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Hail the New

BY TREVOR BELSHAW

“The gates are locked.”

Richard Davis, a child labourer known as Stumpy on account of the hand he lost working under the looms, checked the authenticity of the message before passing it back to the approaching workforce.

“We’re locked out. Summat’s up.”

The worrying news spread by way of a thousand whispers.

The adult employees shuffled their feet on the slush covered ground as the younger children started a game of tag to keep warm. Stumpy stood by the gates with his best friend Davy and his older brother, John. Davy suffered from a lung infection and a persistent cough, aggravated by working in the dust beneath the machines.

“What’s that big iron beast in the corner of the yard?” he wheezed. “I wasn’t there yesterday.”

Stumpy’s reply was cut short as a window opened in the gatekeeper’s office and the long face of the foreman, Granville Lurcher, appeared. “There’s to be an announcement,” he shouted.

The boys looked at each other with grim faces. Announcements usually brought bad news.

The door to the gatehouse opened and a cold silence descended on the workforce. Mill owner, Cornelius Grubhunter, walked into the courtyard, smoothed his moustache and addressed the crowd.

“Right, you lot,” he began. “There are going to be some big changes at the mill. The improvements will result in higher productivity and a better product for our customers. Some of you will be trained on the new machines. That will cost time and money, so certain economies will have to be made.”

“New machines?”

“Economies?”

The words buzzed like a swarm of bees.

Cornelius puffed out his chest and pointed to the new engine that Davy had spotted.

“Hail the new, lads and lasses,” he proclaimed. “This is PROGRESS!”

“Will progress mean layoffs?” asked Davy’s mother.

Cornelius brushed his moustache again and held up his hand for silence. When he spoke his voice was honey laced with chilli-pepper.

“The only layoffs will come from the ranks of the child labourers. But… there will be a reduction in wages for the rest of you. The new machinery has to be paid for somehow.”

“Pay cut?”

“How many children?”

Cornelius shrugged. “We’ll keep four boys to work in the boiler house.”

Panic shot through the crowd.

“Only four?”

“We can’t afford to eat without our Samuel’s wages.”

“Lucy’s wage helps pay the rent.”

Cornelius called for silence again but the crowd ignored him. Granville Lurcher stepped forward and glared at the workforce. “Silence!” he snarled.

The noise stopped abruptly. No one ever argued with Granville.

Cornelius pointed again to the black monster in the corner of the yard. “We have a team of engineers arriving this afternoon to fit this, and other new machinery. One of those machines will enable you to work without your brats getting their limbs ripped off as they crawl under the looms. For that you should be grateful.”

“But we need them to work.”

“And work they will,” said Cornelius with a saintly smile. “I have spoken to other businessmen in the area and between us we have found work for most of them.”

Davy burst into a coughing fit. Cornelius glared at him and continued.

“Some will go down the pit. There are also six sweeps willing to give work to boys small enough to climb into chimneys and there is work for all of the girls at the match factory.”

He paused to take a sheet of paper from Granville.“Bring your brats back here at eleven o’clock to face the selection panel.”

Granville strode up to the gates and held up a list of names. “The mill is now closed,” he said. “It will re-open on January 1st. A skeleton workforce of thirty men will assist the engineers. Their names are on this list along with the brats kept on. The rest of you can bugger off ‘ome.”

The crowd erupted. Insults were hurled at Cornelius.

At a signal from his employer, Granville blew a whistle. The factory doors opened and out poured a score of men, each carrying a thick stick or iron bar. The leader slapped his stick into the palm of his hand.

“Now then. Who wants to argue?”

***

At eleven, the mill children marched back and forth across the courtyard while a small group of men studied their build and agility. The sweeps chose the smallest of the boys, while the manager of the coal mine wanted the stockier children. After an hour, only two remained.

Cornelius looked around at the employers representatives. “Will no one take these two boys? They’re tougher than they look.”

“That wheezy one’s no good to us with a chest like that,” said the mine manager. “And the other only has one hand. What use is he to anyone?”

Cornelius pointed to Davy. “His cough is only a winter ailment, he’ll be fine in a day or two. The lad has the perfect build for chimney work. Who’ll have him on a wage free trial?”

“I’ll take him on those terms,” said a mean looking sweep. “But it will be three months, wage free.”

Stumpy stood forlornly by as parents signed over their children to the new employers. Despite a plea to Cornelius from his mother, Stumpy was told to leave the premises and never return.

***

Sunday was the one day the mill workers had to themselves. The children met up at the frozen pump at the old town square. The mood was subdued.

“Where’s Davy?” asked Stumpy.

“He got stuck in a chimney on his first day and suffocated,” said John. “The sweep just left him there. Ma had to go and get him out.”

Stumpy snarled angrily. “He should never have been sent to the sweep.”

The children mumbled agreement.

“Davy should be avenged,” whispered Stumpy.

John nodded. “But how? ”

“I have an idea,” said Stumpy. He looked around the earnest faces. “I’ll need volunteers.”

* * *

Cornelius Grubhunter stood in front of the hall mirror and smoothed down his moustache. ‘Seven-thirty five. Where the hell was Granville?’ The mill owner’s Christmas banquet was not an event he liked to be late for. He called the groom to the back door and ordered him to prepare the bay. ‘I’ll ride to Hardfast Hall by way of the mill,’ the thought. ‘Granville’s excuse had better be a good one.’

Cornelius threw on his cloak and rode the short distance to the mill. He entered the boiler house to find a group of boys gathered around a dark shape on the floor.

“What are you brats standing around for?” he snarled. “Get that boiler fed.” Cornelius pushed them aside to find a pair of legs protruding from beneath the conveyor.

“Granville, get up” he shouted. “Are you drunk?” He aimed a kick at the legs. When there was no reaction he bent over to get a closer look.

Cornelius gasped when he saw what was left of his foreman. The entire top half of the body was missing. Smoke drifted up from the charred remains. He retched as the sickly smell of burning flesh assailed his nostrils.

“What the hell has…”

A heavy coal shovel hit him across the back of the head, cutting him off mid-sentence.

Cornelius came to, lying on the coal conveyor, wrapped mummy-like in a sheet of Grubhunter’s finest cotton with an oily rag stuffed in his mouth.

“Mmmmf”

“Let’s hear what he has to say.”

A small hand removed the rag.

“You’ll all hang,” spluttered Cornelius.

“If we do, you won’t see it,” said a familiar voice.

“Stumpy? Damn you. I’ll have your other hand for this.”

“No you won’t,” said Stumpy quietly. “You’re done hurting people.” He nodded and John turned the hand crank. The conveyor moved forward a couple of feet.

Stumpy turned to Edwin and Sam, the coal boys. “Get their horses and lead them to the Grimdon Marshes. Everyone must think they were taken by footpads.”

“Footpads?” spat Cornelius. “No one will believe it, they’ll come here looking for me.”

“And they’ll find nothing,” said Stumpy, calmly. He turned to the remaining coal boys. “Get what’s left of Granville back on the conveyor, lads.”

Cornelius’ boots began to smoulder. He craned his neck to look ahead. His eyes bulged as he looked into the mouth of the boiler. Flames performed a hellish ballet around its gaping jaws.

The conveyor moved again and Cornelius began to sweat. His feet felt like they were on fire.

“Please, don’t do this. I’ll give you anything you want. Anything, just say.”

“You can’t give us Davy back.”

“Davy? Who’s Davy?” A high-pitched scream ripped from his lips as the conveyor lurched forward again. The flames lapped around his knees, his feet were gone.

“Davy,” explained Stumpy, “was the boy with the annoying cough. The one you sent to work up the chimneys. He suffocated on his first day.”

The mill owner screamed again and again as the flames wrapped themselves around his groin. “I’ll make it up to you. Please…”

Stumpy smiled as John turned the crank handle again and Cornelius went in up to his chest. His screams died away, replaced by small, whimpering sounds as the flames consumed him.

“Hail the new,” said Stumpy.

Trevor is from Nottingham, UK. His work has appeared in a variety of magazines and anthologies including 100 stories for Haiti, 50 stories for Pakistan, and Shambelurkling and other Stories. Trevor has written four children’s books, including ‘Magic Molly.’

His latest book ‘Tracy’s Hot Mail’ is published by BigBadMedia.

Perfect Light

BY DAN POWELL

All is calm. All is bright. Crisp winter evening light reflects from the fresh depth of snow settling on the paved rows and back alleys of the town. Not a sound. Just the snow’s sprinkling fall, bright in the spread of the street lamps glow, almost invisible where the light falters, as if the snow falls from the contours of the bulbs themselves.

Into the silence bursts Gabe, breath heavy as fog. The glow-in-the-dark star emblazoning the centre of his black t-shirt floats through the air as if unaided, it’s glow propelling the rest of Gabe, black hair, black jeans, black trainers, into darkness. This symbol, repeated on his back, lights the way for his pursuers.

Will, Charlie and Ed turn the corner, heads hidden in matching hoodies, muscles tensed, bodies straining to bridge the space between themselves and Gabe. Will is at the front of their triangle, Charlie and Ed flanking him, all running in perfect formation, perfect synchronicity.

‘You. Are. Dead.’

Will’s shout fills the alley and Gabe, the sharpness of each punctuated word snapping at his heels, ducks his head summoning a further burst of speed. Focused on escape Gabe does not see the box, cardboard packaging from an artificial Christmas tree, dimensions long and deep, the red and green of it bright against the snow, until it is too late. Gabe wrong foots it, halfway between stepping around, halfway between leaping clean over. The toes of his left foot snag the edge of the box enough to lift its end for a moment, not enough to overturn it. This catching of foot on box, however, sends Gabe sprawling, arms outstretched, sky diving with too little sky between him and the ground. Palms down to stop his fall, he plants himself in the snow.

Gabe rolls over, impacted snow from the fall plastering his frontside, and Will, Charlie and Ed are on him, laying in a boot or two. Gabe foetuses up, knees to chest, head to knees, arms wrapping legs tight. A boot or two is all there is time for though before the air is filled with a moment shattering wail.

Every one stops. Listens. The wailing spreads from the box, the sound loud and wide. Gabe looks up at his assailants.

‘Watch him.’

Will points and Charlie and Ed nod and loom over Gabe’s prone figure. Will steps over to the box. A moment’s hesitation fills with another wail. He peels back a long flap of the lid. Light from the street lamp above illuminates the contents of the box, a baby swaddled in a faded Umbro sports towel. Will crouches and sticks a hand in.

‘Hello mate,’ he says. The baby grips his index finger with a pudgy fist, grins and Will grins back.

‘What is it?’ Charlie calls.

‘A baby. It’s a bloody baby.’

Will lifts the baby from the box, holds it to his chest

‘Warm little bugger too.’

Charlie and Ed take a step toward Will and the baby.

‘I’m not kidding, this kid’s had his Ready Brek,’ Will says.

Forgotten, Gabe looks from Will to the confused faces of Charlie and Ed. Slowly, quietly he stands. Will, Charlie and Ed only turn to look when Gabe begins to run, his footsteps banging through the silence of the alley.

‘We’ll sort you later,’ Will shouts after him, ‘don’t get too comfortable.’

Will turns to Charlie and Ed.

‘First thing’s first, we need to sort out this wee fella.’

The baby sucks on Will’s thumb and gurgles.

* * *

Kebabylon is aglow when the boys enter, Christmas lights flashing out Seasons Greetings on the back wall. The baby, tucked inside Will’s jacket, coos softly as he strokes its cheek.

‘Awright Tone,’ Will says to the chap with the shaved head behind the counter, ‘give us three house specials, extra chilli sauce on mine.’

Tone nods and sets up three pittas ready to fill.

Dina, Tracey and the girls off the estate take up one of the large booths at the back of the kebab shop, each of them with hair scraped back into severe ponytails, big hoop earrings and too much make-up. Their giggling stops as the boys approach.

‘Ohmigod what is that you got there?’ Dina steps out from the booth to meet Will. ‘Is that a baby? Has you got a baby? Where did you get a baby?’

The baby burbles for a moment and Dina lowers her face level with it. Bright and tiny eyes survey Dina’s face, from the tightness of her ponytail to her pierced eyebrow to her heavy lipstick, then spits a raspberry right at her.

‘Aww, bless.’

‘Found him in the alleys, up by The Green Dragon,’ Will says.

‘It’s a boy?’ asks one of the girls sat in the booth.

‘Looks Like a boy,’ Will says.

‘You looked?’ Dina cocks her head as she asks.

”Your order,’ Tony says, putting a plate loaded with pitta and salad and meat smothered in chilli sauce on the table in front of Will. ‘You can’t keep it.’ Tone aims this comment at Will then at Dina with a shift of his eyes.

The girls in the booth groan in perfect unison.

‘Nah, Tone’s right,’ Will says, ‘Anyways, might be a reward in it for us.’

‘I’ll give the Old Bill a call,’ Tone says, slapping Charlie and Ed’s meals on the table before heading back to the counter.

‘Here, you take him, I’m starving.’

Will passes the baby to Dina and sits. She returns to the booth and the other girls crowd about her cooing and chattering as the three lads tuck in at the table opposite. Dina rolls back the towel, untucks the baby’s nappy fixes and peaks inside.

‘Defo a boy,’ she says and the girls all laugh.

‘Police want to know if he had anything with him?’ Tone calls from the counter at the other end of the shop, phone in the crook of his shoulder as he carves meat from the rotisserie.

Will gulps down a half-chewed mouth of kebab, chilli sauce dribbling his chin.

‘Nah. Just the towel he’s wearing and the box we found him in.’

Tone repeats the information down the phone.

‘Could have froze to death,’ Dina says.

‘Dunno about that, he’s was like a radiator when we found him.’

Will scarfs another mouthful of chilli splattered meat.

‘You should give him something,’ Dina says. ‘To remember you by.’

The girls all nod and agree.

‘What for?’ Charlie and Ed look to Will as they ask this.

‘Little bugger’s got nothing and no-one,’ Dina says, ‘send him on his way with something.’

Will and the lads eat the rest of their meal without speaking. The girls fuss over the baby. The snap and clatter of cutlery beats under a blanket of chatter. Will finishes first and steps over to the booth. He pulls at the ring finger of his right hand, pulling from it a sovereign ring.

‘Here you go,’ he says, placing the sov on the table in front of Dina and the baby. Will turns to where Charlie and Ed sit, scraping up the last of their kebabs.

‘C’mon, you tight bastards.’

Charlie and Ed get up, checking their pockets. Charlie pulls something from inside his coat and places it on the table. The girls stare at the bottle and laugh.

‘He’s a bit young for Hugo Boss,’ Dina says, grinning.

Charlie moves to pick back up the half-empty bottle of cologne.

‘Leave it be,’ Will says.

Charlie retreats and Ed steps forward. He puts a small bag of pills down on the table.

‘Pick those up you arsehole,’ Will says, batting Ed across the back of the head. ‘He can’t be holding those when the police pick him up, they’ll do him for possession rather than help him find his mum.’

‘I thought he could sell ‘em,’ Ed says. The booth erupts with laughter, proper scaffolds of laughter that batter the grimy tiles lining the kebab shop walls. His face reddening, Ed stuffs the bag of gear back in his pocket, pulls a tenner from his jacket and sticks it under the sov.

The laughter falls, replaced with the distant but piercing spiral sound of a police siren. The kebab shop quietens, everyone listening to the slowly growing sound of the approaching patrol car.

Dina hands the baby back to WIll. He sits and holds him, the baby gripping his finger again and smiling. Tone turns up the radio. A simple human voice sings a carol the kids haven’t really listened to since primary school.

‘You’d make a top baby daddy,’ Dina whispers to Will as the music somehow mutes the siren outside.

Will grins.

A heavy thump slaps his hand through the padding of the nappy and the plush of the towel. The smell of bad drains wafts up.

‘Someone needs a change,’ Will says.

Blue light flashes and fills the kebab shop, illuminating each of the laughing faces, their joyous sound complimenting perfectly the voice channeled through the radio from somewhere, somewhen else.

Dan Powell writes fiction of all shapes and sizes and his work has appeared or is forthcoming in the pages of Neon, Metazen, The View From Here, 100 Stories for Haiti and Litsnack. His 2010 Yeovil Literary Prize winning story ‘Half-mown Lawn’ is available to download on the Ether Books app for iPod and iPhone along with a selection of Dan’s other work. He blogs at danpowellfiction.com

Fast Away the Old Year Passes

BY ICY SEDGWICK

“Does anyone know what time it is?” asked Serena Secondus.

On cue, the grandfather clock by the door chimed the hour. Another clock sat amid the stray tinsel on the mantelpiece. On the stroke of the hour, a dragon popped out of a tiny door above the clock face and snorted flames.

“What marvellous timing! It would appear to be one hour before midnight,” replied Father Time. “Therefore I propose a short break.”

The old man stood bent over a large vat in the centre of the room. He straightened up, his spine popping. He cracked his knuckles before rubbing his eyes. Father Time ran his thin fingers through his white beard. He grimaced when he found a tangle.

“I’ve finished cataloguing everything up until June,” said Serena.

She laid down her quill and stretched back in her chair. The sylph launched into an intricate set of exercises to coax life back into her arms and legs. Serena finished her routine by unfurling her wings. The candlelight shone through the gossamer membrane, throwing coloured patterns across the stone floor.

“Watch what you’re doing there, Serena! You’ll get sylph dust in the sand,” said Mademoiselle Minuten. The elf used her long silver braid to sweep away the dust from Serena’s wings.

“Now now, Mademoiselle. No need to use that tone. Serena knows we cannot contaminate the sand. I am sure she did not mean to do so,” said Father Time.

“Sorry, Father Time,” mumbled the Mademoiselle.

“Right, now are we all stretched? Ready to get back to work?” asked Father Time.

“Not quite, I’ve still got a kink in my left wing,” replied Serena. She tugged at her left wing, attempting to straighten the tendons.

“As much as I wish I could sympathise with your plight, we do need to get up until June finished before Lady Nostalgia comes to collect the first half of the year,” said Father Time.

