute coat,” she said.
 
I looked at the dress. It was orange.
 
“I hate orange, Livy.” I thrust the dress out at her and she took it, shoving another hanger into my hands.
 
“Get some color, Em. You’re not an octogenarian.”
 
“I like black, okay!”
 
“Take the dress, Em.”
 
I did, the fabric rustling past the curtain. It was a short wine-colored cocktail dress, small beads and crystals running along the neckline and down the skirt.
 
“Holy hell, Livy, I can’t afford this!”
 
“My treat. I don’t know about you, but I want Connor’s eyes to pop out of his head when he sees you.”
 
“He’ll see me, all right,” I muttered, slipping the dress on. The burgundy fabric tumbled over me and swished at my feet. It fit like a dream.
 
As if on cue, Livy batted the curtain away. I spun in surprise, the dress flowing out as I turned.
 
“Damn, Emmy, that dress was made for you!” she exclaimed, motioning for me to spin for her.
 
I did, trying to avoid my own eyes in the mirror.
 
“This is too much,” I began, but Livy cocked a hip and silenced my argument.
 
“It’s perfect. We’re buying it. You’ll wear it if I have to come over and dress you myself. Actually, I am coming over to dress you myself,” she declared, snapping the curtain back into place.
 
I let the gown slide off my shoulders into a ridiculously expensive puddle, pulling on my clothes and my wool pea coat. I handed Livy the dress, avoiding her eyes.
 
“What? Don’t you like it?” she asked, draping the dress over one arm and hooking mine with the other.
 
“I do like it. It’s just… not me,” I said.
 
“I saw your face light up, Emmy. Besides, you wanna talk about things that ‘aren’t you?’” She smirked at me and the flush returned. Livy paid for the dress, gave me the bag, then shoved me back out into the snow. As she said, we had work to do.
 
###
 
Connor beamed at me when I opened the door. I smiled back, sheepish. Livy was hiding in my bathroom. She’d spent three hours curling, twisting, pinning and painting me, and the end result wasn’t as terrible as I’d feared. There was no way my hair would stay this perfect once I walked out the door, but my pale pink lipstick and jet black eyeliner had me feeling more confident that I’d had in years.
 
“You look amazing,” Connor said, giving me a soft kiss on the cheek.
 
“You look dashing as well,” I answered. I straightened his tie. What were couples supposed to do when presenting themselves all dressed up?
 
He offered me his arm and I took it, grabbing my bag off the couch. As soon as the door to my apartment closed, I heard Livy leave her hiding place. Call me crazy, but I’m positive the crashing and thumbing meant she was doing her happy dance.
 
The restaurant was warm and rich with the scent of spices and sweets. Icicle lights hung from every window and jazzy swing versions of carols played softly beneath the whisper of voices. Connor pulled my chair out for me and I pressed the backs of my knees against it, a flutter of worry coming over me as I practiced for what I was going to do in a few short hours.
 
I hadn’t realized Connor had been talking to me and I snapped my attention to him, a stupid grin on my face.
 
“You didn’t hear a word I said, did you?” he asked.
 
“No, sorry. I’m just a little nervous.”
 
He wrinkled his brow, hiding a smile. “Why?”
 
“I’ve never done this couple thing before and Livy talked up the fact that it’s our anniversary, and there’s all this Christmas stuff going on and—“
 
“Emmy, you have nothing to worry about,” he said, reaching across the table to take my hand.
 
I let out my breath in a huff, trying to relax. “I’m not used to this.”
 
“We’ll learn together. Now, do you want to hear my news?”
 
I nodded.
 
“I’m graduating early. I’m officially a professor,” he said, beaming.
 
My smile mirrored his. “Really? Connor, that’s wonderful!”
 
“No more thesis papers, no more courses, and lots more time with you,” he said. The nervous flutter returned, joined by a warmth that took the edge off a bit.
 
“I know we said we wouldn’t exchange gifts this year, but I did get you something,” he said, a blush creeping up his neck. He reached into his coat and pulled out a thin box, wrapped in red paper. He pushed it across to me and nodded.
 
I tore open the paper, the velvet box inside as black as my dress. A silver bracelet rested on the white cushion, “My heart is and always will be yours” engraved in script.
 
“Sense and Sensibility,” I said.
 
“I thought it fitting. You remind me a lot of Elinor.”
 
I blushed. Elinor, the practical, logical one. After tonight, I might be slated for Maryanne.
 
Dinner didn’t last long because soon the meal was over, the time flown by with talk of school, and life, and our future—together—and I swear I turned green, the flutter now a fully-fledged dragon tearing at my resolve. It didn’t help that when we’d stepped back into my apartment, a metal folding chair was set up in my living room.
 
I muttered an excuse and flew into my bedroom, only to find my outfit laid out for me with a cheeky note from Livy. I took off my dress, staring at the red robe and stockings on my bed, then at the pajamas on my chair.
That damn red robe fit like a glove. I leaned over my vanity, staring at myself in the mirror. I could do this. Connor and I had agreed not to exchange gifts, but it didn’t count if I was the present. He’d get to unwrap me. When you’re the only naked woman in the room, you’re the only naked woman in the room. It’s not like we hadn’t seen each other naked before. I’d closed the bedroom door before I’d even realized I’d left.
 
Connor was sitting on the couch, his attention transferring to me as I drew the red feathered boa off the table and wrapped it around my arms. I arched a brow at him and turned the music on, Go to Sleep Little Baby drifting over the room.
 
I marched forward, toe to heel, swaying my hips with my steps. So far, so good. I wasn’t on my ass on the floor. I could do this. The heels clicked on the tile, the sound of my stomp loud in the kitchen. I let the boa fall, looking over my shoulder as I turned. I turned back, bringing the boa over my head, then running it across my body, my hips swinging in time to the music. I traced a line from my ankle up, trying to keep my eyes locked on Connor.
 
I couldn’t tell if he wanted to laugh, and I turned my head, flinging on end of the feather boa over my head to catch it in my other hand. My heels clicked as I shimmied, the odd sensation of various body parts jiggling renewing my self-consciousness.
 
It’s all about confidence, I reminded myself, wrapping my leg over the boa, the feathers ghosting across my skin and I dragged it up and around my neck, giving it a sassy flick as the verse ended.
 
The feathers stuck to my lipgloss as it wrapped it from my neck, setting it on the floor. I stuck my butt out and came up, squishing the boobs together for extra cleavage, my hands untying the robe. I rolled my shoulders and let it slide off, kicking it away. The over bust corset was striped like a candy cane, my bloomers red and frilly and the garter holding up my white stockings. The first part was easy. The next part would test my resolve.
 
Connor’s eyes grew wide and his mouth opened as if to speak, but I turned away. Unpinning my hair, I let the curls Livy had worked so hard to craft fall to my shoulders. The next song, the song the chair was for, was much much dirtier. The guitar strums of “Swoon” propelled me to my chair, and I pressed my knees against it, sliding down to sit. Rising Appalachia crooned lyrics about chocolate sauce and marmalade, and I leaned back, my arm brushing through my hair before I bent to run it up my leg. I shifted in the chair, drawing my leg up before stepping over, planting my knee on the chair.
 
I circled my hip, movements slow, melting from step to step. I moved around the chair, my hips going wide in what my teacher had called a ‘big-ass hip circle.’ I gripped the chair behind my back and sank down, rising and stepping past it.
 
Connor was leaning back into the couch now, the same uncertain smile on his face. I hid my swallow of nerves as I turned, once again tracing a line from my ankle to my inner thigh. This next part started the train of things Emmy was definitely not comfortable with.
 
I moved my hips in a figure-eight, my hands moving up along my body to tangle in my hair before I dropped, facing Connor at an angle. I parted my legs just enough to give a good, solid hint of just how this whole thing might end. I planted my foot on the chair, drawing it in.
 
My hand ran up my ankle toward my inner thigh before I straddled it. My nerves flared, but I did the chest circles on beat, preparing to twist my legs to the side and straddle the chair backward. The chair rocked, my butt sliding off the edge. I hooked my legs over the back, the chair tipping as I tried to rebalance. I was glad Connor was behind. I’m sure my expression was hilarious, my eyes wide as I feared I’d topple over. I gripped the sides of the chair and leaned back, my legs in the air. My curls caught under my back and I shook my head to free them.
 