“I wonder how much one of these is worth,” said the Mademoiselle.

She lifted a jar from the shelf beside her. The sand inside shifted, its many colours forming rainbow bands against the glass. Her spiky handwriting on the label described the contents as “Jar 346: The memories of Easter, 2010, Scotland”.

“I do not know, nor wish to care, how much Lady Nostalgia charges for the humans to regain these memories. It is my job to distil the time, and yours to catalogue it. It is hers, and hers alone, to dispense it,” said Father Time.

“I bet she charges a fortune,” said Serena. “I know I would, if I were in her shoes.”

“I know a nymph who does Lady Nostalgia’s admin, I could ask her,” said the Mademoiselle.

“Ladies! Enough idle chit-chat! Neither of you are to enquire as to the value of these jars, do you understand me? It is likely that only the Lady herself will know, and she is most unlikely to divulge the information,” said Father Time.

Serena hunched over her desk once more. She dipped her quill into the inkwell and scrawled an entry in the ledger. The sylph scowled at Father Time.

“It seems to me that we’re incredibly lucky. You know, when you really stop to think about it, and all that,” said the Mademoiselle. She scribbled another label for the next jar in line.

“How so?” asked Serena.

“We get to have incredible memories, don’t we? We don’t forget anything, and we don’t have to spend ages just trying to remember trivial things. We don’t have to sift through years of memories just to find one, only to find it’s either missing or not what we remembered. I think we should be a bit more grateful about that,” replied the Mademoiselle.

“That is a very worthy observation, Mademoiselle,” said Father Time. He swept his funnel through the rainbow-coloured sand churning in the vat. He directed the funnel into an empty jar. The sand trickled down the funnel, hissing its story as the grains filled the jar.

“Thank you,” replied the elf. She beamed.

“In many ways, I pity the humans. I may only grant them a short time upon the earth, and they are simply not equipped to understand or experience everything we have made available to them,” said Father Time. “If only they could remember it all! Alas, no. Nostalgia withholds their memories, often only dispensing those which have cracked or faded. The humans must waste their precious lives wiping clean the rose-tinted glasses of memory. No, I do not envy them one jot.”

“And then, after all that palaver, they have to face her, don’t they? Oh I don’t envy them that at all,” said Serena. The sylph shuddered at the thought of the One of Many Names.

“We’re certainly lucky in that,” said the Mademoiselle. “Immortality has its perks if it means we don’t need to meet up with her.”

“Oh, do not be so harsh upon her. She is simply performing the task for which she was intended. She’s actually perfectly pleasant once you get to know her, though naturally few do,” said Father Time.

“I’ve heard some real horror stories about her. Everyone down my way calls her The Cold One. They say her sister is Lady Winter, and that she freezes souls to hang in her Eternal Garden,” said Serena. “She doesn’t care if you’re young or old, sick or healthy – if your name’s on her list, she’ll just come and take you. Snuff you right out! Really creepy, that one. And – she’s behind me, isn’t she?”

Serena stared at the Mademoiselle’s pale face. The elf gazed at a point over Serena’s left shoulder, fear and awe burning in her green eyes. Father Time broke into a wide grin, and hobbled across the room to greet the visitor. Serena turned around, each passing inch feeling like a mile.

A young woman stood behind her, her white skin contrasting with her black cloak. Hair darker than midnight tumbled around her shoulders. Her purple lips formed a smile in reply to Father Time. Serena baulked at the black gums and pale grey teeth on display.

“Serena, Mademoiselle, may I introduce you to Death?” asked Father Time. He took one of Death’s white hands and planted a kiss on her frozen skin.

“I – I – I’ve heard a lot about you,” stammered Serena.

“So it would seem!” replied Death. Decay rasped around the edges of her cold voice.

“To what do we owe the pleasure of your visit, my Lady?” asked the Mademoiselle. She knelt on the floor at Death’s feet.

“I always pop over to visit Father Time at this time of year,” replied Death. “So don’t worry, I’m not here for you. You can get up now.”

The Mademoiselle scrambled to her feet, eager to avoid eye contact with Death. The elf tried to pull on her shawl without drawing attention to herself. Death laughed, a sound that buzzed with the song of a thousand flies.

“I know, I know, I tend to suck the warmth out of a room, don’t I? Put your shawl on, Mademoiselle Elf, if it’ll make you more comfortable. I don’t mind. Honestly, I won’t be offended,” said Death.

The Mademoiselle risked a look at the Cold One. Death grinned at her, and the smile was not without kindness. The elf couldn’t resist returning the smile.

“And you? Mistress Sylph? Are you also cold?” asked Death. She turned her gaze to Serena.

“No, no I’m fine,” replied Serena. She looked into Death’s eyes. Instead of seeing oblivion, she saw peace. Stars glittered in the depths of those black eyes.

“Glad to hear it. Now I can get down to business. Time, my old friend, are things ready?” asked Death.

“I think you should be able to find it by now,” said Father Time. He gestured to the vat of sand in the middle of the room.

Death crossed to the vat, and rolled up the sleeve of her cloak. She plunged a white arm into the sand. She stuck out her black tongue in concentration as she fished around inside the vat.

“What’s she looking for?” whispered Serena. Father Time held his finger to his lips to shush her.

Death yelped in triumph, and withdrew her arm from the swirling sand. She walked over to Serena and the Mademoiselle. Death opened her fingers to show them what she’d removed from the vat. A single grain of black sand lay in her white palm.

“The end of the year. I come by to claim this, the death of the old year,” said Death. “So now I’ve got this, I’ll be off. See you next year, Time. Ladies, it was lovely to meet you.”

The grandfather clock chimed in the midnight of a new year. Death disappeared in a puff of black smoke, leaving only a small smear of stardust on the stone floor.

“Come on, ladies, back to work, this sand won’t catalogue itself,” said Father Time.

Part office manager, part writer and part trainee supervillain, Icy dreams of Dickensian London. She writes all kinds of nonsense about telepathic parrots, Cavalier ghosts and steampunk automatons. Find her ebooks, free weekly fiction and other shenanigans at Icy’s Blunt Pencil.

Fast Away

BY JIM BRONYAUR

What is time? Where does it come from? Why does it matter so much? The last part I can answer – time matters because it goes on forever but doesn’t last forever.

You’re going to die someday. You’re going to be cremated and left as a thin layer of dust on a body of water or across a piece of land (that is of course until the wind blows and you’re now at the mercy of nature) or you’re going to rot in the ground with the soft patters of footsteps of those you have touched in your life as they come to still talk to you (if you’re lucky).

Time goes on. Even when you don’t.

Time gives us hope, gives us a purpose. As for where does it come from? I’m not sure but when I think of time a place comes to mind. A place you probably don’t know and maybe that’s a good thing.

There’s a bar off the side of a small apartment complex, the kind that has two apartments jammed down stairs and one built upstairs. The bar sits under the upstairs apartment. It has a front porch and a door that resembles my grandmother’s front door. Hell, if you didn’t know the damn bar was there, you’d never find it. It’s that kind of place. There’s a pole out front that used to hold a sign for the bar but now two rusted pieces of chain dangle from it. To be honest, I’m not even sure what the name of the bar is. There are only two things I know about the place – it had great pizza and what I call ‘living ghosts’.

The bar sat on top of a small mountain, split by religion. There were two Russian churches on the side the locals called ‘the mixer’ because it was the only place in the area where the kids could actually choose where they wanted to go to school. On the other side was an ugly brown Polish church. It sat three doors away from the bar. The town itself was a typical coal cracker never-let-go town filled with regrets but insisting it never change. The town was pissed it was neglected and the youth kept on running; it only was able to hold onto a few of those lucky ones who would wear their Daddy’s boots and fit in the same ass print in their Daddy’s bar stool.

Hell, I ran too.

I remember the night I came up with the phrase ‘living ghosts’.

It was three days before Christmas and for whatever reason I wanted a pizza. I was sixteen and just got my license. I had a job, some cash, a girlfriend willing to fool around, and even a beat up car that started on even numbered days (no lie), so for me, life was good.

The bar had no phone; you showed up and did what you pleased. I remember standing on the porch and wondering what the place was like before it became a bar – what kind of family lived there. Did they enjoy the glowing sunsets on their porch as the sun fell behind the mountains? Did they have a bug zapper hanging on the porch to help with the damn mosquitoes and horseflies?

When I walked in, the bartender looked at me and waved with a dirty rag in his hand.

“Bobby Jr.!” he yelled. “Let me guess… all the meats and green peppers.”

I nodded.

“Just like your Daddy,” he said and then called the order to the other end of the bar where the open door to the kitchen was. Someone yelled back in a different language – maybe Polish. Maybe Russian. Maybe what my grandfather called the ‘old country talk’.

“How’s your Daddy?” the man yelled to me. I think his name was Nicky. Or Steve. I don’t remember.

I shrugged my shoulders. It was well known (at least in my head and heart) that my father was a dead beat who left my mother and I when I was still learning to crawl. He sent birthday cards every other year, usually two months late and with the wrong age. Last I heard he was still in the area but lurked and only came out at night.

The bartender went back to his business and I looked around the place. Like really looked at the place for the first time. It was like staring at the same person twenty times. They were hunched over the bar, one hand holding up a cigarette, their other hand cupped around a sweating glass of beer. Most had dirty mustaches and hats. A few stared at the fuzzy television in the corner playing its third showing of the news that evening. The others just talked.

They talked about work.

“It’s a frigging joke out there,” one man said.

“You? I’m working fifty hours a week. My knees are killing me.”

“And they sit high and mighty on their thrones up in the Summit.”

The Summit was where the rich people lived.

Two others were talking about their wives.

“Old lady’s driving me nuts.”

“That’s what they do. Whining. Spending money.”

“Money? What’s that?”

Both men laughed and one raised their empty glass – the signal for a refill.

That’s where your money’s going, my friend, I thought.

But that’s how the town operated – denial wasn’t ignorance, it was real. They all lived in a broken shell of denial about everything, waiting for a hero to come and save them. Most of their heroes came in the form of lottery tickets and scratch offs.

The rest of the people talked about time. How fast it goes, what they were doing twenty years ago, and how soon they hoped to die. They measured the rest of their lives on death.

“Eagles defense looks sharp this year,” a ragged man said to another. “They play like they are, we may see a Super Bowl…”

The other man laughed and coughed, a combination that threw a hunk of phlegm on the bar which he then wiped up with his sleeve. “Super Bowl? I’ll be dead by February!”

And that’s what they all did.

In the background, the country music radio station was on and some guy with a twang voice was preaching about living a simple country life. I’m not sure how many of these guys at the bar had a functional vehicle, let alone a big pickup truck, a tractor, and land to tend to. The song faded and the announcer said they were going to bring in Christmas country style. A really horrible cover of Deck the Halls came on.

Two of the men started to argue about Christmas. One was pissed off that stores started to stock their Christmas supplies the week of Thanksgiving. The other man tried to explain it was how retail worked – selling items, purchasing goods… it was quite the statement to hear considering how drunk the man was. He was a hand talker;  hands  waving around trying to act out what he was saying. The other man still insisted it was wrong to stock the shelves so early. I laugh now because if he is still alive, he must be really pissed considering they now put the Christmas stuff out the week of Halloween.

Then a line in Deck the Halls was sung, a line I’ve heard hundreds of times, but in that moment meant so much.

Fast away the old year passes.

When the line was sung, the oldest man in the bar – seated closest to me – turned and looked at me with heavy wrinkled eyes, stubs of grey hair on his bloodshot face, and smiled.

“Time’s a-a-a comin’ and-a goin’,” he said to me with a stutter. His eyes were kind but somewhat haunted. “Years goin’ by like a s-s-s-soft breeze, my friend.”

He nodded for a second and then pointed at me.

“You’ll be h-h-here soon enough.”

Then he turned back and killed a shot of dark amber whiskey and coughed. That’s when I realized I was staring at a group of ghosts… living ghosts. People who were already dead in many ways, beaten by time, but only alive in the sense  air flowed through what they had left of their lungs.

The bartender called my name and I got my pizza. The cardboard was hot and the green peppers smelled so sweet, mixing with the meats, I forgot all about the bar. I went back to my house and ate like a king.

That was ten years ago. To the day. Now here I sit, in my car, staring at the boarded up bar. I graduated high school and within three days was in a moving truck getting out of the area. I only come back once a great while, only to visit those who didn’t make it out. Most are in the dirt which is okay by me, I prefer to do the talking.

One of the front windows to the bar is cracked, the other intact. The porch has a few leaves on it from autumn and the door is still there too; just that there are a couple of boards across it. The churches still stand tall – their bells dueling at seven, noon, and five. The mountain is the same only now there’s a highway running through it. Most of the houses are the same; nobody updates and those who die leave their houses empty shells to rot and sink into the coal land.

I’m smiling because I have a feeling if I put my ear to the door on the bar, I’ll hear them talking still. I’ll hear the living ghosts talking about time and how it moves… and I have to admit, I understand what they mean.

Living in Pennsylvania, Jim sits at a desk in a corner and writes lots of horror. He’s been published over forty times, all of which could be found at his site www.JimBronyaur.com and is the creative spark behind 12 Days.

For those who dare to speak to him, he’s on Twitter.

A Golden Treasure

BY CHIA EVERS

My dear Mr. Bradley…

Arthur Bradley twirled the waxed tips of his mustache into golden points as he studied the letter spread out on the ancient map that had drawn him here. Lacy still wouldn’t call him by his given name, but ‘my dear’ was progress, he thought. “My dear,” he murmured to himself. Yes, that would do.

He took up pen and paper. My dear Miss Sedgewick, he wrote, and blotted the ink when a knock at the door startled him.

“Yes?” he snapped. “Come in.”

The door opened to reveal a dark, timid face. It looked rather like the innkeeper, only smaller. “I beg your pardon, sir,” it said. “You have a visitor.”

It must be the airship captain. “Good. Show the gentleman up.”

“It isn’t a gentleman, sir.”

“No?” Captain Jorgensson must have sent one of his roughest crewmen, for the innkeeper’s – son, was it – to refuse him the title of gentleman.

“It’s a lady, sir.”

“No lady,” came a familiar voice. “A woman only, and one I’ll wager you weren’t expecting.”

“Mother.” Somehow, it did not surprise him. He had left her in London, and yet here she was, iron-bound corset, Suffragette sympathies and all.

She beamed at him.

The boy began to sidle away, but she reached out to catch his collar between strong fingers. “Fuad,” she said. “Wasn’t that your name?” He nodded, wide-eyed. “Fuad, I want you to run and tell my friends where to find me. They’re waiting on the Zephyr. Do you know where she’s docked?”

He nodded again, and ducked away from her with an ease that Arthur envied. He’d never slipped her grasp so easily.

“I’ve been waiting for the Zephyr,” he said.

“I know. Captain Jorgensson told me when I boarded her in Alexandria. I said you wouldn’t mind the delay.”

“But Mother,” he said, hating the adolescent whine in his voice, “how did you get here?”

“I told you, darling. On the Zephyr. Before that, there was a terrible little boat across the Mediterranean, and before that, it was the Express from Paris to Istanbul.”

“But what were you doing in Paris?” he asked stupidly. He was quite sure he’d left her in London.

“Shopping, darling. It is Christmas, after all.” She reached out to pat his cheek. “Are you quite well? You seem flushed.”

“I’m fine,” he said. He wasn’t. “Won’t you come in?”

“I will, thank you.” She swept past him and glanced around the room. “They have excellent housekeepers here. Your room is never so tidy at home.” She spotted the decanter on the sideboard and poured them each two fingers of Scotch. Inwardly, he quailed, but he took the drink without complaint. He couldn’t imagine what Miss Sedgewick would make of his mother’s masculine tippling.

“You brought friends,” he said. “Are you staying with them?”

“No, no. We’re coming with you.”

“You are?”

“Of course. I couldn’t bear to be away from you at Christmas, and dear Lacy agreed.”

“Dear Lacy?” He must have misheard.

He hadn’t. Miss Sedgewick’s soprano trill echoed down the hall. “Mr. Bradley!” she called. “I am so glad to see you.”

***

The Zephyr took to the sky the next day. Arthur sat brooding in the stern while Lacy and his mother exclaimed over the green ribbon of the Nile slipping away beneath them. They were dressed almost identically, in miles of white mosquito netting and brass-rimmed flight goggles.

“The ship has windows, Mother,” he had snarled, when she came down to breakfast with the ridiculous things perched on her head.

“Of course it does, darling,” she had said, smoothing his hair. “But they’re so au courant. Quite the thing in Paris, you know.”

When Lacy arrived a few minutes later, her goggles wrapped around the hat tucked beneath her arm, he had said it would be a shame if she hid her beautiful eyes behind smoked glass. He was pleased she left the goggles to adorn her hat, rather than plopping them across the bridge of her nose.

“I beg your pardon, sir.” It was Jenkins, his mother’s butler. The man had puffed up behind Miss Sedgewick the night before, beet-red in the heat, with a clanking valise clutched in his pudgy hands. Fuad had trailed after him, dragging his mother’s trunk. Miss Sedgewick’s luggage, all except the small carpetbag that held this morning’s dress and goggles, had been left aboard. Arthur thought that showed her good sense.

“I wanted you to know, sir, that I did try to talk them out of it. And then I tried to send a letter. Mrs. Bradley wouldn’t hear of it.”

“Thank you, Jenkins. I’m sure you did try.” Poor Jenkins. After more than forty years in Martha Bradley’s service, he must have known it was no use trying to dissuade her from whatever course had taken her fancy.

Just now, that course seemed to be tea. Captain Jorgensson, having seen his Zephyr safely away from the dock, was already seated. “Won’t you join us?” his mother asked.

“Isn’t that our silver tea service?” he asked.

“Of course it is,” she said. “You didn’t think I’d bring porcelain out to the jungle? I wouldn’t like it to get broken.”

***

The Zephyr set down a week out of Cairo, when the mountains rose too high to allow her safe passage. “This is the place, sir.”