I scissored my legs. Almost done. I could do this. I parted my legs, spread-eagle and scooted up, using the back of the chair as leverage. I turned back and planted my hand on the tile, cartwheeling my legs over.
 
Sit up gracefully, Emmy.
 
I pushed off, and the chair shot out from under me, depositing me awkwardly on the floor. Mortification came over me and I tried to school my features, but it was too late. Connor sat forward, and I had to diffuse the situation before it all went to hell.
I popped the stays on my corset. Gratuitous boobs solved everything. I hoped to whatever burlesque goddesses there were that my peppermint pasties had stayed on. I leaned back on my arm, the other resting on the curve of my hip as the last cords faded out. Sure enough, a pop and one of the pasties flopped to the floor.
 
Connor stared at me a moment, brows knit in concern. Then a smile inched across his face and he burst into laughter. I curled up, shielding my chest with one arm and turned away, trying to hide my face. He got off the couch, crouching down beside me. He wrapped his arms around me, still laughing.
 
“Stop it,” I muttered.
 
“Why? It was amazing,” he said.
“It was not. It was supposed to be sexy and cute and I wanted to surprise you, and I messed it all up.”
 
“Emmy, it was great. You were great. And I am surprised,” he added, picking up my fallen pasty.
 
“You’re just saying that,” I said. “You’re laughing at me.”
 
“I’m not laughing at you, Em. What’s the use of being in a relationship if we can’t laugh together? I loved it, and I love you,” he said. He turned me around me kissed me, his hands tangling in my hair.
 
Connor had never said he loved me before, and I dropped my arms and wrapped them around his back, wanting to say it back my tongue was too preoccupied with other things. He was still grinning when he pulled away.
 
“Maybe you can start a weekend class at your bookshop. Bookworm Burlesque,” he suggested.
 
I shook my head, my embarrassment turning to into humor at last. “I think I’ll keep the strip tease isolated to the apartment.”
 
“In that case,” he said, fingers slipping beneath the other peppermint. He tossed it to the floor, the sparkly disk hitting the couch. “In that case, I think I can finish unwrapping this gift on my own.”
 



13 DAYS ‘TIL CHRISTMAS – HIGH FANTASY: The General by Josh Hewitt

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Merry 13 days ’til Christmas, readers! Due to a dramatic turn of events and a twist of fate, today you’ll be treated to a High Fantasy tale by none other than Josh Hewitt. This guy ran the amazing Worlds End project, and now – after much bitching – he’s put words on screen for you people once again. Hewitt usually writes literary fiction, so this was kind of like feeding peanuts to someone with a nut allergy, but not only did he not swell up and die, he wrote one amazing story. You will love this. He wrestled with the genre, wrangled it, poked a little bit of fun at it and, boy, did he stick the landing.
 


 
The General
by Josh Hewitt
 
 
The general was amazing with a knife.
 
The major watched him, that gigantic bear of a man, turn the small wooden object with one hand, while using the other to carve into it. The details the Major could see were beautiful–intricate and delicate and almost unreal all at the same time.
 
He didn’t want to stop the General–he could have stood in the General’s greatness all day and watched that man, that hero to so many poor souls, continue to put all of his focus on that small wooden trinket. He could have stood there and absorbed that moment for just a bit longer.
 
But he had a job to do.
 
“General. It’s time.”
 
The General looked at his work, showing just a faint smile, barely visible behind his large bushy beard. He then placed the object on the desk next to him and rose. He stood a good two feet taller than the Major, and a good deal heavier. He walked over and placed his thick cloak over his broad sholders.
 
“Your name is Azaral, correct?” The General’s voice bellowed out, that low growl that reminded Azaral of the sounds of the werecats howling in the light of the third moon. He nodded.
 
“Yes sir.”
 
“And, you have children. Isn’t that correct, Azaral?”
 
“Yes sir.”
 
The General smiled at him, a warm one. It was so odd to see such a look from him, Azaral thought. He had never met the General in person before this time, but he had heard the legends. He had heard the tales.
 
The greatest warrior the land had known. The one who would finally end the war. The one who would defeat the Kairn once and for all.
 
The champion the people had hungered for. Had prayed for.
 
Yet, with all the accolades, with all the stories and myths and legends that follow one such as the General, there were the other tales too. The ones Azaral would never breathe around the General, no matter how much ale he had drunk.
 
That he once slain an entire Kairn village by himself. Men, women, and children.
 
That he ate Kairn flesh.
 
That he had sold his soul to the dark lord Drammagus for invincibility in battle.
 
All those stories hit his mind, and all ran like frightened children from the light and warmth of his smile.
 
“Children are our most special treasures. They are the hope and light of the world. After old men like me have left here for the other realms, they will shape this world in ways we could never.” The General smiled and turned away.
 
“Hopefully, for the better.” he whispered.
 
Azaral saw the General reach for Nithguan, “The Northern Wind”, the largest battle axe anyone had ever seen. The enormous weapon glinted in the light of the lanterns surrounding them. Azaral could see the spells carved in the blade, letting the weapon chop through even the most enchanted armor. Nithguan was the General’s oldest companion. And there were nearly as many legends of it as there were of the General.
 
“We must do now what must be done. Though I dread to do it.” The General said, his voice low where only Azaral could hear. “Now is time for us to close this book.”
 
How long had the war gone on? Even Azaral knew that was an unanswerable question. For nobody could remember a time when they were not locked in battle with the Kairn. His grandfather, the oldest of his kin, had told him years ago remembering his grandfather talking about when his grandfather would tell of his grandfather recalling his grandfather referring to it as the “Millennial War”. But for many, many, far too many generations, it had been only known as the “Forever War”.
 
Now, on this day, it could be ending.
 
As they exited the General’s tent, he turned towards Azaral one more time.
 
“Your children? Boys?”
 
“One boy, strong. One girl.” The General smiled at Azaral’s answer.
 
“Good.”
 
Azaral knew better to ask if the General had children. It would have been a pointless question.
 
The General didn’t even have a name.
 
Azaral wondered what it had been like for him–growing up not as a child, but as a soldier. One of the “Children Of Forever”, the youth who had been born and bred from the greatest warriors and strategists they had known. Whose entire world had revolved around battle, the clash of iron and steel, the blood and flesh.
 
“Azaral, gather your men. And get the others to as well.”
 
Azaral just nodded.
 
Soon, they were all in line, ready to proceed to the death. Azaral looked at the General, surrounded by his troops. He could hear his men muttering silently under their breaths about the General’s warriors–those dark feys known only as the Nigh.
 
He felt a shiver run up his spine just thinking their names. How many times had he been told, as a child, to watch out in the dark of the forest?
 
“They’ll eat you alive, then use your skins as clothing. If you are lucky.”
 
Many, many years before they had stood with the Kairn. Nobody knew what it was that caused them to convert and follow the General. The most commonly accepted tale was that the General had killed their king, making himself their new ruler.
 
(There were other far more terrible and terrifying tales.)
 
“Today, we draw sword and axe and wood and iron to defeat our enemy,” The General spoke, his voice soft, yet each word almost broken with anticipation. “Today, we end our world, as we know it. What shall we build?”
 
“In the frozen lands of our home, in the snow, there is a saying that a village must be formed on the ashes of something else. For a new world to begin, an old world must die. Do we have it? Do we have what it takes to set ablaze our world?
 
“Can we destroy this war, this fight that we have known forever, that we have only known? Can we end it, and give our children, give our future, a fresh blanket of snow which to build? Which to shape?”
 
The General paced in front of the men, and caught their gaze. Soon, he bellowed loud, “We must! For our world! For our land! For our future! We must now strike the final blow to the Kairn. Today! Today, we start fire to destroy–for we know what will be raised again will be a better world!”
 
With his last words, he thrust his axe high, to much cheer and applause. Azaral himself felt his hand find the hilt of his blade, ready to fight.
 
Azaral saw the General’s chariot approach, eight cloven hoofed beasts pulling. In the lead was a dragon–fire leaping from his nose. Even as the sunlight cracked the darkness, the nose of the beast beamed bright as a torch. The General took his place in the chariot and held tight the reigns with one hand.
 