Arthur lifted his head from his sodden pillow. He had been alternately wracked with chills and drenched with sweat, and had begun to envy his mother and Miss Sedgewick the yards of veiling fabric that kept the mosquitoes and biting flies off their skin.

“Thank you, Captain Jorgensson,” he croaked. The captain helped Arthur sit up, then steadied him when the world seemed to spin around him. Miss Sedgewick appeared at his elbow.

“Do lean on me, Mr. Bradley,” she said. “I’m quite strong.”

“I know you are,” he said, but he dragged himself to his feet. He wasn’t yet so demoralized he would accept her aid.

They must have been a strange sight, wending their way up the mountainside – him staggering, Jenkins panting, and the two women gliding along. His mother insisted the native bearers stay behind.

“It’s Christmas, darling,” she had said. He watched, dumbfounded, as she and Lacy distributed handsful of brightly wrapped trinkets to the crew.

“Are those Christmas crackers, Mother?”

“Of course they are, darling. It would hardly be Christmas without them.”

He had pulled his own cracker with ill-concealed bad humor. It had yielded up a paper crown, which Miss Sedgewick had draped across his brow. It clung there now, its color running in the ceaseless Monsoon rain. He longed to tear it off, but she smiled whenever she looked at him, so he let it be.

Jenkins sidled up beside him. “What are we looking for up here, sir?”

“The gold of an ancient civilization, Jenkins. I found a map in a shop in London, and I thought – well, I thought if I could find it, then when I asked Miss Sedgewick to marry me…”

“There!” his mother called.

He squinted through the rain. At the top of the trail, nearly concealed in the trees, a cave mouth gaped, right where the map had said it would be.

He hurried forward, but his mother and Miss Sedgewick had already cranked up their lanterns and stepped inside. The interior glittered under the harsh illumination.

“There’s your gold, sir,” Jenkins said.

There it was, indeed. The very walls were covered in the stuff. In the center of the room, an emerald-eyed idol glared from a gilded plinth.

“Oh!” Miss Sedgewick exclaimed. “It’s lovely.”

“I meant to bring it home to you,” he said.

Even in the glare of the lanterns, he could see the flush that crept into her cheeks. Did he dare think her eyes shone? He took a step toward her, but his mother’s voice cut through his romantic reverie.

“I hardly think that’s a good idea,” she said.

“What now, Mother?” he asked.

“It’s Christmas, Arthur. And whatever sort of heathen god that is, it is a god. I will not have you disturbing a god on Christmas Day. We can take its picture, though.” She turned to Jenkins. “Go and fetch your valise,” she said. “Just wait until you see the new camera I bought, Arthur. You’ll be amazed how small and light it is.”

Arthur looked to Miss Sedgewick, but she had already turned back to the golden idol. “It think it belongs here,” she said.

“Fine.” He nearly flung himself out of the cave and back into the rain, but he wouldn’t throw a tantrum like a child. Not in front of Miss Sedgewick. Instead, he helped Jenkins set up the camera, which was as small and light as his mother had promised.

As they left the cave, he couldn’t help but say, “I still think we should have taken it.”

Without a word, his mother stooped to pick up a rock and hurl it toward the golden statue. As it toppled from the plinth, its fall triggered a hidden mechanism that brought the ceiling down with a roar.

“Best to leave it where we found it, darling,” she said.

Miss Sedgewick reached out to brush stone dust off his lapel. “I do love you, Arthur,” she said. “But you really must learn to listen to your mother.”

Chia Evers is a writer, a lawyer, a dancer, a knitter, and a graduate of the Viable Paradise Writer’s Workshop. She lives in Southern California with her husband, but can most often be found on Twitter, where she posts under the clever pseudonym ChiaLynn.

Broken Angel

BY JODI CLEGHORN

The faded stain pokes up between my bare toes and I focus on individual threads of the shagpile looking for differences in colour. Beyond my foot the change is obvious, the brown blotch sweeping outward. They say it happened the Christmas I was five, stumbled backward on a toy car and landed on the corner of the coffee table. Head wounds bleed profusely, that’s how it got so big. I don’t remember, and the scar is hidden on the back of my skull. The only thing I remember is waking up Christmas morning to find my mother gone.

“We go through this shit every year, Marcia” Rod says, the anger snapping out between his perfect teeth. I stopped mentally referring to him as ‘Dad’ the year I turned seven, unsure if he’d ever actually deserved the title. For Christmas he’s wearing his good mission-brown Stubbies and a Camel cigarettes singlet.

The fan struggles to shift the scorched air,  succeeding only in bothering the tinsel on the wilting Christmas tree. Auntie Lorraine uses the cover of the Boney M album to fan herself, the sweat carving canyons in her heavy foundation.

“Honey,” she oozes, dropping the cover and picking up the arm of the record player. “Sometimes you just create memories.”

“Like me hitting my head on the coffee table.”

The needle slides across the vinyl and ‘Rasputin’ exploded through the speakers.

- his drinking and lusting and his hunger for power became known -

“There was never any fucking Christmas treasure!” Rod backhands a champagne flute abandoned on the sideboard, mimosa exploding onto the floor, bubbles disappearing into the carpet. “And turn that disco shit off.”

The glass tumbles and stops at my foot. The wire door slams leaving Auntie Lorraine and I glaring at each other, ‘Rasputin’ playing on.

hey hey hey hey hey hey

“Marcia…” Auntie Lorraine says, using the knuckle of her pointer finger to dab at tears which might spill.

“Like you care, Auntie Lorraine.” I boot the glass in her direction and reach for my Christmas basketball, bright and unblemished, abandoned in Rod’s threadbare orange armchair.

The wire door slams extra loud behind me, I make sure of it.

On the concrete driveway I sit on the ball, resting in the partial shade of the wild jasmine. The record player falls silent. I wonder why either of the adults who call themselves my ‘parent’ would think a basketball an appropriate present for a thirteen year old girl. This is how they are able to look me in the eye every Christmas Day and tell me my mother never hid Christmas treasure. But I see us hand-in-hand, with matching shimmering pink fingernails, searching the house, the garden, her smile framed by frosted lipstick, reflecting my own excitement.

But did it happen? Or did I create an alternate Christmas without Rod and Auntie Lorraine, Boney M, mimosas and Melbourne Bitter. Eight years on the few photos I have merge with faded memories and half remembered stories so I don’t know what’s real and what’s imagined anymore.

I throw the basketball against the brick wall, over and over again, the rhythm simple and soothing until Auntie Lorraine screams from the window to shut the fuck up.

What the hell did she expect I’d do with a basketball?

I flip her the bird and hurl the ball one last time at the wall, slamming it into the bottom row of bricks with enough force to dislodge several.

“Shit!”

The ball bounces back at an awkward angle and rolls toward the road. I run to the wall to inspect the damage before Rod and his backhand arrive to follow up. Inside the hole I see the pale green weatherboards of the original house and vague memories of Rod bricking over it. Reaching into the cavity my fingers caress the boards, as though touching the blistered paintwork will bring her back.

I hear a cement mixer and the feel of hot, shifting sand beneath small feet; my mother’s laughter ringing out accompanied by the chatter of the sprinkler; the smell of wet grass and beer. The sun flashes on my mother’s necklace, the silver lady replaced with the words ‘make a wish’.

On my stomach, I stretch out and squeeze my hand between the bricks and boards, wishing the space would expand so I could wrap my arms around the old house, or crawl into the space, back into a world before Rod and Auntie Lorraine.

My hand brushes brittle paper and an awkward exploration turns up a box. Hooking my fingers around it I carefully pull it towards the hole. It’s small with a separate lid, both wrapped in paper, ripped and discoloured with cockroach shit but the tiny yuletide angels are recognisable, grinning above their tiny harps.

Inside Boney M starts up again. I stand and look through the window. Rod and Auntie Lorraine are pressed together against the wall, making up. Rod’s hand gropes beneath her short paisley skirt. A fresh mimosa in Auntie Lorraine’s hand tilts at a dangerous angle.

Knowing neither will bother me, I bob down and pull the box free of the bricks and crumbled mortar, jamming the bricks back into place. If Rod looks straight at it he will see, but he rarely walks up the driveway. I race barefoot over the burning ground, across the back porch, carefully prising open the back wire door. The box stays close to my chest, just in case either of them wanders into the kitchen as I cut through then slide down the hallway and into my room, fixing the chair beneath the door knob.

I sit on my unmade bed and stare at the dirty box, the size of a pair of baby shoes. Christmas Treasure. Any lingering acceptance of the shit spun by Rod and Auntie Lorraine is gone.

I count to six and lift the lid, peer in. There is treasure. A tiny fold away clock; a packet of hair bobbles, the elastic disintegrated and the ends loose in the bottom; hair clips with butterflies. And beneath the balls and glittering insects the word ‘wish’ disconnected from its chain, tarnished with age and neglect.

The place I keep shut up, crumbles like the brick veneer. I lay down clasping the ‘wish’ pendant knowing it’s what I see around my mother’s neck in my memories. My fingers curl into a fist and my body curls around my fist. I wish for her to come back. But more than anything, I wish to know why she walked out. I can understand leaving Rod, but not me. Please tell me, I pray to God, to Santa, to David Cassidy, to the crickets screeching outside; why did she go and not take me too?

* * *

I wake with a start. The crickets are silent as are the bedsprings on the other side of the thin plasterboard wall. My hand is cold and empty, the ‘wish’ pendant gone. The breeze blows my curtains in and out, my plain white curtains replaced with fairies dancing on fabric, backlit by the streetlight.

Yelling shatters the quiet; female voices tearing at the space beyond my door. I freeze recognising both of them. The loudest belongs to my mother.

The bedroom door groans and I tiptoe down the hall to listen. The Christmas lights flash, casting obscene shadows on the wall behind them.

“Stay away from me. Stay away from Marcia. And stay away from Rod.” My mother’s words border on hysterical.

“Or what?” Auntie Lorraine takes a step closer, the two profiles almost identical.

“Look who’s here.” Rod swaggers into the room, a Melbourne Bitter long-neck in hand, walking around my mother to clap an arm around his sister-in law’s shoulder, the bottle resting just above her breast. “I’d know your sexy voice anywhere.”

Lorraine smiles up at him through fake eyelashes.

“You promised, Rod.” Mum is pulling at the long plait hanging over her shoulder.

“Promised what?”

“That you’d stay away from her.” She’s pacing on the spot, tiny steps going nowhere. “Sheryl says Lorraine’s been hanging around the yard waiting for you to knock off. Is that why you’ve been coming home late?”

“What’s it to you.”

“I’m your wife. –”

“Nag, nag, nag. That’s all I ever get. You on the other hand…” He pulls Lorraine closer to drain the bottle. She grins at Mum and slips her arm around his waist, bending with him when he reaches to place the empty bottle next to a small box wrapped in glittery angel paper.

“Stop it!”

My hand grips the door frame. Lorraine giggles and snuggles into Rod.

“Get out. Get out of my home.”

“C’mon. Let’s blow this place,” Rod says, leaning in to kiss Auntie Lorraine full on the lips.

“Rod!” Mum is crying. “Don’t do this to me.”

“You’ve done it to yourself.”

He turns and Mum picks up the empty beer bottle.

“No,” I scream.

My five-year-old legs are short and I reach her too late, the bottle connecting with the back of my skull on the upswing. Facedown, warmth thickens my hair and spreads red, soaking into the new carpet. Mum wails. The sickening crunch of bone on bone and glass shattering. Mum’s eyes unblinking, staring into mine. The night closing in on me, carrying the sound of the cement mixer and the pop of a champagne cork.

Jodi believed in Santa until aged 12 when caught awake at the wrong time, she thought deeper about the timing of rustling plastic bags. She now plays Santa to a six year old son who believes old St Nick has surveillance microphones and agents in every shopping centre.

Co-owner of eMergent Publishing and Managing Editor of Chinese Whisperings, Jodi’s spare time is shared between family and writing, with music the constant backdrop. She is also the creator of Literary Mix Tapes.

Midsummer's Eve

BY STACEY LARNER

The wooden step was hard under my bruised rear, and I shifted to ease the ache as the bass thudded through me. The Christmas party was in full swing. Footsteps and giggling disturbed the night chorus, the crickets and frogs falling silent, apologetic, as the threesome approached. I watched them, Harry with his thinning hair, though still impressive at forty-five; the petite dark-haired secretary, giggling and staggering; and a tall blond man I assumed must be a new intern. Harry pushed the woman up against the rail and kissed her, hard, as the blond man sauntered over to me. He sat next to me, his body pressed up against my side. Harry gave him the thumbs up before resuming his mauling of the woman.

“I’m Kieran.” He had an Irish accent, what a bonus. “You’re Veronica? Harry told me your beautiful name.”

I struggled not to roll my eyes. My real name was Jane, but Harry hated it, said it was ‘too plain’. He’d made me change it by deed poll seven years ago. Sighing, I nodded. I was getting too old for these games; I looked younger than my thirty-four years but felt decades older. Kieran must have sensed my annoyance and drew back a bit, so his body no longer touched mine. Surprised, I glanced up at him.

His face flickered, a microsecond of blur distorting his features. I tilted my head, puzzled, trying to refocus. Smiling, he looked perfectly normal, and I remembered the drink Harry had given me earlier. Had he? Shit. I glanced out over the darkened yard, smelling the cigarette smoke and the freshly-mown grass, hearing the dance music thumping away inside the house, and seeing nothing untoward. I flicked a glance at Harry, who had slipped his hand underneath the little secretary’s skirt and was making her squirm and gasp.

Kieran was sitting patiently, watching me. “It’s an interesting relationship you have.”

I looked down, feeling faintly ashamed. For years I’d gotten a real thrill out of our games: the wanton sex, followed by Harry beating the crap out of me for fucking someone else—in private, of course. He got a kick out of watching his model wife with other men, and I enjoyed the attention. The punishment for disobeying his arbitrary, inconsistent rules had evolved into something more; pain had become pleasure. And while my body still responded, a well-trained Pavlov’s dog, my mind was restless and dissatisfied. I searched for some response to Kieran’s statement.

“It works for us.” Bland, noncommittal. I wondered if he heard the lie. He breathed in deeply, and slowly exhaled.

“The air is so warm, I love Midsummer’s Eve. Christmas in Australia is very different to Christmas in Ireland.”

Subject change then. “Ireland must be beautiful.” I thought I heard faint music on the breeze; Irish bodhrans and pipes dancing in a merry jig. The sound stirred my blood and I tugged at the hem of my wine-coloured dress; a futile gesture as it rode straight back up my long, tanned thighs. Kieran breathed deep again and I felt myself blush for no reason. The scent on the air had changed, become heavier, headier. More animal.

He moved closer again, and stroked my bare arm. I shivered at his touch, intoxicated by the aroma enveloping me. The drum and bass faded out and again I heard the Irish jig, a frantic tangle of rhythm that called to me. I flicked my hair out of my face and turned to look at him, and was startled by the feral intensity of his gaze. His eyes seemed to glow with an unearthly green light until I blinked, and they were shadowed again. I searched his face for strangeness but could see none. Just an ordinary, though well-sculpted, human face. It’s not real, I told myself. Damn Harry and his damn drink.

“Can I kiss you?” His voice was low and lingering. Unable to resist I nodded. He leaned in to kiss me; his lips were full and soft and his stubble scratched my skin. I had thought he was clean-shaven but the fair hair deceived me. He slipped his tongue in my mouth and caressed mine, and I marvelled at his gentleness. I grabbed his head and kissed him more insistently, and the air around us seemed to hum and shift. I heard the barking of dogs: the baying of hounds, my mind corrected absently. Kieran pulled me against him and ran his hands from my waist up to my head, threading his hands in my long hair as we kissed. He pulled back and examined the honey-coloured strands twined in his fingers, then shook his head at me. “You are exquisite,” he said, “and all real.”

Moans from behind us disturbed me and I twisted around. Harry had the dark-haired woman on the railing, skirt up over her hips. Her head lolled back occasionally and I hoped he had a good grip on her. Shadows seemed to loom over Harry as I watched and he leered at me. Turning away, I found Kieran’s jaw set hard, but as he lowered his gaze to me his expression transformed. The naked desire tempered by tenderness left me feeling bereft, and I realised I wanted him, all to myself. Standing up, I took Kieran’s hand and pulled him up with me. He was a good head taller than me, and I was almost six foot.

“Come on,” I whispered and tugged him into the darkness of the yard. I knew I was breaking Harry’s cardinal rule but I didn’t care; he’d be thrilled at the chance to lay into me with righteous anger. For once I didn’t want to share this.

We stumbled across the backyard, night-blind. There were a few trees at the bottom of the yard and I backed up against one and pulled Kieran to me. He pressed his body against mine and we kissed, harder than before, tongues exploring with eager curiosity. We writhed against each other and he ran his hands up my thighs, pulling my dress up and sliding a finger under my g-string. My wetness aroused him even more and I felt how quickly he grew to full size. He yanked the g-string off and threw it away, as I fumbled with his belt. He took over, and unzipped his fly, freeing his naked penis.

He took me by the shoulders and turned me around, pushing me up against the tree. The rough bark dug into my skin and the tree undulated against my face. Tendrils snaked around my limbs and caressed me, and I whimpered as he grasped my waist, stroking my naked skin. He thrust against me, finding the angle instinctively. Sighing at the feel of him inside me, filling me up, I grabbed onto the tree to brace myself as he began to move. Moans tore from my throat, guttural vocalisations that emphasised the primal instincts taking over; we rutted against a tree, two mammals giving into base desire.

My world slipped some more. The merry music filled my ears, a twirling whirling jig that beckoned me to dance, as everything in my world ceased to exist. A horn sounded, and the hounds yelped with excitement. Kieran’s grunts punctuated the music, and he seemed to expand inside me, as I shivered with ecstasy and fear. I turned my head as far as I could and Kieran was gone, replaced by an animal visage. A great stag with enormous spreading antlers possessed me, holding onto me with human hands. I was spellbound, electrified by his raw power. Distracted by the surreal shift I lost my rhythm, and as the beast cried out I felt the intensity of his orgasm. He slowed, and stepped away from me; I clutched the tree and tried to slow my ragged breathing. His animal scent filled my nostrils and he leaned in close.

“Come with me,” he murmured, and I spun around to face him. Where was Kieran under that awesome mien? I glanced toward the house, where Harry waited to exact his sadistic revenge. The Horned God tilted his antlered head. “Dance with me.” At the edge of my vision strange, half-seen shapes flickered as they cavorted in reckless abandon, following the music’s wild and frantic call. A desperate passion seized me. Hypnotised by the magnetic pull of my experience I took his outstretched hand and felt myself swept away.

The hunt grew ever closer, and we frolicked with madness and sanity. Hoofbeats drummed and as the hunt swept by he whispered in my ear. “Tonight you are free.” I ran, caught up by the frenzy of the chase, pursuing the fool who was marked for this night. I watched the dogs tear Harry to pieces and I smiled with savage glee. When reality reclaimed me in the morning I’d call the lawyer and initiate divorce proceedings. Cernunnos was right, I was free.

He cradled me and soothed me as sleep claimed me, and my last thought was of the scent of blood thick in my nostrils.

Stacey is a sole mother to two children, who turned to writing as a serious creative outlet in 2010. She has a background in academic writing, and finds writing fiction much more challenging! Her writing leans to speculative fiction and she lives in Brisbane, Australia.

Don't Follow

BY KIL CONOR

He played the sax. Timbre low, mild, high, wild. Fingers long enough to wrap around a pole or a leg or lamp post as he danced in the rain. The people of the town thought him insane, playing there in the storms, water dipping down into the bell off that brass horn. Sometimes he’d tap his foot, and then the sidewalk would stay dry right there where he stood so he didn’t look so much like a ghost, but a host and damned good one too. He worked his craft dressed in shadows or sunshine; it didn’t matter where he took up residence. The case always laid open like a casket at a funeral, he always were a suit and bolo tie, much like the ones they wore in the grand country of Texas which was far, far away.

He spoke of the open country. Of pick-up trucks and Stetson cologne. Cattle and saddles. Cadillacs and Cracker Jack, so far to the point that Burberry melted away and we were no longer in England, or dressed in amber haze from cheap liquor procured in the store just behind his shoulder.

Crows perched on posts to hear his music and understand what it was this man from Texas intended to convey. They shook their heads and stared with obsidian eyes and left no money. But he played for them, just the same. That is how he earned the name Texas Scarecrow.

The children called him such at first, in slight giggles and nudges until the parents caught on and were horrified to be amused at the ragamuffin man that stood with such solidarity in front of this pub, or that boutique, always shooed on, never admired, yet he played on. As the season wore on and snow began to fall, the townspeople realized he was there to stay and would drop coins in his saxophone case, perhaps only to allay their own fears and guilt.

He heralded every grand day, rain or shine, always on time and left at the first absence of light and no one knew where he went off to. No one cared much, until I gathered the gumption to follow him off into the night and see what there was to see in his world away from ours. I wanted to see where he laid his head at night. A few days before Christmas I stayed around, carrying the morning’s paper tucked under my arm. I don’t know what possessed me to trail him.

Curiosity admittedly burned bright for the mysterious ragged man that played his horn for the crows.

He packed away his saxophone with great ceremony and lifted the case to stroll on down the boulevard, melting into the crowd well enough that I had a great amount of trouble following. Pockets dangling with meager change, he first went into Mrs. Huff’s Pies for a small mincemeat pie. He devoured the pastry quickly and thoroughly, licking his fingertips free of gravy rather than surrender any to his napkin. He looked narrow and old there at his corner table, sat upon a rickety chair, cuffs mid-arm when he stretched and collected his case to continue on his way.

Afraid, I sunk as far from his view as I possibly could, only to catch sight of him making his next stop. A spot of tea, stirred delicately with a lump of sugar and a dollop of cream. A gentle thanks in a paper cup. The moment his shadow crossed the threshold, the place went silent.

Gentlemen sniffed with grand noses, pointing the open sides of their laptops computers his way, eyes following his every move with loaded suspicion.

I remained outside and watched through the window as he went about his business. He disappeared into the loo for a good few minutes, and I grew restless. A much younger gentleman emerged finally and I lost my patience. I burst into the tiny space and discovered it empty. It was him! I returned to the dining area and caught sight of his coattails flashing a satiny red before the door closed to the wintry outside.

Desperate, but not willing to alert him to my pursuit, I again followed at a considerable distance until he disappeared down a hill, just past the arc bridge in the park. The pond was frozen solid at this time of year and yet he did not slip on the ice as I did. Thrusting my arms out for precarious balance, I followed him, to the point where the pond emptied into another frozen creek. I was close enough to hear the crunch of his footsteps in the snow and the rasping of breath, which turned out to be my own. He turned the bend the same as the creek and I sidestepped and narrowly missed a nasty fall by landing in his arms.

It was then I heard his music again, only he wasn’t playing it. It was others just like him, glorious creatures, angelic with shining countenances. But their faces melted into darkened holes and their singing dissolved into screams of absolute agony as the melody picked up in pace. He danced a little jig, surefooted as a mountain goat on the treacherous ice. He was a mountain goat, at least a part of him was. His cloven hooves struck the ice, and my eyes shot upwards to look him in the face. He was grinning at me, with rows of needle sharp teeth and a black forked tongue. I heard my name whispered in a thousand different voices.

The ice was slippery, I knew it would be foolish to try to run, but I did anyway. My knees struck the frozen creek, shooting a bolt of white-heat up my thighs, but still I scrambled to make it to the bank. It was but a few steps, but to my flexing fingers, it was a thousand miles away. I heard him there behind me, the clop-clop of hooves. It reminded me strangely of my grandfather’s reindeer as a boy, when I brought them across the lake to the southern pastures and back again. This one was no reindeer, no gentle Pan with a golden flute. This was Old Splitfoot himself, and I’d followed him in disastrous curiosity. His hand clamped over my shoulder and felt the burn right through the wool of my thick winter coat. He took hold of my scarf, choking me with it, and laughed a deep rumble that sounded like amused thunder. His breath scalded my neck with sulphurous steam as he spoke my name again, the scarf pulled tighter and tighter.

I clawed at my own throat, his strange voice echoing inside my shattered mind. A blink, and I was freed. He and I were standing there as if none if it had ever happened.

“The goodness,” I croaked, “Why the masquerade?”

“I fancy the human spirit,” he replied. “The taste of generosity. The soft warmth of tea. The tender chewiness of meat. The animosity. The pity. I cherish it all.”

“I’m sorry I followed you,” I started to say, but he pressed a finger to his lips to hush me and extended a finger to somewhere behind me. I turned slowly, and gasped in horror when I saw the body. The eyes bulged as did the tongue, distorting the features somewhat, but I could still tell it was me laying there with open eyes to the falling snow. He stepped forward to close the space between us. His eyes flickered with internal flames.

“My brave soul,” he said, “Now you will follow me forever.”

I cried out as thick black wings burst from under my coat and we fell.

Kil Conor writes vulgarities, atrocities, and the very unfortunate.

Not a Whisper

BY LILY MULHOLLAND

Melbourne, Australia, 25 December 1901

Bustling sounds emanating from the kitchen signalled the impending arrival of steaming Christmas pudding. For the descendents of Dylan Blake, this was a special moment; the anticipation of the treacly treat drenched with hot yellow custard was more than the little ones could bear, their mothers scolding them to keep their places, wasting breath telling children to be patient. The man himself said not a word, preferring instead to survey the eager faces from his place at the head of the table. Cradling in his right hand a crystal glass filled with good French Burgundy, he stroked his white whiskers with his left, a sure sign that he was lost to the present, dwelling instead in a past that mirrored the fortunes of his adopted country.

Elizabeth arrived with a laden tray, her oldest daughter and namesake trailing, ready to pluck a bowl for each place setting. With sixteen around the table, it was a ritualistic dance that each year heightened the magic of Christmas evening. As the gaslight hummed and an early summer fire crackled in the hearth, the gathered clan got down to the serious business of filling their already round bellies. With the plates cleared and eggnog ready to be served in the parlour, Dylan stirred; it was his moment, the one time each year he told the story of his success. How he was transformed from a struggling convict-turned-musician into one of this new country’s most eminent composers.

He led his family into the cosy room and waited until his four children and their husbands and wives were seated, their children settling around their feet. Dylan took up his place at the hearth, fingerling flames dancing behind him, and waited for Elizabeth to hand him his cup and to seat herself in the midst of her brood. She had heard his story countless times, but was his proudest champion and loved to see him holding court.

The little ones looking sleepy, Dylan began to recount the events of a Christmas Eve nearly forty years ago, when he had travelled by horse and coach to a tiny hamlet in central Victoria, a little place called Middle Creek, distinguished from its bushy surrounds only by its hotel and two rows of tall gum trees guarding the dry creek bed.

“’Twas a hot and dusty summer in 1864. My band and I were looking for work and we decided to head to the goldfields. There was money to be made and we were flat busted broke. We based ourselves out of Bendigo and were playing up a storm three and four nights a week. To be sure, the standards from Ireland and the convict songs were far and away the most popular, but we were writing our own tunes as well and made sure we mixed a few into our sets.”

“Of course some audiences weren’t interested in our modern music, none more so than the mob we encountered in Middle Creek on Christmas night.”

Dylan, pausing for dramatic effect, took a sip of his spiced drink.

“The room was packed and we had only a tiny wedge of floor space in which to set up our instruments. The punters were well primed by the time we were ready.”

“We started out all right, the crowd stamping their feet and banging their glasses along to ‘The Exile of Erin’ and ‘Jim Jones at Botany Bay’, but every time we tried to play a song of my own composition the crowd would boo us down. One punter pitched a glass at poor Stewie Campbell; it struck his harp and ale splashed everywhere. He was lucky he ducked behind the strings just in time or it could have been his head. We made a quick decision to stick to what the crowd wanted – it was safer and we couldn’t afford new instruments anyway.” Dylan winked at his youngest grandchild.

“We were just finishing ‘Black Velvet Band’ with a rousing chorus from the crowd when the doors from the street were kicked open and a powerful man strode in.”

The older children gasped – they knew what was coming and loved it.

“It was the most afeared bushranger in all of Victoria, Harry Power.” He continued in a conspiratorial voice, “I knew him from the papers, where I’d read of his terrible temper.”

“He stalked the room from end to end, wearing his trademark hat and oilskin coat. All went quiet as he looked us over, one by one, strolling down the narrow gap between the band and the crowd. He walked right up to me and stared me in the eye. I don’t mind telling you, I was quaking in my boots.”

The little ones giggled.

“He wheeled suddenly and demanded the barkeep hand over the takings. You don’t say no to Power. You wouldn’t believe what happened next. Harry got himself a bottle of beer, tossed the chair nearest him empty (the poor young fella went flying) and sat down with his boots up on the table.”

“We were standing there stupid until he said, ‘Play my song’.”

“Knowing the fellow’s temper we didn’t dilly dally, but picked up our instruments and sang the song, accompanied by none other than Power himself.”

We might sing of young Gilbert, Dan Morgan, Ben Hall,

but the bold, reckless robber surpasses them all.

The pluck that’s in Power is past all belief.

Daring highwayman! Professional thief!

“He made us play four or five times more until he lost interest, preferring his cups to any other mischief making.”

“We played and played – I don’t think we ever played so long – until at last we noticed his head tip backward. A long, loud snoring note signalled he had fallen asleep.”

“I motioned to the band to keep playing and put down my fiddle. I crept ever so carefully over to Harry Power and retrieved the bags of cash from beneath his chair, my heart nearly stopping in my chest, so stricken with fear was I.”

“I returned the money to the barkeep and bade him give me the shotgun from behind the bar.”

Dylan’s audience was in thrall. They knew what was coming, yet hung on his every word.

“I closed the breach, thumbed back the hammers and pointed the weapon at the sleeping man. The band finished Moreton Bay and the crowd clapped and cheered so loud I thought my ears would burst. Old Harry snorted in his sleep and came awake, the tip of the barrel bruising his nose.”

“What ho?” he said, “Who the devil d’you think you are?”

“I, sir,” says I, “am nothing but a poor travelling minstrel. But I cannot allow you to swindle this fine establishment’s takings this Christmas Eve. I need to be paid and so does my band. I must ask you to leave and go back from whence you came.”

“And, do you know, the man was so surprised at someone standing up to him, he simply doffed his hat, drained his bottle and got up to leave. He bowed twice to the crowd and disappeared out the door with a flourish of his coat tails.”

“We heard him mount his horse and the sound of hoofbeats disappearing into the night was the cue for the place to descend into uproar. The lady proprietor swooned in my arms, doubled our fee for the night and shouted a round to all those who were present.”

Dylan drained his eggnog. He was nearing the end of his story and it was time the children were home in bed.

“The next day, when we returned to Bendigo, we were assailed by a reporter from Melbourne who had heard about my run-in with the bushranger. Before I knew what had happened, I was famous – the man who stood up to Harry Power.”

“I returned to Melbourne and received all manner of invitations to perform. Under the patronage of Charles Horsley, I was invited to perform a piece composed by my own hand at the Melbourne Exhibition in 1866. Since then, my dear children, I have worked hard to make the Blake family a cornerstone of Melbourne society.”

Dylan looked at his progeny, proud to have laid the foundations for their achievements. His two daughters, Elizabeth and Maude, had married well – one to a doctor, the other a lawyer. His sons, Robert and James, were upstanding young men: Robert destined for Parliament; James in his final year of medical school.

“Granddad?” It was Anne, his eldest grandchild, and also the boldest. “Is that story really true?”

“Anne!” said the child’s shocked mother.

“It’s all right, Elizabeth.”

Beneath his beard the old man flushed. He had been telling this story for nearly thirty years and no one had ever questioned him. This was his chance to tell the truth. That there had been no incident. That the proprietor was the bushranger’s mistress. That it was Power who had shouted the round. That the band had been paid handsomely. That he had concocted the entire story. That he had built his career on a lie. He took a deep breath and the words tumbled from him.

“Yes, my darling, every last word of it.”

Lily Mulholland used to love Christmas. The magic, the rituals, the presents. That was until she had kids. Now it’s all about Santa and subterfuge. Bah humbug! Read all about it at Lily Mulholland, Writer.

End of a Tradition

BY PAUL SERVINI

We all remember that day she arrived. Stepping off the bus, a large hold-all slung over her shoulder, she crossed over to where we were waiting.

“Noriam Sater, pleased to meet you.”

Your raised eyebrows betrayed your confusion. George stepped forward, a smile on his face.

“We’re very pleased to welcome you to our village, Miss Sater. It’s not exactly…”

“Ms. Sater, please,” she added. “I prefer Ms, you see.”

“Yes, well we don’t go in for that kind of thing here Miss Sater. We’re a conservative lot in this village and you’ll do well to remember that. But let’s not get all heated up over nothing. We’re extremely glad to welcome you here; we hope your stay will be both a happy and … let’s say a profitable one.”

Did you notice the way he glanced at me as he said this? At first, you’d all been against letting a younger player use the harp. Your caution was understandable. After all, it was our most precious treasure. In fact, I’d had my own reservations. When we first met, all I saw was a spindly, oversized gamine with long asparagus-like fingers: good fingers for a harpist. But the rest of her physique… I had my doubts. The concert harp requires physical strength as well as poise. But her playing soon won me over.

I wasted no time in offering to mentor her. She accepted at once. I’ve often wondered what attracted her most: the chance to play on one of the oldest harps in the country or my spiel on how I could help her become a better player. For me it was one last chance to do something useful before quitting.

As we walked down the road to the church hall, you fussed over her like a brood of hens. It was almost embarrassing to watch. You were impressed. It reminded me of the first time I had met her.

After lunch at the church hall George once again took over proceedings.

“Miss Sater, we’ve heard a lot about you and we are all anxious to hear you play. But first I have one small question. We’ve been given to understand that your name was Marion; Marion Sater. Yet, earlier you introduced yourself with another very strange sounding name. Indeed, if you want my opinion, it sounded almost foreign. Would you kindly enlighten us, young lady?”

“Oh, you mean Noriam. Yes, it is foreign. You see, it’s my real name. My parents were living in Thailand when I was born. They were working in a hospital there. They called me Noriam because it’s such a beautiful name. But when I returned here… after their accident… people found it easier to call be by an English name. Marion has all the same letters, so they started calling me Marion, you see. But sometimes, I forget. I’m sorry.”

George’s eyes swept across the table, resting one at a time on each of us. His anger was clear for all to see. There was a long pause before he started again.

“You mean you’re a foreigner? You’re not from this country.”

“Not at all! Let me explain. You see, my…

There she was, going on the defensive again. I just wished I could interrupt proceedings and speak up for her. But George would never allow that. Besides, she had to learn to fight her own battles.

“… and I’ve lived in…”

“Where you’ve lived, young lady is quite immaterial. You’re not from here, that’s all that matters.”

With that George stood up, cast a final sweep around the table and left the room. You followed him to a man. Noriam was in tears. I did what I could to console her, seemingly in vain. Finally, in a last ditch effort to persuade her to carry on I led her to the harp and told her to warm up. She stared at me but I held her gaze. I was determined not to let her off the hook. Some day she would have to learn to stand up for herself; now was as good a time as any. A faint glimmer of a smile appeared. I returned it. Her doubts stared back at me. She willed them to silence as she took up the harp. Our first victory.

She returned the next day. We worked hard all morning. Over lunch I told her about my illness. It was the first time I’d talked to anyone about it: the jitters, the pain, the doctor’s verdict.

“That’s why I want you here. I’ve got just one more concert in me. One more Christmas, the final solo, then the tradition passes on to you.”

“But they’ll never let me stay.”

“Well, to be quite honest, there’s not much they can do about it. I am, after all, honorary custodian of the harp. It’s my decision as to who plays or not. Besides, George will come round once he realises his precious tradition is at stake. The days when you could pick harpists from trees are long gone. And you’re by far the best of those available.