Zzazzn, the leader of the Nigh and the General‘s right hand fey, stood next to him on his transport. The Nigh were slight anyway, small of stature and lean of weight, but next to the General, he looked almost like a child. Azaral approached them both.
 
“Sir, we are ready.”
 
“The Nigh will fight to the death as always.” Zzazzn slithered. Azaral felt another chill just from hearing the voice.
 
“As it was meant to be.” The General held Nithguan high, and looked back at the troops.
 
“Friends, warriors, soldiers, protectors of this land and its future….TO THE NEW WORLD!”
 
With that, the General cracked the reigns, and his chariot raced off towards the Mountains of Suralim. Towards the home of the Smoke King and the Kairn.
 
The men raced with him, Azaral high on his steed, as they approached the land of their enemies. The Kairn were ready for battle that morning, sounding their horns and filling the air with a horrible sound. They were flanked by the men of Nigliman, the traitors who had sided with the Kairn. Around them were the wild beasts of the woods, the snakes and the raithelborn and the spiders and the yven.
 
Azaral looked to see their own forces, the men of the realm and the Nigh and the noble creatures of the world–lions and werecats and dragon and jeravons. They attacked the front lines of the enemy with ruthless abandon and righteous aggression.
 
Ahead of him, Azaral saw the General swing his mighty axe, lopping off head after head–with other body parts mixed in. He was more than a fighter, more than a soldier. The man who had been so patiently creating art that morning had become death incarnate. Azaral was struck by a mighty fear–a fear that all the stories he had heard, every single one of them, might actually be true.
 
“To me, Azaral!” He heard the General call after the first hour of battle. He fought and killed his way to the General’s side.
 
“You are the most skilled soldier I have ever seen.” Azaral said, while watching Zzazzn dispatch two Kairn with his small knives.
 
“I take such compliment with high regard, seeing your skill in battle.” Zzazzn hissed. “The General calls for you because of it.”
 
“We must make our way inside the stronghold, to the throne room of the Smoke King.” The General said. Azaral and Zzazzn acknowledged his command. They fought their way through the Kairn and the traitors, invading into the heart of the enemy, moving at a fast pace it was as if the winds of the east were pushing them. Finally they reached the stronghold.
 
Azaral looked around at the large wooden door that led into the darkest territory known. There were no windows, and the walls were tall and steep, with no stray mortar work to put a foot on and climb. He walked to Zzazzn.
 
“No way in. Only cracks in the door are too small for even you to fit in.”
 
“Shhh.” Zzazzn sneered. Then pointed to the door, where the General was standing, his hands folded in front of him. Azaral stood and watched as the General slid somehow stretching his body through the narrowest of cracks.
 
“By the sons of Nilioh.” he muttered once the General had gotten inside. He ran to the door and examined the crack the General had slipped through–it was less wide than his thumb.
 
He heard a loud clank, and then the snickering of Zzazzn.
 
“I suggest you move.” Zzazzn said, and Azaral scooted to the side, as the large wooden door suddenly crashed down, the chain holding it up had been split by Nithguan. The General stood, battling nearly a dozen soldiers, hewing their heads from their necks with ease. Zzazzn raced in with Azaral quickly in tow.
 
“How did he…”
 
“Nigh magik is powerful.”
 
So. He was a sorcerer too.
 
Azaral followed the General through the front guard, into the main keep. They met many foe, fighting furiously as they heard the battle rage outside. Soon, they faced the last obstacle–the notorious Razolon Guard, the most fearsome of the Kairn. They battled as they could, but it was the General who struck the final blow on most of the Guard. Soon, they walked into the final room.
 
There, sitting on his throne, was the Gray Man, the Living Ash. The Smoke King. A silver crown sat on his head, and around his neck was a long silver chain. Hanging on the chain was the gem Varlon, one of the three Simiron Stones. His hand clutched it and stroked it for a second.
 
The heat from the room was unbearable to Azaral, who loved the ice of the land and the winds that had fueled him.
 
“Smoke King! I challenge thee to end this war!” The General said, gripping Nithguan with both hands. The Smoke King chuckled.
 
“If it isn’t a Child of Forever come to challenge me.” The Smoke King cackled in a rasp, raising his sword. The flames leapt off of it. “Is this battle what you want? I know it isn’t so. You are too peaceful.”
 
“I be a man of war today, foul ruler.” The General held his gaze steady.
 
“Then, war it shall be.” The Smoke King jumped from his chair, floating across the room. The General held his hand out, signaling to Azaral and the Nigh to stay behind. They watched as the two combatants circled the room together.
 
Suddenly, the General moved as quick as a winking eye, swinging his blade at the Gray man. Nithguan flew through the King’s abdomen, which moved like a dark cloud, reforming as soon as the blade had passed.
 
“Not even your axe can harm me.” the King laughed. “And now you know your doom.”
 
The king struck out his sword, but the General easily parried it. The General laughed.
 
“Of course I knew your strength, Smoke man. I know your weakness too.” He sliced at the arm holding the sword, and watched as his axe went innocently through.
 
Then the sword hit the ground.
 
“Whatever he’s holding,” Azaral said to Zzazzn, “that part is solid.”
 
Zzazzn just nodded.
 
As the Smoke King was picking his sword back up, the General started chanting some words.
 
“What is he…” Before he could finish the sentence, Azaral watched as the Smoke King’s head flew across the room.
 
For no reason at all.
 
“What…what happened?”
 
Zzazzn smiled as the General caught the chain holding the gem Varlon with the edge of his axe while the Smoke King‘s dead body hit the ground.
 
“Time froze. Except for him. Nigh magik.”
 
“Oh.” Azaral could only reply.
 
The young king sat in his court, surrounded by his subjects. His beautiful wife on his right, on his left was the older sister who had given the throne to him, who had passed on her birthright. In his hand, he held the final Simiron Stone, ready to be reunited with his two brothers.
 
And the war that had defined his fore-fathers, and those before that, had ended.
 
The General stood before the young king, his eye on the stone the man held.
 
“For you, my warrior, my protector–there is no honor too high to bestow upon you. No treasure too priceless.”
 
“I only ask to go.” The General replied. Azaral stood there, next to his king, in wonder. The king was offering any riches, any treasure. And all he was asking for was to leave?
 
“You wish to go? Well, if that’s your reward…”
 
“No. I wish to leave here. Leave these lands. I would have you use the Simiron Stones to open the doorway to the other worlds.”
 
“The last time the doorways were open, the Kairn slipped through. This is a very dangerous boon you ask. Why do you ask it of me?”
 
“I wish to go somewhere where I do not see the blood of my fallen brothers. Where I do not hear the screams of battle. I wish to go to a new world. One where I can no longer be the General. But something…someone new.”
 
“The last time..”
 
“I know. I know what I ask. But that is my reward. I wish to leave these lands and never return.”
 
The king looked at him, wary of the request. Then he heard the snakelike sounds from the childlike darkling next to him.
 
“The Nigh wish to go with our master. We wish to go with him to the new land.”
 
Suddenly, the King’s sister spoke.
 
“I wish to go too.” The voice belonged to the King’s sister.
 
“You?”
 
“My brother, my dearest brother. I passed on the throne because I didn’t want to be queen during such a time. I didn’t want to be known as a queen of blood. Or of war. But now, I would wish to go with our General, to find something new to be a part of. If, of course, he would have me.”
 
“I would, m’lady. I would.”
 
The General walked up to the King and presented him with Nithguan. Then he looked to Azaral.
 
“For your daughter.” He held out the object he’d been carving the first moment they met. Azaral took it.
 
It was the most beautiful doll he had ever seen.
 
“She will love it, General.”
 
The ancient words were spoken, and the door opened to a new world, one of ice and snow like their homelands. The Nigh bounded through first, followed by the dragon with fire in his nose, anxious he was to follow his master. The General walked through, holding hands with the King’s Sister, the maiden.
 
When they were through and the portal had shut, the General surveyed around him. Suddenly, he heard Zzazzn speak to him.
 
“So, what will we do now?”
 
“I will do what I’ve always wanted to do.” The large man smiled. “I will make children happy. No longer shall I be known as the General. I shall be the Toymaker.”
 
“No, my love,” the King’s sister spoke. “You shall be known in this world by the tongue of our land, so we will never forget our past. No longer shall you be Varnisa Mordoni, the General. Now you will be Santa Claus.”