I’ll have a word with him. He’s not all bad, you know. It’s amazing all he does for that handicapped centre over the river. But he does have a bee in his bonnet for anything home-grown. Nothing equals it, so no one else is as good. I’m sure with your charm and my reasoning, we’ll bring him round.”

I often wonder which was the greater, my naivety or George’s shrewdness. And it still amazes me how you kept everything quiet. Not a hint came our way. On the contrary you all seemed to be warming to Noriam again. And when Noriam told me of her dream to start a centre in which music would be the means to overcome conflict, I was sure her work had begun right here.

Until the day. George came into the church, the sheets of paper rolled up in his hand; the first dark cloud in an otherwise brilliant blue sky. My illness seemed to be in remission. I’d had just one attack of the jitters in the past two weeks. My tutoring Noriam was bringing fruit. Not only was her technique was improving, but her fingering was developing that rare ability to move people to tears. George’s arrival put a stop to all that.

His face was as green as the venom which poured out of his mouth. He threw the petition down on the table beside us and with a detestable glance at Noriam spat out:

“The village has spoken. She stops today. The little bitch is even stupid enough to sign her own death warrant.”

Noriam left the village that very afternoon. I let her go without a word. There was nothing I could do for her now. Alone with my questions I turned to the only solace I knew. With each glass a new question. What devil had got into George, changing him the way it did? What trickery had he used to get her signature on that petition? Why on earth had none of you the guts to stand up to him? That evening I had another attack. Within days I was in hospital. Gone were my dreams of that one last performance. Never again would I wait with fingers poised for that second verse to begin:

“See the blazing Yule before us…”

And the tradition? As far as I was concerned, it was dead. Didn’t you even have the courage to tell me. I only discovered the truth that very afternoon. Noriam came to see me. I was close to tears when she told me. How could she demean herself in this way?

“I’m doing this for you and I want you there in the audience. My parents taught me one very valuable lesson. They taught me the value of serving others. But you see, they never taught me how to stand up for myself. Tonight, you’ll see, I’m going to learn that lesson.”

The concert itself was a pale reflection of what had been. A ripple of applause greeted the three village choirs as they took their places under one baton. Noriam came forward. Hushed silence. She stood up. I tried to attract her attention. She wasn’t looking my way. No, she was refusing to look my way. Then I saw the sparkle in her eye. A sparkle I didn’t know. As the first verse drew to a close, she swung the harp into position. All eyes were on her. This had to be the performance of a lifetime.

The choir crashed out the words: Strike the harp…

… silence. Noriam swung the harp back into place, bowed to the choir and walked slowly down the steps. The glint in her eye beckoned to me. As she came past, she held out her hand. I got up and we continued together down the aisle. The tradition had been broken.

Internationalism is written largely in Paul’s life. Born in Wales and married to a Germa, his family have lived and worked in several different countries in Europe and Africa. Paul has two children and is currently settled in France where he teaches English to adults.

'Til Death Do Us Part

BY EMMA KERRY

“Merry Christmas, love.”

The balding man winked at her. Mustering all her strength, Isabel plastered a saccharine smile onto her face. All around her people were busily getting into the Christmas spirit, in more ways than one. The crackling of the Yule log was drowned out by the almost torturous Christmas music. It wasn’t that Isabel hated Christmas, far from it, this just wasn’t usually part of her celebration. But, needs must. This was the first time in years she had been home for the holidays and had almost forgotten how tedious small village life could be. A year ago today she had sunning herself on an Australian beach, with not a rosy cheeked, snotty nosed child or mug of cheap mulled wine in sight.

Touching a hand to her new haircut, she moved on through the crowds. It was an old cliché, but there was nothing like an image overhaul to signal the end of a relationship. Her sleek auburn tresses couldn‘t disguise the hollow feeling in the pit of her stomach. She was single, on Christmas Eve. This had not happened since her mid teens. Tomorrow morning as the church bells chimed, there would be no delicate little gift under her tree. No fancy designer clothes, no surprise plane tickets and certainly no diamonds. Nothing but an awful jumper from her Nan. That thought alone, was enough to send her jumping head first on top of that damned log.

Isabel, didn’t need a man. She was comfortably well off in her own right, having carved out a satisfying career in journalism. Due to a run of good luck and wily decisions, she was more than able to pay her own way through life, but where was the fun in that? Growing up, her parents had lived modestly, with barely two pennies to rub together, and at an early age, she vowed to never be like them. And so far, she had lived up to that silent vow.

Married once for love, and five times for money, she viewed her first marriage, to her first love Martin her one big mistake, with a vital lesson to be learned – let down your guard and reap the consequences. Now, she called the shots. She was in charge. She was the one who had everything to gain and nothing to lose.

Her thumb rubbed the spot where up until recently her diamond wedding ring had sat. Maybe she should have held on to Roger for a while longer. He would have undoubtedly splashed out on yet more exquisite jewellery for her for Christmas. Maybe he would have whisked her off somewhere hot and exotic. He had been dull, maybe the dullest of her husbands, but he was also the richest.

“Isabel Milligan?” a voice cut through the drunken warbling.

She looked at the woman standing before her. Dumpy, with badly cut blonde hair and not a scrap of makeup on her face.

“It’s you, ain’t it?”

Isabel forced a smile. She had no idea who this woman was, except she was in dire need of a decent hairdresser and a truck load of makeup.

“It’s me!” she laughed, “Jennifer Wilkinson! Well, it’s Dower now.” She held up a sausage like finger, adorned with the cheapest looking gold band, Isabel had ever seen. It could easily have come out of last year’s Christmas cracker.

“Of course!” Isabel smiled enthusiastically, still not knowing who the woman was. She had a vague recollection of sitting near a girl called Jennifer in Physics, but that was a million lifetimes ago from a time she would rather forget.

“Are you married?” she asked, her eyes bright as she peered to get a glimpse of Isabel’s finger.

“No. I was, but…” she trailed off, hoping Jennifer would have the manners to leave it there.

“Oh, I’m sorry. Divorced?”

Isabel cleared her throat, “Widowed, actually.“ That should shut her up. She dabbed dramatically at her eyes, in case the hint wasn’t strong enough.

It wasn’t. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. Was it recent?”

There was no place for subtlety here. “I’d rather not talk about it, actually,” she said, not really caring whether it would offend. Jessica carried on yapping away incessantly. She didn’t appear to care whether Isabel was listening or not, so Isabel took the opportunity to scope out the party.

Things hadn’t changed in her time away. It must have been five years since she was last home, if you could in fact call it home, and things didn’t seem much improved. The sleepy village of Woodbridge, had never been known for it’s eligible bachelors. That’s all Isabel wanted for Christmas, a man. Any man really, she wasn’t particular about looks, so long as they had money.

Poor men never really knew how to carry themselves. They always picked up the wrong fork at dinner; they didn’t know a good Pinot Grigio from a Chardonnay; they couldn’t keep up with the lavish lifestyle she deserved. She wouldn’t be seen dead in any of the cheap clothes her old ‘friends’ were decked out in. Her life revolved around art galleries and jetting around the world not the latest soap omnibus or a fortnight in a caravan in Filey. It wasn‘t pity she felt for them, more disgust.

She had the exact same start in life as them. She too had grown up on a council estate, living hand to mouth with her five siblings; unlike them, though, she had decided to better herself, unwilling to live the same life her mother and her grandmother before her. She wanted more, so she went out and got it. It really was as simple as that. It was beyond her comprehension, how the others hadn’t done the same.

Surely they weren’t happy being stuck here. Nothing to keep them sane but the monotony of village life. They were crazy to settle for this, when there was so much more out there.

She wandered over to the makeshift bar, and bought herself another mulled wine. It tasted vile, but for the price, what was to be expected? Glancing around, she sent a silent prayer to whoever might be up there, that Christmas would be over soon. It was only Christmas Eve, she still had tomorrow, filled with sprouts and turkey and awful television to endure. Once more regret filled her about Roger. If she had been a little more patient, she would not be stuck here.

“Izzy.” The voice startled her. Taking a deep breath, she prepared for yet another dull trip down memory lane with someone she couldn’t for the life of her remember.

She spun, to be greeted by a familiar face. The owner had lost a serious amount of weight and a pair of awful glasses, but the eyes had that same twinkle. Dull Daniel. Their parents had been very good friends, meaning that by default they were thrown together regularly.

“It’s me, Daniel.” He smiled at her. He wasn’t  attractive but not stomach turningly ugly either.

“Yes, How are you?” Isabel decided she ought to be polite. Besides, there was nothing better to do.

They exchanged pleasantries for a moment. “So, what do you do?” Isabel asked.

He cleared his throat and coloured slightly. Great, she thought, this is where he admits he’s a bin man or a plumber.

“I’m in Real Estate.”

“Really?” Pound signs flickered in front of Isabel’s eyes.

Leaning subtlety forward, she allowed her hand to brush his, pulling back and smiling coyly. Looking up at him from under her perfectly curled eyelashes, she waited for him to take the bait. She always got what she wanted, especially when it came to men. Some people were natural when it came to maths or art, she was a master of seduction. It was all about the glamour, the pure, unadulterated sex appeal. People these days just didn’t go about things in the same way.

Observing the look on Daniel’s face, she recognised it as one of joy. He couldn’t believe his luck. Isabel knew she was attractive. Men never failed to check her out, even when their wives or girlfriends were there. She knew Daniel, like every man before him was fast forwarding in his head to getting her undressed. It was this precise moment she was counting on. This was the crucial factor. Men, when powered by lust would do anything. Literally anything. She had no intention of ever sleeping with him. She never slept with any of the men, not since Martin. She was a lot of things, but a floozy wasn’t one of them. Of course, by the time they realised this, it was too late. Far too late.

Her face fell into an easy, natural smile as he droned on about his work. Real Estate, it appeared was almost as dull as accounting. It was his wallet, though and not the conversation, she was interested in

A sudden feeling of calm washed over her as she realised Christmas wasn’t going to be so bad after all.

She was so caught up in her imaginings of how she would spend Daniel’s money and how she would get away with murder again, that she didn’t notice Roger’s foot peeping out from beneath the burning Yule log.

Emma lives in the North of England with her two year old son. When she’s not writing, she’s usually drinking coffee or baking. As well as writing many short stories, she is also working on her first novel.

See the Blazing Yule Before Us

BY JONATHAN CROSSFIELD

A short while after Anywhen, in a village a little to the left of Anywhere, an old man sat by a fire and waited.

Soon, someone would be along to see how he was and force a smile beneath sad, wet eyes before offering a kindness. Anything to make these last hours a little easier, they would say to themselves. More wine perhaps, or another blanket for the cold. Yet the old man sat in the warmest spot by the monumental open hearth of the village hall. The fire was dominated by a log so large it took six men to drag it through the snow that morning.

The old man sipped mulled wine and wondered why they made such a fuss over his final hours. The omen could have manifested at any time within the last twelve months without preamble. But as the final hours of the final day of that final year crept slowly off into the twilight, everyone knew his time had come.

“Sir?” The tiny voice revealed a young girl, framed by the large doorway, clutching a cloth bundle to her chest. The old man thought he recognised her – a farmer’s daughter, perhaps. On this night she should be dancing with friends as the village celebrated the season. Instead, no music could be heard and she was visiting an old man she barely knew. He felt guilty about that.

“Come in. It’s a cold night and the fire is having a hard enough time warming this area by me.” He smiled reassuringly. The younger ones were more wary of him – or had more difficulty hiding it. “Take this chair near me. I’m afraid I won’t get up. My legs seem to have decided there’s little point anymore.” He chuckled.

The girl closed the door against the snow and stepped cautiously into the hall, before sitting in the chair across the fire from the old man.

“I brought one of my father’s pies. Pork, I think. I could cut you a slice.”

The old man sighed. “Appetite has long since deserted me. Your father’s pastry deserves a better appreciation than any I can give this evening.”

The girl shifted nervously in her seat and looked to the floor, her reason for visiting now void. “Don’t fret. Your company is enough. Just sit a while. And when you feel you’ve taken the warm from the fire or hear your chores calling you back, then take your leave.”

The old man knew she wouldn’t stay long – none of them did. She had heard the stories, knew the omens.

The girl turned her gaze to the vast log in the centre of the hearth. It crackled and glowed, flickering light across the room to form twisting, contorted shadows that cavorted and danced like unnatural creatures in a demonic bacchanal. The old man knew she was desperately trying not to notice the far corner where the shadows gathered to resist the fire’s glow – where eyes watched from the darkness.

Despite her discomfort, the old man hoped she would stay a while longer. He didn’t relish being alone with his thoughts. Maintaining composure for a visitor helped quell the creeping dread inside.

“Aren’t you scared?” she asked.

The old man considered for a moment. “I have behaved like a frightened child for three hundred and sixty four days – afraid to go out, afraid of loud noises, afraid of a shadow. But not tonight. Because tonight is the three hundred and sixty fifth night and there is no time left to be scared.”

He took another large gulp of warm, spiced wine from the goblet. “And because I am drunk.”

He refilled the goblet from a flask kept warm by the fire and offered it to the girl.

“It’s Christmas, after all.”

* * *

Across the hills from Somewhere, in an age before Sometime, a young man led his family back inside to see his handiwork. He had laboured hard in the dimming light to wrestle the log back through the snow. Now it lay carefully positioned in the centre of their fireplace.

Smaller branches had been built around it, waiting for the flame to transform cold, hard wood into warmth and light enough to last the midwinter festival. Such a log, if kept alight until the last day of feasting, would please the spirits and bring good crops in the coming months.

The young man led his son towards the fireplace. He handed him the carefully preserved fragment from the previous winter’s log and watched as his son held it to the candle. Together they lit the kindling and watched the flames grow hungrier. He laughed. His son laughed. His wife smiled. The feasting could begin now.

Days of song and dance, mead and wine followed. People came and went, no matter the snow and cold, each sharing some food and drink, or perhaps a story or ballad. Midwinter would soon be past and the days would become fat and ripen into spring.

The feasting continued until the men became dull with drink, slowed by food. And so the raiders came.

The young man heard the town bell and barely had time to draw sword before they were at his door. Blades clashed barely half a dozen times before the wet thud of iron into flesh folded the young man over in pain. Forced to his knees, he was unable to resist the course hands exposing his neck to the air.

The young man vaguely remembered warriors swapping tales of heads, severed from their host, which still blinked and mouthed silent screams for minutes after the blow. He thought of this as he felt the fire of pain followed by a tug of hair as he was lifted higher. Then he was flying, spinning through the air, before heat and light engulfed him. He had failed. His family would suffer, most likely in pain, while the flames of the log consumed him, melting flesh and boiling his eyes.

* * *

The young man watched from the shadows as the old man consoled a woman who now occupied the visitor’s chair. She dabbed at her face with a cloth. “It’s unnatural to watch my own son enter old age before me.”

The old man’s voice wavered, occasionally breaking under the strain of his own breath. “We burn the Yule log to bring luck. It cast my shadow without a head and revealed my time was ending. Yet the village enjoyed good crops and a glorious summer. We cannot lay claim to the good if we refuse to accept the bad.”

The woman sat in silence while the old man examined the back of his hand. The skin was even looser than it had been only a few hours before; translucent and pock-marked. “I was a handsome young lad, just months ago. Dancing and singing and hoping for a kiss like all the others on Christmas Eve,” he grinned. “But the year has passed like sixty on my body. I’m sorry the village doesn’t feel able to celebrate tonight. They should. It’s Christmas, whether I am here or not.”

“They are scared of what has come to the village. The hall is an evil place this night.” The woman stiffened at the thought of the figure in the shadows.

She stayed a while longer but did not speak again. A little before midnight, she rose from the chair, crossed to the old man and kissed his forehead gently before leaving the hall without a glance towards the dark corner.

The old man stared at the fire as he finished his wine. Eventually, he looked to where the young man stood in the shadows.

“Come forward, my friend. You have been more than patient.”

The young man stepped out of the dark corner towards the fire. He wore the skins of a faraway place and a faraway time, with a sword hung from a crude leather belt. The firelight cast through him as if he was a reflection on water and the air did not stir for his movement.

“Welcome to Christmas Eve, my friend.”

The young man did not answer, but gave a slow nod of acknowledgement.

“I must thank you for allowing me the full year. You could have come for me at any time these last four seasons and in any manner of your choosing. But you allowed me the courtesy of old age and as many days as the omen would allow. I am grateful.”

Again, the young man nodded.

The old man turned to the fire once more. “One wonders how you came to serve the log’s grim purpose. Did you, like me, once see your shadow cast without a head?” He looked enquiringly at his companion but there was no reply. ”No matter. Whatever your secrets, you cannot tell and I no longer have time to listen.”

The old man adjusted himself in the chair, straightened his back and brushed his sleeves. “Come then. I’ve waited long enough. Let us be companions, you and I.”

The young man nodded one final time before fading slowly into the glow from the fire. The old man blinked uncertainly, before slowly closing his eyes. For a moment, he thought he heard the sound of a sword being drawn.

A short while after Anywhen, in a village a little to the left of Anywhere, an old man sat by the fire and waited no more.

Copywriting, screenwriting, blogging, journalism – if it involves putting words in a row with the occasional punctuation, then Jonathan has most likely given it a bash. Jonathan currently works as a Community Manager for a new online start-up and can also be found at Jonathancrossfield.com or by following @Kimota on Twitter.

Bosch's Book of Trolls

BY SUSAN MAY JAMES

Drenched in sweat, heart pounding, Matt sits up with a start. Although he had intended to keep watch until morning, fatigue had caught up with him. Groggy from sleep, he jumps up and tries to collect his thoughts. Although it’s the middle of the night, the house seems too still and he holds his breath while he listens and looks around the room. Other than the faint buzz emanating from the flashing Christmas tree lights, an eerie silence reigns. Outside, a blue-white glow is cast onto the fallen snow as fairy lights twinkle against the window. Matt crosses the room and gazes out as he tries to shake off the last vestiges of his nightmare.

This was the fourth night in a row that he’d been disturbed by the recurring vision. With a shudder he remembers the strange bird-like creature; it sits on a tall chair, clutching its victim by the leg, its beak wide as it consumes a man’s head and torso. In his dream the creature turns to stare at him, liquid eyes shimmering as the lyrics of Deck the Halls reverberate through Matt’s head. It pauses its feasting and opens its mouth, laughing through bits of chewed flesh and hair. Again Matt shivers and a sense of foreboding washes over him as he remembers the first time he saw the unusual creature.

It started almost a week ago when he’d taken his girlfriend to Madrid for a short break before they each headed to their respective families for the holidays. They’d spent their mornings wandering through museums and art galleries, afternoons roaming through the old city, and evenings eating and drinking copious amounts of tapas and red wine. On the second day they’d gone to the Prado where they’d come across Hieronymus Bosch’s infamous triptych, Garden of Earthly Delights. Its left panel sported, amongst a number of disturbing images, the hideous bird-like monster.

Jess had laughed as she’d watched his reaction to the fifteenth century painting and although it didn’t suit his own tastes, he’d immediately thought of his sister. She was reading for an Art History degree and so, thinking she would be intrigued by this artist and still needing to buy her a Christmas present, he’d stopped by the museum shop and purchased a poster-sized print of the painting.

* * *

Now, as his parents and sister sleep upstairs, his stomach churns and he wishes he’d never heard of Hieronymus Bosch.  If only they’d gone somewhere else. Matt sighs as he looks at the presents under the tree. He should have just left it at the poster, or bought something else instead. As he turns back towards the window, he hears the now familiar and disturbing noise that makes his heart leap and his fists clench. A faint rustle whispers from one of the brightly wrapped packages. Walking towards it he notes its nametag has fallen off and its shimmering bow seems to quiver with each rustle. His hands trembling, he crouches down and reaches for the parcel just as it begins to shake. The noise grows louder and for a moment he freezes but then, his throat tight, he remembers to sing.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly…” His voice is hoarse and the parcel continues to quiver. He needs to be loud and when the rustle turns to scratching he gasps in a lung-full of air and bellows with all his might. “Fa la la la la…!

It works, the package falls still and Matt sits back on his haunches, relieved.

“Mathew, are you alright?’ his mother is at the top of the stairs, the hall light glares into the dark room. She hesitates when he says he is fine. He tells her the noise was from some overzealous carollers outside. Accepting this, she says good-night and Matt stands up, his decision made. There’s only one way he can stop this, whatever this is. Still thinking of their trip to Madrid, he heads to the kitchen in search of some matches.

He will burn the blasted thing before it starts rustling again.

* * *

After the museum they’d gone to a little café half-way down Calle Libreros, a quaint street known for its shops that sold used and antiquarian books. Braving the cold they sat outdoors, sipping espressos, when Matt was drawn to a small shop across the street. It was almost unnoticeable at first glance; nestled between too larger shop fronts, a plain wooden door and window display obscured by a number of thick iron bars and a low-hanging awning. Intrigued, Matt gulped his espresso, told his girlfriend to wait, and loped across the street to read the small sign that hung above the door. T. Whitely, Bookseller, printed in thin gold lettering. As he’d stood peering through the window, something caught his attention. A slender leather-bound book, its cover dusty, was displayed in an open box, padded with pale blue tissue paper. A white card perched on top; Bosch’s Book of Trolls, 45Euros. Matt couldn’t believe his luck; this would be a perfect, albeit quirky, addition to his sister’s present.

A set of chimes tinkled as he’d pushed open the door to the cramped shop. Surprise hit him along with the smell of must; he’d never seen so many books in such a tiny shop. They were piled high on tables and stacked on shelves, spilling in every direction. Even the floor was covered with so many crates of books Matt had found it difficult to wend his way inside. The bookseller greeted him in English, his head tilted forward as he peered over his silver spectacles. Judging by the books’ titles Matt surmised he’d just stumbled upon the largest seller of English books in all of Spain; yet another stroke of serendipity.

“Ah, Bosch’s Book of Trolls,” the man had said. “A fine collection of his most hideous monsters and demons, you won’t find them anywhere else. That’s a very special book, is it a gift for someone?” Matt had nodded. “Good, because it’s only ever been meant to be given as a present. Whatever you do, don’t read it yourself.” Wrapping the book, he’d asked Matt if he’d heard about the theories regarding Bosch’s involvement in a secret sect. Again, Matt nodded with what he’d hoped was a knowledgeable look on his face.

“Just be sure to troll,” the bookseller had then said.

“Pardon me?”

“Trolling, as in singing loudly; trilling, bellowing!” The shopkeeper had leaned towards him, his voice booming as he tapped the book. “Troll the ancient yuletide carol.”

“You mean that line from Deck the Halls?” Matt had been puzzled, not sure what the song had to do with Bosch, but the bookseller wouldn’t say anything more and, eager to be on his way, Matt hadn’t pushed the issue.

From the moment he’d bought the book, he was aware of its presence. As they walked he was protective; double-looping his hand through the handle of the carrier bag. When they’d taken the Metro back to the hotel, it rested on his lap and had felt his thigh grow warm. When they left the hotel room, he’d worried and fussed over where to leave it, and then the second they returned, checked it hadn’t been moved. On the flight home Matt felt compelled to keep the book on his lap.

The day after their return to London, Matt found himself waiting in a coffee shop near Euston station. Delayed by inclement weather and bored, he made the fateful decision to look inside the book. Being careful not to damage its wrapping and so intent on his task he hadn’t even noticed the lights flickering as each layer of tissue paper was removed. Then, lifting the book to his face, he’d closed his eyes and opened it. It’s smelled of vellum; old and slightly sweet. When he opened his eyes, two red beady eyes stared back at him, causing him to jump and slam the book down on the table. For a brief moment, he thought he’d heard a growl and so, in a state of panic and haste, he’d re-wrapped the book.

That night the strange nightmares and rustlings had begun and when the noises had grown louder, he’d found wisdom in the bookseller’s words; be sure to troll.

* * *

As Matt now leaves the kitchen, matches in hand, he realises his mistake in thinking he could still give the book to his sister. He’d hoped if he kept watch until Christmas day, all would return to normal once it was given as a gift. However it no longer just made noise but moved and quivered as if coming alive. Matt’s only option is to destroy it.

Returning to the living room he gasps and falls to his knees in front of the tree. He’s too late; the book is open, its pages and wrappings tattered and chewed. Hearing footfall he whirls around, his stomach knotting as he sees a dark squat figure lurking in the shadows. Ugly, its eyes glow red and its toenails scratch on the carpet, trailing blood. It’s already been upstairs and as the creature hisses and lunges, Matt attempts to troll one last time before its razor-like teeth sink into his throat.

Troll the ancient yuletide carol

Susan May James is a Canadian born writer living in London. She writes flash fiction, short stories and is currently working on a novel. Her other passions include travel, photography and history and she can be found scribbling and scattering on her blog; Scribble & Scatter.

Modraniht

BY ANNIE EVETT

Spindly legs stuck out from ragged pants as the young lad sprawled on a flattened boulder at the mouth of a deep cavern. Although the cave might have offered refuge, the small boy was too intent on his task to notice the cold sting of the icy wind or the fluttering insistence of the snow. Yotnar hummed tunelessly as he twisted and wove twigs and dried vines together. His calloused, misshapen fingers fiddled with the scraps of vegetation strewn on the dirt beneath the rock. With quick hands and detailed eyes, he selected appropriate material to build his masterpiece, stopping only to assess and admire.

A pebble fell from the roof at the back of the cave, its tiny echo sending shivers down Yotnar’s spine. He stopped working and tilted his head toward the noise, seeking further evidence his mother had woken. He held his breath and strained his eyes into the darkness for her lumbering bulk.

A further gust of cold wind clawed his face as it blew from the valley below. His keen ears picked the strains of the villagers wassailing. Yotnar carefully placed his craft on the bounder and edged further out of the cave; furtively checking behind him to ensure his mother had not been awoken by the songs in the orchard. As much as he longed to listen to the villagers, he dared not leave his task or his mother while she slept.

He wondered what his mother would say when she saw how he’d decorated the front of the cave with evergreens and little green vines he’d found struggling underneath the snow. Yotnar stood and surveyed his work, smiling at how vibrant the red berries were peeking out from between the leaves.

A robin flittered down and sat amongst the twigs, tilting its head as it regarded Yotnar. Its breast expanded as the birds rich and warbling song mournfully broke the cave’s silence. Yotnar shrieked in horror as he flapped his arms recoiling from the tiny bird. Not many things unsettled the superstitious hill folk as violently as a robin, and Yotnar’s chest hammered as the bird fluttered around.

Yotnar regained his composure as soon as the bird flew off, his heart already sinking with gloom certain the bird was a sign of things to come. He shook as he began to imagine the harsh questioning of his mother as she demanded to know what he’d brought back from his days hunting. Yotnar winced as an icy gust slapped his face; just as carelessly as his mothers hand would be, when she saw his day’s efforts amounted to fashioning a wreath and decorating the caves entrance with dried twigs and shrivelled vines.

Yotnar trembled; a fat tear rolled down his face. His mother would find out about his night wanderings; but would not understand he had done it all for her.

He’d been enchanted by the wassailing every evening these past few nights, its soft sounds gentle to his sensitive ears. He’d crept to the outskirts of the village with no plan other than to follow the singing.

From a shadowy vantage spot, he’d watched the village men drag a huge log into the centre of the village. The tree had been carefully chosen and brought into the square with great ceremony. Children skipped beside the horse as it strained to pull the log to its final resting spot.

Yotnar had taken in a sharp breath as the men lit kindling around the log and trembled watching sparks fly into the inky darkness. Unable to continue sitting where he could see the flames, Yotnar stood to leave quietly, when the singing started. He breathed out and crouched on his haunches, rocking gently listening to the sombre singing of the entire village. His eyes glittered as they reflected the many candles lit from the flickering flames licking the log. Mesmerised he followed the singers trailing toward the orchards and squatted behind woodpiles, entranced as the women’s voices soared, pleading for bountiful harvests and shorter winters.

To the left of the chorus, a small girl chased her kitten into the snowdrifts. She slipped away unnoticed, consumed by the inky depths of the forest. Yotnar dismissed her passage hugging his nobbly knees, his full focus on the voices as they swept him away from the cold and loneliness.

The mountain’s gloomy shroud settled around Yotnar. He shivered and listened again for his waking mother’s movements. He began collecting the unwanted vegetation from the ground, but stopped as the wistful singing from the valley below reached a higher pitch. Yotnar sat back on his boulder and closed his eyes, remembering the scenes from the past evenings.

When the singing stopped, Yotnar recalled feeling the same loss he held when his father had left. He watched small family groups wander back towards their homes, threading through the orchard trees. He remembered a mother’s voice calling to her children as wails of hungry, tired children answered. Yotnar slunk further into the shadows, waiting for the humans to dissipate before he could make his own way back to the safety of his mother’s cave.

A single persistent voice repeatedly called a child’s name, her tone increasing in volume and panic. Several men joined her, bringing new torches and dogs. Yotnar edged his way around the woodpile, not wishing to be trapped by the hunters. He’d scurried into the undergrowth and began trekking away from the commotion. Torches, light and noise burned into the peaceful forest. Yotnar clasped his hands over his ears, trying to shut out the discordant, menacing noises. With his normal trail home populated by humans, Yotnar was forced toward the frozen river. It was there he found her curled under a fir tree, shivering, blue with cold. His body yielded no heat but he knew humans were frail beings and needed both warmth and their own kind.

Yotnar picked the shivering girl up and noticed she clutched her precious kitten. He felt her tiny heartbeat fluttering as her chattering and shivering decreased. Despite his young age, Yotnar recognised the signs of looming death and knew she must be returned quickly to the village.

Although Yotnar couldn’t normally cross the rushing water of the river, it now lay silent. Tentatively, he eased his bare feet onto the frozen water and nervously began pushing his legs beneath him to skate toward the village. Though fearful, he grinned, realising the movement was similar to his downhill skiing stunts.

The glow of the yule log brightened the village centre. Yotnar fancied he’d felt the globe of warmth as he neared. The little girl began to shiver again as the kitten shifted in her limp arms. Leaving the frozen river, Yotnar skulked between trees until he reached the outmost home. He carefully peered though a window and was greeted with screams. The door flung open as a young lad wielded an iron pot. The woman inside continued to scream as shouts from neighbouring homes returned her cries for help.

Yotnar remembered panicking and dropped the little girl in the snow directly in front of the menacing hero and scampered into the darkness, desperate to be rid of the noise and light.

He crept back to the cave and remained silent through to the next evening. Yotnar listened out for the singing, lulled once again into visiting the village. His chest stung as his breath was forced out of his lungs as he approached. Mistletoe, byre and bonfires littered the crossroads of the town to ward him away from further visits. Tears stung in his eyes, but dried when he discovered a delicate white flower hiding amongst the rocks. It was then he decided to craft a beautiful gift for his mother and set about finding materials.

A collection of pebbles rattled and crunched deep inside the cave. Yotnar wiped his face, smearing the dirty tear down his cheek. He quickly snatched up the wreath he’d fashioned twisting the circle of red berries and vines with a few Helleborus niger he’d found. Very carefully he threaded the leathery green leaves of Daphne laureola, mindful not to squeeze the stem allowing the caustic sap to ooze.

With trembling hands he lifted his gift up to his mother. Yotnar closed his eyes for a moment, hoping with his floral crown, fit for any princess, his father would return to the cave, even if it were for the evening.

A sharp slap stung him across his cheek. “Useless. Just like your father.”

She snatched the wreath and flung it out of the cave, spinning and glaring at the trembling boy. “And what’s all of this?” She systematically tore down his carefully twisted pieces of greenery around the mouth of the cave.

“I did it for you, Mamma. For Mōdraniht.”

Yotnar clutched his stinging cheek, willing the flood of tears to hold until at least his mother no longer stared at him with such venom. She turned her stony gaze down the valley, her craggy cheeks moist only from condensation.

Yotnar’s gift lay in the snow outside, gradually covered by the wispy snowfall, gently patted down and was soon buried.

Annie draws on years teaching and traversing the corporate landscape to infuse her eclectic writing with life experience. She is a prolific scribbler of characters, words and story lines, loves writing collaboratively for non-fiction and fiction projects, conducts workshops, whilst juggling motherhood amongst the mix.

Start your escapade into her worlds at annieevett.com

Don We Now Our Gay Apparel

BY GRAHAM STORRS

On Mount Coot’tha it feels as if you are standing on the prow of a mighty, landlocked ship. The vast city spreads far below you on all sides. Patiently, the mountain waits for the turgid Southern Ocean to ooze its way across those ruined plains and float it off.

I’d walked with Tom through the deserted streets of Brisbane that morning, goggling as usual at the sheer scale of the abandoned city. It was hot and dry. Snakes basked on the empty roads and the concrete burned our feet.

“Why’d they leave it, Tom?” Tom’s grandmother was still alive, so Tom knew all kinds of stuff about the olden days.

“Gays and Commies,” he said with a shrug. It was the usual answer. Gays and Commies had brought down the world that was. Everyone knew that.

I knew what a Gay was alright, but I don’t think anyone alive knew what a Commie might have been. Of course, that didn’t stop us wearing the masks and the black feathered cloaks on feast days, pretending to be Commies and scaring the little ones.

That’s why we had all come to Brisbane and were camped on Mount Coot’tha. It was the Summer Solstice. The biggest feast of them all. This night, in the ruins that topped the great massif, everyone would gather to celebrate the turning of the year. Every farm and village within a five day walk. Thousands of people. We would look down on the ruins of that immense city and remember the world that was.

Not that anyone could actually remember it, not even the oldest of the oldies. But there were stories that went with the feast, the same stories every year; The Day of the Storms, The Drought that Didn’t End, The Sea That Ate the World… I used to like the stories, full of the names of lost places and long-ago people, but I’ve heard them all so often now. I reckon they’re mostly for the kids, anyway. These days, I like the Summer Solstice more for the parties, and the gift-giving, and for all the girls you meet.

“How’d they do it?”

We were in the market. Not the kind of thing you see even in the biggest villages, but an impromtu, sprawling chaos of stalls, with people selling chooks off the backs of wagons, or field mushrooms off a blanket on the ground. Here, a table heaped with more kinds of clay pot than I’d seen in my life, there, jugglers and mimes, storytellers and fortune tellers. And my favourites, the junk stalls, loaded with weird stuff gleaned from the abandoned city houses.

My Dad says that when his father was a boy you could still find useful stuff, like knives and saws and glass bottles, but you can’t get things like that now. A lot of it has rusted away, or broken, the metals melted down to make other things. Now you just find plastic stuff that makes no sense, ceramic and glass models of animals, chipped and aged, and sometimes toys.

All rubbish, but people still buy it and keep it. You see them turn those objects over in their hands, their faces still, maybe trying to imagine the people who made them.

An old man with just one black tooth kept grinning and nodding at us, showing us the books on his little table, like maybe we hadn’t noticed them. Books burn well and I suppose that’s where most of them went. Nowadays they’re quite rare and cost too much for kindling. Almost no-one can read them anymore so they’re pretty useless, but some of them have pictures on the front; beautiful women in tight dresses, handsome men with torn shirts and exaggerated muscles. Everyone looks so clean and healthy.

“What?”

“How did they do it? You know, the Gays and Commies. How’d they end the world that was.”

“You still on about that?”

I tipped my head to where a guy in a Commie mask was chasing some kids around. He was growling and they were squealing like pigs. “It’s hard not to think about it today.”

“It’s ‘cos your brother’ll be put to The Question tonight, yeah?”

“Mate, he’s only thirteen. How’s he supposed to know?”

“Thirteen’s a man.”

I remember when I went through it, on a Summer Solstice just like this one, a few years back. I’d been scared shitless. They marched me up onto the platform and set me in front of The Inquisitor. I knew it was only the head man from Tarampa, a couple of villages East of us, but in his gilded mask and his finery, he looked like a god from one of the old stories. He spoke my name like a peal of thunder and asked me The Question.

“Are you a Gay?”

I was so scared my voice wouldn’t work. I shook my head like a dummy and The Inquisitor had to ask me again.

“No!” It came out as a shout and I swear I heard people in the crowd laugh at me, although Tom says no-one did.

“Very well,” The Inquisitor said. “Stand up and be brave, for today you are a man.”

I got up on shaky legs and gave the response I’d been rehearsing. Then I got off that platform as fast as I could without running.

I found Simon in the late afternoon, sitting by the family tent and staring out past the ruins of the city to the ocean that is slowly swallowing it. I sat beside him.

“What are you going to say, Sime?” His lips tensed but he gave no other sign of having heard me. “You know what they’ll do if you say yes?” Again, no sign. I got up, agitated and twitchy, angry in a useless, unfocused kind of way. I’d spent my whole life looking after my kid brother. Every instinct in me told me to shout defiance or punch someone. I didn’t want to lose him. That was the sharp spike at the core of it. I didn’t want to think about a life without him. “I mean, how can you be sure?” That’s what I couldn’t accept, even though, at his age, I’d known my own answer. “Mate, you’re just a kid. It’s not right.”

And then the night was on us. The bonfires were lit and everyone was gathered. The best storytellers got up, one after the other and told the old stories.

“… And in that day of storms, the giants fell, one by one; Tokyo, London, New York, Shanghai. The destruction was terrible. The end was swift …”

“… No-one knew what had happened. Their money was worthless. Their credit was gone. Within days, the cities that had nurtured them became deserts, without food, or water, or laws, or hope …”

“… And who do we blame that our Lord has turned his back on us? Who do we blame for the death of this once-proud nation? Who do we blame for the riots and the lawlessness and the utter destruction of our neighbours? Gays and Commies, that’s who! Gays and Commies!”

And, after that, The Inquisitor came up onto the platform, the torchlight flickering on his awful visage. He called the boys and girls up one by one, and to each he put his dreadful question.

Each one who answered ‘no’ was given the formal acceptance into manhood or womanhood and came down to rejoin their families, beaming and proud. Each one who said ‘yes’ was dressed in the robe that marked them, and moved to the back of the platform. There they would await the final pronouncement.

When Simon came up, he marched right over to The Inquisitor and knelt down in front of him, ready to accept his judgement. All I could think was, Say no. Say no. Say no. Yet, when the question was put, he looked up at The Inquisitor and said in a clear confident voice, “Yes, I am.”

My mother wailed and my father consoled her as best he could. That we would never see Simon again was a pain lost in numbness, but it grew in me steadily until I couldn’t bear it. I had to get out of the crowd and be alone.

Tom found me as the dawn lit up the dismal ruins below. A line of grey mist traced the looping river down to the wide estuary that had driven a wedge through the city’s heart.

I had done crying by then and I felt hollow and light-headed. Tom came and sat beside me on the dewy grass.

“So what if he is a Gay?” I said. “What can he do? He can’t even throw straight.”

“Mate, we don’t know. That’s the point. I mean, look at all that shit down there. The world that was had so many people and they could do so much. Yet it was Gays and Commies that brought them down. And Gays is all we got now. That’s why we pay tithes. That’s why they’re kept safe in the temples, so they can meditate and all that, find their inner strength, find whatever it is they’ve got that saved us.” He pointed down at the city. “You don’t want all that to come back do you?”

No-one wanted that, and yet…

“You should be proud, mate.”

I nodded and kept my gaze fixed on the distant ocean.

Graham Storrs is an Australian writer and the author of the sci-fi novel, TimeSplash, a time travel adventure from the near future. He lives in rural Queensland with his wife and an Airedale terrier called Bertie. Read more at his blog.

Apparel

BY JEN BRUBACHER

The hat was better than snug, throttling Marge’s temples so she wondered if she’d make it to the party before the headache took over. But the beard was loose, and hung off her chin in a weary sort of way.

Patricia giggled. “Now try the boots.”

“I need to get the blasted trousers and stuff on first. Where’s the fake gut?”

“No, try the boots. I want to see you in the boots.”

Marge shuffled into the black felt shoes and glared. Patricia’s giggles became a fit of laughter.

“Har. Are you finished your amusement at my expense? If my stupid brother would just man up for one year, but no, he thinks the kids would recognize him…”

“Oh, love. I just think it’s wonderful.”

Marge could think of a lot of things more wonderful than dressing up as Santa Claus for a few snotty cousins, in a clearly well-used and rarely-washed outfit that belonged in a bin. She said as much.

“Not that.” Patricia stepped nearer and stroked Marge’s woolly beard.

Marge batted her hand away, then grabbed it and kissed it. She was very aware that she was standing in nothing but her underwear, a Santa hat, boots, and the damned beard. She watched Patricia’s cheeks flush a beautiful pink. “What is it then?”

“It’s just… Your family is all for cross-dressing, sure, but when it comes to…”

Marge lost what little good humour she’d gathered. Patricia saw it go and stumbled over her words, fading into a mumble.

“Never mind.” Marge kicked off the boots and grabbed at the red suit. “Let’s just get this over with.”

***

Christmas at Marge’s family home was chaos, but Marge had always figured that was how it was supposed to be: Children underfoot, their names and ages a blur since last year; Crabby uncles and tipsy aunts; The smell of spiced cake and roast animal wafting from room to room; Pine needs stuck to stockinged feet. This was how she’d grown up, and hadn’t realized the holidays could be any other way until she’d gone home with Patricia one year and seen her traditions: Just Patty and her parents, baked salmon and Bailey’s, and a little television before bed. That was the way to do it.

And at least there they were allowed to share the double bed in Patricia’s old room.

Marge scowled into her mulled wine, then watched it spray an arc over her blue cashmere sleeve as one of the younger cousins smacked into her thigh and went twirling off across the living room. She bit back a curse that would surely draw a glare from a tipsy aunt. It was her favourite sweater, and it was ruined. She decided it had actually been better when she was dressed as Santa. At least then the little terrors had been a bit afraid of her.

Marge’s mother Alice slid up with Grandma Betty in tow. “Sweetheart, say hello to your grandmother.”

“Hi Grandma.” Marge leaned and allowed a papery kiss on her cheek, and gave one in return. “How are you? Are you keeping well?”

Two toddlers sped between them, chasing each other towards the kitchen.

“David’s kids are turning out so well!” Grandma Betty shook her head and pursed a smile. “Your brother has a lovely family. Don’t you think?”

Marge felt cold. “Yes, Grandma.”

“It’s never too late you know, dear.”

“I know, Grandma.”

Alice absently brushed at the spilled wine on her daughter’s sleeve. “I see you brought your friend Patricia again, Margie.”

Marge stiffened. She stared at her mother, who looked back with detachment.

“It’s good to have friends,” Grandma Betty said. She tottered after the children.

After a chilly moment, Alice went too.

***

Marge’s hands shook. Her bare ring finger felt itchy and weird. She wished she still smoked so she had something to hold on to, some excuse to be out heel-deep in snow while her family soaked in its own cheerful ignorance.

“I was wondering where you’d got to.” Patricia appeared around the side of the house. “Brr! What are you doing out here?”

“I can’t stand it.”

“Then come inside where it’s warm.”

“I can’t stand them!”

Patricia stared for a moment and then went to wrap her arms around Marge. She glanced at the bright windows and stopped mid-hug. “I’m sorry.”

“The rest of the year, I can take it. The rest of the year at least I know everyone knows, and they’re pretending it doesn’t matter. But it’s Grandma Betty. Everyone expects her to drop dead if she found out and of course that would be my fault. And if she’d just die already without my help—”

“Hush, now. You don’t mean that.”

“I do.” Of course she didn’t. Before she’d gone away to school, before things had gotten confusing in Marge’s life, she’d been Grandma Betty’s favourite. They’d had a lot in common—black and white classic movies, rhubarb pie recipes, The Beatles—until Marge had figured herself out and realized that no matter what they shared, she could never share that. Not with her Grandma.

Her mother had warned her. “It might seem like a good idea in a modern kind of way, but all you’ll be doing is making an old woman’s last few years miserable.” And how could Marge do that?

“Christmas is a lie,” she muttered. Patricia gave her a look so loving and exasperated it was all Marge could do to keep herself from bawling like a child. “I’m going back in.”

***

One more afternoon of festivities. A few more hours dressed in lies, Marge thought. Presents had been opened, tried on or eaten, and there was just the big afternoon feast to go before she and Patricia could reasonably claim bad weather was coming and flee for home.

They’d been sat at the table in Betty’s traditional way: boy, girl, boy girl. The only odd one out was Patricia, sat right next to Betty due to a surplus of females. Marge was next to her brother.

When David finally got his kids calmed down, Betty tutted and smiled at the lot of them. “It’s just wonderful knowing that you have such a family, David.”

Marge’s brother smiled and reached for the mashed potatoes.

“You don’t want to end up alone.” Betty muttered. “Nobody should be alone, if they don’t have to be.”

“Oh, mother.” Alice rolled her eyes.

For a peculiar moment, Marge saw her grandmother glare at Alice. Marge had never seen such an angry expression on the woman’s face before. Not even when her husband was taken from her before all the kids had even left home.

“Grandma,” Marge said suddenly. “Are you lonely?”

Alice laughed out loud. She stared at her daughter like she’d grown an extra, even uglier head. David cleared his throat and shoved potatoes into his mouth.

“Grandma?” Marge persisted.

Alice began to interject again, but Betty raised her hand. “Let me talk to my granddaughter, woman.”

The awkward silence grew around the table. Even the kids stopped chattering.

With all attention on her, Betty seemed to lose her nerve. “Well anyway,” she said. “I just meant… We should talk later, sweetheart.”

Conversation began to move on.

“I’m not lonely, Grandma.” Marge said loudly.

“She was just talking about you getting married, dear. That’s all she meant and you know it. You can let it go, can’t you?” Alice brushed at the air like she could brush away the conversation.

Betty looked like she wanted to say something else to her daughter, but Marge interrupted.

“I am married, Grandma.”

Conversation stopped again.

Patricia made a funny noise.

Marge reached for her pocket. All the stupid things she’d worn that weekend: the Santa outfit, the ruined cashmere sweater, and her current outfit—a new blouse from her mother that she didn’t even like, but it was Christmas, you had to wear whatever came to you—All those things and nothing had felt at all comfortable, nothing had felt right, because of the empty spot on her ring finger. She dug into the pocket of her skirt and scraped her knuckles feeling for the little gold band. Drew it out and put it on, high over the table, in front of everyone.

“I’m married to Patricia. My best friend. I love her.”

David coughed on his wine. Alice made a strangled noise and looked at her mother.

Patricia sank a little in her chair, but Marge saw some pride in her face anyway. Patricia couldn’t help but smile, just a little, because Marge was smiling back at her. Even naked in front of her family, Marge smiled at her wife like she had the day they’d married.

The family waited for Grandma Betty’s reaction.

The old woman frowned at Marge. She frowned at the gold ring, and she turned slowly in her seat to regard the woman beside her. Her granddaughter’s wife. Betty squinted one eye and then she frowned again at Marge.

“You’ve been hiding your lovely family from me?”

Marge stared. “Yes, Grandma.”

“Enough of that.” Betty grasped Patricia’s hand where it lay, slightly shaky, next to her plate. “My dear, you’re a lucky woman. Have some mashed potatoes. You too, Margie.”

So they did. And although Marge continued to be the one stuck in the Santa suit each year, later Christmases still felt like a much better fit.

Jen Brubacher is a librarian who believes there aren’t yet enough books in the world. She writes mostly mystery and suspense, and loves discussing the writing life, but becomes dizzy with excitement when someone mentions folksonomies.

Contact her at jbrubacher.blogspot.com or twitter

'Tis the Season to be Jolly

BY SAM ADAMSON

24th December, 06:34

“…deck the halls with boughs of holly…”

Jim grunted in his sleep, farted and rolled over.

“…’tis the season to be jolly…”

“No it bloody isn’t,” he growled, groping over the side of the bed for something and lobbing it at the radio alarm clock.

“…don we now our –”

The alarm clock shattered on impact, Jim’s size 10, steel toe-capped work boot wedging itself between the wall and the bedside table.

Silence.

Jim snorted and rolled over, pulling the duvet over his head.

06:58

Jim’s dream about the stripper from last night’s visit to the pub took a strange turn, her skimpy Santa costume morphing into a dress made entirely from bacon. She reached out and shook him gently by the shoulder.

“Jim, you awake?”

More shaking, this time not quite so gentle.

“Steady on, pet,” Jim mumbled.

“You’ll be late for work. I’ve made you a bacon sandwich.”

The shaking became quite violent.

“Jim! Wake up Jim!”

‘Oh, bugger off woman.’ Jim’s eye slitted open, the stripper fading from his memory, replaced by the middle aged spread of his wife standing next to the bed, a mug of tea in her hand. The thought of his wife in the stripper’s costume soured Jim’s stomach, the urge to hurl stemmed only by the aroma of bacon wafting from the kitchen.

“Alright, alright, I’m awake.”

“You’ve got fifteen minutes.”

Jim’s wife sighed, banged the mug down and waddled out of the bedroom.

07:17

“Jesus wept! It’s cold out here,” Jim announced to the world, trudging down the garden path through ankle-deep snow to the automotive snowman standing where he’d parked his van last night. Jim fumed as he attacked the rime of ice on his windscreen. It was all right for ‘Er Indoors, she didn’t have to go out in this weather, could put her feet up, nice and toasty in front of the bloody fire.

After shifting enough ice and snow to get the cab door open, Jim climbed in and fired up the van, revving the engine repeatedly for those of his neighbours still sleeping. He grabbed the snow shovel from the passenger seat, ignoring the Santa hat glaring malevolently at him and set to work shifting enough of the overnight drift to allow him to drive the van out.

07.42

“Bloody snow.” Jim eased his portly frame into the cab, slammed the door and, ramming the van into gear, slithered away down the street. “Bastards, I’m late. Again.”

Out on the ring road, traffic crawled nose to tail as Jim bullied his way into the morning rush hour.

“…and it’s shaping up to be a great Christmas Eve this year,” the Breakfast Show DJ announced.

“Arsehole.”

Jim hit ‘Scan’ on the stereo but there was no respite from the seasonal good cheer. He turned the radio off, assuaging his temper by swerving through a huge slush puddle in front of the bus stop, drenching the entire queue.

Chuckling to himself, Jim watched the bus passengers in his mirror, shouting and gesturing in a very unfestive fashion. He swung the van onto the industrial estate and headed for the courier company’s warehouse.

08:30

“You’re late,” said a voice.

“Bollocks,” muttered Jim under his breath as he climbed out of the back of the van to where Simon Potts, his supervisor, stood on the loading dock tapping a pen against his clipboard.

“Well?” Potts looked at his watch.

“Snow,” Jim grunted by way of an explanation.

“Better get a move on. According to the manifest,” Potts paused, “you’ve eighty-two drops today. Ho ho ho, eh?” Potts grinned as he handed Jim the manifest.

Jim rolled his eyes, grabbing the board and throwing it on top of a stack of boxes, thinking how he’d cheerfully love to shove that biro right up Potts’ arse.

Potts started walking back towards the warmth of the dispatch office, pausing to call over his shoulder, “Hat. Don’t forget your hat.”

“Dick!” Jim spat at Potts’ retreating back.

Once the van was loaded, Jim jammed the Santa hat onto his head and roared out of the yard. The bells on the end tinkled with every bump in the road, and by the time he reached the ring road left eye involuntarily twitched in time with them. And the damn thing didn’t fit properly, kept slipping over his eyes at a jaunty angle.

12:24

Jim pulled his van into the lay-by serving as the car park of Pepe’s Bar and Grill and ambled over to the dilapidated caravan.

“Art’noon Jimbo,” the ash of Pepe’s cigarette dangled perilously close to the grill full of burgers. ‘Usual?’

Jim nodded, wincing as the bells on his Santa hat jingled merrily. Pepe poured tea into a Styrofoam cup, Jim shovelled in sugar while Pepe piled blackened fried onions onto his sausage sandwich.

“Three seventy,” said Pepe, plonking the sandwich on the makeshift counter. Jim dug in his pocket and dropped a handful of coins into Pepe’s greasy, outstretched hand.

“Merry Christmas! Nice hat!” Pepe shouted as Jim trudged back to the van. Jim thrust a V sign over his shoulder before climbing into the warmth of his cab to eat.

12:48

Twenty-four ‘We’re Sorry You Were Out’ cards later and Jim’s foul mood plumbed new depths. What’s the point, he grumbled to himself, ordering all this stuff for Christmas and not being bloody well in when it’s delivered?

The last one took the biscuit, a tatty scrap of paper pinned to the door:

‘I’ve had to pop out for five minutes, would you mind waiting? If that is inconvenient, could you please leave the parcel with my neighbour…’

The neighbour, it transpired, lived three streets away so Jim shoved a card through the door, threw the box into the back of the van. He was sure he heard something break when it landed, something ceramic by the sound of it. He smiled.

14:23

Jim didn’t see the cat. The van’s rear wheels bumped over something on the snowbound road and a red smear appeared in his mirror. Jim braked, slid the van into the curb and jumped out. After a quick look up and down the road for curtain-twitchers, Jim nudged the mangled remains into a snowdrift with his toe and drove off.

15:57

The light was beginning to go as Jim threw the van around the corner and onto the town’s roughest council estate.

Jim pulled ‘Betty’ his trusty tyre iron from under his seat, grateful he didn’t live in a place crawling with chavs. Following a spate of attacks on delivery drivers, he never ventured onto this estate without Betty for backup.

Fourteen drops here and Jim could knock off for the night. He risked the radio again for the traffic report. The drivetime DJ played a particularly irritating Christmas tune. Jim glanced across at the manifest for the next address.

“…aaaand now on Drivetime, the UK’s Christmas number one, this is ‘It Factor’ winner Nick Morgan’s single, ‘Tis the Season…”

A few bars of the opening and Jim’s eye twitch was keeping time with the beat as Morgan’s warbling falsetto wafted out of the speakers, “’Tis the season, ’tis the season, to be jolleeeeee –”

As Morgan’s voice reached a crescendo, a snowball with a large stone at its centre shattered the driver’s window.

Howling in shock, glass showering the cab, Jim spun the steering wheel and jammed on the brakes. The van skidded across the icy road while Jim’s eyes remained squeezed tight shut and kids chanted, “Merry Christmas, wanker! Merry Christmas, wanker!”

The chanting turned to screams as the van mounted the curb and came to a halt. Jim tumbled from the cab hell bent on revenge, Betty gripped tightly in his fist.

“Merry Christmas! I’ll give you Merry Bastard Christmas, you little shits,” he roared, squinting as bits of glass fell from the fur trim of his Santa hat. The kids had disappeared, but a beefy-looking bloke ran towards Jim, tracksuit trousers tucked into his socks, hooded top flapping open to reveal a stained football shirt barely covering a massive beer belly. Whale-spouts of beer jetted from the can of super strength lager in his hand as he ran.

Deciding discretion was the better part of valour, Jim spun round and grabbed for the cab door. For a second or two he stared uncomprehending at the pair of small feet sticking out from under his van. Realisation dawned a split second before the punch connected with the back of his skull, pitching him face-first into the side of the van. A myriad of lights exploded behind Jim’s eyes as he went down, Betty falling from his grasp.

Blood and snot leaked from his ruined nose down the front of his overalls, and the Santa hat pitched forward over his eyes as he knelt fumbling frantically in the snow beside him for Betty. Where the hell was she?

The first blow from the tyre iron knocked the wind out of him.

“That’s my son under there, you bastard!”

Another blow and Jim felt a rib break.

The tyre iron continued to rise and fall. On the verge of unconsciousness Jim heard familiar words drift from the van’s speakers.

‘…’tis the season, to be jolleeee…’

Sam Adamson is a writer, blogger and fountain pen enthusiast. When not writing, scheming or enjoying a good cup of coffee, Sam is engaged in a relentless hunt for the perfect writer’s notebook and pen combination. He lives in England with his family and two demented cats. You can find more of Sam’s writing at Future; Nostalgic.

A Jolly Pair

BY CHRISTOPHER CHARTRAND

He sits alone by the bar in a dirty red suit. Not a classy red, the kind that hearkens back to a more romantic time, but a threadbare, thrift store red with stained cotton trim. The black vinyl belt, cracked and broken, hangs around his waist by the grace of some Christmas miracle. His hands grip his third 7 and 7. His sun-faded Santa hat sits crumpled on the bar, soaking up spirits belonging to the drunks of Christmas past. He brings the glass to his ear and swirls the ice and whiskey around, smiling at the sound of his own Christmas bells. He smiles and chuckles to himself and smiles some more, laughing softly at a private joke he shares with God-knows-who about God-knows-what. The deep laugh lines around his eyes disappear slowly as he licks his dry, weather-beaten lips before letting the golden whiskey pass over them. He slams the glass on the bar like an insulted cowboy ready to fight. The bartender takes his cue from the gavel-like sound and pours the down-and-out Santa one more.

* * *

She stands alone on the street, a bright, carefree girl in a plaid jacket. Not the country plaid of warm fires and good books, but the smart, expensive plaid that says Success and Independence. She holds half a dozen over-sized bags emblazoned with words like Neiman and Marcus and Tiffany; holds them in her dainty hands, just beginning to turn red with the cold. She stands and waits, gleeful and bright; a beacon in the dark chill of the city. She shifts her bags to one hand and retrieves a phone from her coat pocket. She talks loudly to God-knows-who about God-knows-what then slams her phone shut. She licks her lacquered lips and moves some of the bags into her now empty hand. She stands straight, shoulders square and takes her cue from the traffic light. She walks alone, her light attracting the bugs of the city.

* * *

Thrift store Santa leaves the bar without his hat. He doesn’t care anymore. He knows he should go the hell home but he’s lucky if he’ll make it to the alley. He’s sick of this time of year – sick of this shit, this hell, this pain. Sick of the memories that refuse to get easier with time. Sick of the lies life throws at him. He says “Bullshit” and pulls the gun from beneath his tattered coat and digs deep down in his pocket to find his only bullet. He turns the shell around in his hand and slides it into place before he changes his mind. He spins the cylinder, flips it closed and looks at the dim sky.

“Tis the Season to be jolly,” he calls to an absent wife and daughter, steels himself and pulls the trigger.

Click.

“Jolly, huh? I’ll show you Jolly.”

Click.

“Come on, Goddamn it.”

Click. Click. Click.

He shakes his head, cursing his one bullet. The gun flips open and he spins the cylinder again, flicking it closed to try once more.

* * *

Plaid, independent girl makes her way down the slushy street past an alley. Her thoughts switch from how she loves this time of year to how did she get to this part of the city? Joyful memories of times gone by mingle with the sounds of sirens and cars that seem to drive just a bit too slow. Her bags that made her proud make her a target and they get heavy so she puts them down. Just for a second, she needs to flex her fingers and catch her bearings. She doesn’t see the large man approach from behind. She doesn’t know what’s happening till she’s in the alley and pinned underneath his crushing weight.

“Shut up bitch!”

Zip

“Oh please, no!”

Rip

“I have money!”

Slap

The monster smells like old alcohol and rotten meat. She fights desperately to get away. Her fingernails plow jagged lines through her attacker’s flesh. The monster slaps her hard, again and again till she stops fighting. It’s strong, so strong, stronger than her. It forces her legs apart and slams its rough hands between them. The light she had inside dies out.

The attack ends with a deafening roar. All at once the monster’s oppressive weight doubles as his muscles go limp. She thinks she’s trapped and then he’s gone. Confused, she blinks herself back to reality. There, through tear-streaked eyes, stands a faceless knight in dirty red armor clutching a revolver.

“Are you alright?” The knight kneels down beside her and places strong, gentle hands under her shoulders. “It’s okay, you’re safe. Did he hurt you?”

She shakes her head and sits up. Embarrassment takes over as she struggles to pull her dress back down to cover her legs. She pulls her once lovely coat, now buttonless and torn, tight around her cold body.

“I’m alright. He didn’t…” she stares past her hero and sees the monster face down lying in a pool of crimson blood. She notices how it clashes with the red coat of her savior.

“It’s alright you don’t have to finish.” He pats her gingerly on the back. “Can you stand?”

She nods and waits for him to help her. He’s strong and controlled as he pulls her to her feet.

“There’s a bar right around the corner,” he nods with his head. He looks down at his hands resting on her hips to steady her and whips them away thinking she’ll find it inappropriate after what she just went through. “We can go there and call the police. Do you need to go to the hospital?”

“No, like I said he didn’t… do anything, just hit me, but I’m alright.”

He nods and leads her to the bar, shoving the revolver back under his jacket.

“I’m glad Santa’s taken to carrying heat these days.” Surprised by her joke they say nothing till they are at the bar. He tells the bartender to call the cops and they take a seat next to the door.

“So,” she says in an awkward attempt to break the tension. “I’m Susan.”

“Nice name. I had a daughter named Susan. I’m Jim.”

“That’s a nice name, too. Had a dad named Jim.”

The coincidence hits them both and they stare at each other, desperate to see themselves in one another’s faces.

“What happened to your daughter?”

“I don’t know. I left before she was old enough to walk.”

She didn’t want to look at him but did anyway. She looked right at him and squinted. “Why?”

He didn’t want to look at her and didn’t. “Look at me. I’m not what you would call ‘Father of the Year’ material.”

“So you left your family? Why?”

“Look, it’s what I do. I run away from things.”

“You didn’t run away tonight. You helped me.”

“I tried to run tonight but… I helped you because I couldn’t run away. It’s not the same thing.”

“I don’t get it. You run away all the time, but couldn’t run away tonight so you stopped someone from raping me? You’re a strange Santa.”

“I’m no Saint Nick. Truth is, that bullet was meant for me but the gun didn’t work.”

“Killed that guy, didn’t it?”

They study each other for a few minutes until they hear the distant drone of a siren.

“Anyone would have done the same thing. I’m not a hero.”

“You know, Jim. They say, not that I’d know of course, but they say a girl’s first hero is her father. You should look up your family.”

“No, it’s been too long. Twenty years tonight to be exact.”

“Yeah, well, like I said, I wouldn’t know. I never had a hero.” She reaches across the table and takes his dirty hand in hers. “Till tonight, that is.”

He looks up at her, surprised at the small light he sees glowing from behind her eyes as she smiles. The undulating sound of sirens becomes intrusive then abruptly ends. Several car doors slam.

“Will you come with me to the station? I’m scared.”

“Considering I just shot a man, I don’t think I have much choice.”

“I’ll tell them how you saved my life.”

He smiles back this time and watches her light grow even as she watches his grow in return.

The small set of bells above the bar door tinkles like ice in a whiskey glass as the police burst in, eyes on Jim and hands on guns; ready to subdue the dirty bum. Susan stands first and takes Jim’s hand, pulling him to his feet before the police can move in. They stand together, hand in hand, a jolly pair, shining out to the world.

Christopher works in the non-profit sector by day and scribbles stories in the wee hours of the night. He loves drippy, happy-ending Christmas stories and dark, gritty drama, so was thrilled when offered this opportunity to combine the two. Chris lives in snow covered Maine, not the Maine of former Presidents and families in matching sweaters, but the rugged, rocky coast with working families and Yankee ingenuity. Merry Christmas, or Happy-whatever-else you may celebrate.

Drench the School

Drench the school in gasoline

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Light a match and watch it gleam

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Watch the school burn down to ashes

Fa la la la la, la la la la

Aren’t you glad you played with matches?

Fa la la la la, la la la la

“Miss, miss, it’s just a song.”

They didn’t even get to repeat it a second time before Miss Stevens had them by the ear, dragging them both down the corridor, as if sharing the same bit of flesh hanging off the side of Rick’s head.

“But Miiiiiss,” Johnny’s whine dragged out, “We weren’t really gonna burn the school down. It’s just a joke.”

They’d heard the song from the grade sixes. They’d laughed so hard their stomachs hurt and they could barely hold themselves up. They should’ve known it wasn’t all kindness though when a couple of grade sixes dared them both to sing it into their voice recorder and play it outside the staff room.

But now, being dragged past all the other staring kids, they kept their faces screwed up, as if they were tough and this happened all the time. They wouldn’t be intimidated. They wanted to walk tall, grinning so wide, so the rest of the kids thought they were rebels.

“But miss, it’s the last day of the year. You can’t keep us in detention now. It’s not fair. It’s nearly Christmas.”

“It’s too bad. This will teach you not to joke about some things.”

“But miss…”

“What?”

“My dad says that the fucking Tories are gonna really burn down the school.”

“Well your dad’s he’s a lying communist – and don’t use such language.”

“Sorry, miss. I meant fucking conservative.”

“Johnny!”

“Sorry, but it’s true. My dad said –”

“I don’t care what your dad says. Now shush!” The door slammed shut. Johnny and Rick sat alone, fiddling with the grooves in the desks that said things much more profane than ‘fucking Tory’. Their eyes darted between one another until there was tapping on the window in the door.

They raised their fists and smiled back at their admirers. They were rebels.

Johnny turned to Rick. “Let’s bust out of here”

* * *

The only odd thing about the men in suits outside Miss Stevens’ staff room window was how unusual it for politicians to pay attention to their little school.

“About bloody time,” she whispered to herself before biting into her tuna and salad sandwich, opening the last Twilight book. She still hadn’t worked out what all the fuss was about.

Miss Stevens was unaware the night before, the men outside had met in a smoky bar and highlighted the schools slated for budget cuts.

“I’m gonna lose my damn job if we go ahead and do this,” the new MP protested, “I ain’t cutting schools before Christmas. It’s political suicide.”

“Don’t worry. I have a way to get rid of these liabilities without making us look responsible.” Vince smiled and held up the can of petrol. The other two didn’t even flinch at it. They had done worse, taken bribes, hired hit men. But this time they had to do it themselves. The risk of it getting out, of someone dobbing them in, was too great.

Now they hovered around the side of the building like vultures. They considered this easy pray – dead and worthless. The media never paid attention to little schools anyway. Future businessmen and politicians never came out of places like this.

* * *

Rick perched on the widow sill, prying at the window looking out onto the oval with a ruler. It was the second attempt. Splinters and the corpse of the first lay underneath him at Johnny’s feet.

“How did the other song they told us go?”

“I don’t know…”

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire-”

“Shut it.”

“Build a bonfire, build a bonfire, put the teachers on the top, put the principal in the middle and we’ll burn the fucking lot.”

“We’re glad we didn’t sing that one. We’d get worse than detention. Maybe they’d tell our parents and we wouldn’t get any Christmas presents. So don’t sing that one, okay! You didn’t record it did you?”

“Okay, okay. No, I didn’t.” Johnny’s finger rested on the record button as he held the thing in his pocket.

“Got it.”

The window pane slipped forward. Rick hadn’t thought of what to do next and it just fell out into the garden. They heard it make a dull crack.

“Can you smell smoke?” Johnny asked Rick as they slipped out of the classroom window.

* * *

No one could actually hear Miss Stevens swear over the sound of the fire alarm shrilling throughout the school. But the expletives featured ‘those kids’ as she pushed her way through the panicked students.

She almost didn’t bother to unlock the door when she had to use her shoulder to break it open. She froze in the vacant classroom full of cyclones of paper fuelled by the missing window.

* * *

Three suits reeked of petrol. They were almost high and had jumped and skipped around as though sacrificing something to the gods as they drenched the school in gasoline. They could’ve been telling tales in front of a campfire the way their faces glowed and their eyes shined.

They dashed around the side of the school, a clear run for it across the oval open to them. They could say later that they wanted to escape the fire. It made enough sense.

They turned around one last time on the oval border to see the school burning. All of it up in flames and slowly coming down; much quicker and effective than PR and paperwork. They turned back and leaped over the fence and through the bushes. The first fell forward like a sack of potatoes. The other two fell over the top of them.

“Fuck, fuck, fuck,” they all scrambled on their arses and looked up. Two kids, perhaps eleven or twelve years old, stood above them grinning madly.

“Fucking Tories,”

“Where’d you learn that kind of language?”

“Sorry. Fucking conservative. My dad told me.”

“Your dad sounds like a communist.”

“He is. And he said that Tories ruin Christmas.”

“What? Your dad doesn’t even believe in Christmas, you little shit. Communist are atheists.”

They all tried to get to their feet. Both Johnny and Rick took a few steps back.

“He thinks we should still go to school.”

“So? You little shits are gonna end up working at the local fish and chip shop anyway. Who cares? We did you a favour burning down this school.”

“Get them,” Vince called.

But the kids were already gone, little legs moving like mosquito wings as they dashed across the oval. The old legs just couldn’t keep up.

Miss Stevens caught them on the other side. She didn’t see who was chasing them.

“You little shits,” she grabbed them both by the ear and wheeled them around to see the school building coated in fiery red; an education inferno. “Look what you’ve done.”

“It wasn’t us, miss. Miss, miss, it wasn’t us. It was the Tories. The Tories did it.”

She didn’t even bother to answer him. She gave her warmest smile to the men in suits huffing and puffing as they came up to her.

“Sorry, to disturb you. They were tough to catch. We caught them with this.” Vince held up the can of petrol.

“Miss, miss, he’s lying. They did.”

“Shush Johnny. I’m sick of your dad’s lies. These are honourable men.”

Johnny pulled himself free, scrunching up his face at all of them. Miss Stevens swiped, attempting to grab him again but Rick pulled her the other way. Johnny’s little expression turned into a cheeky grin, smiling sweetly at the Tories. His dad had told him they would do something like this.

“I have something to play for you, Miss,” he said to her before turning back to Vince who was conflicted between acting polite and innocent, and wanting to rip the kid limb from limb. Johnny held the recorder aloft for all to see. Panic lit Vince’s eyes quicker than the old school auditorium.

“Merry Christmas, fucking Tory,” and Johnny pressed play.

Benjamin Solah describes himself as a Marxist horror combining his love of dark tales and his world view of revolutionary socialism to create a metaphor for capitalism more sinister than your average horror movie.

He is also a blogger, performance poet in Melbourne and has just released his sample eBook, Sanity Juxtaposed.

Obsession

BY REBECCA DOBBIE

Jared always felt he was a bit odd. His earliest recollections of his little hobby were when he was no more than four years old. He had an obsession of pulling things apart and seeing how they worked on the inside, typical little boy really, in the beginning. He started with toys, the toaster and then the family cat.

He sat watching the obsessed puppets passing him by, their faces awash with the mad frenzy of Christmas shopping. He was waiting, his own obsessive compulsion clawing at his stomach. He was shopping too. Browsing and searching for that one perfect gift that says it all.

Sipping his coffee Jared almost spilt it down his shirt when he spotted her. She was a drop-dead gorgeous with long blond hair, absently flicked aside as she spoke with her friend. Jared knew he had to have her.

***

“Okay, I think that’s everything, ” Sarah said, inspecting the many bags she carried, wondering if she had indeed purchased everything on her list.

“Yeah me too,” Rachel said, weighed down with her own purchases.

“I vote we stop for coffee,” Sarah smiled, nodding towards a quaint little bistro on the sidewalk. “Before we track the mile to the car.”

“Parking is ridiculous at this time of year. I think next year I’m doing all my shopping online,” Rachel said, negotiating around the coffee patrons to an empty table.

“You say that every year and every year you’ve left it until the last moment,” Sarah sat down, relieved to be finally off her feet. She kicked her heels off and sighed as the blood returned to her toes.

“So what time do you need me tomorrow?” Rachel asked after a young waitress had taken their orders.

“Around eleven. That should give us plenty of time to set up and get ready.”

“Sounds good to me,” Rachel said, suddenly distracted.

“What are you looking at?” Sarah laughed and turned around.

There was a stunning man a few tables over sitting alone, watching the people walking by.

“Hmm…can you imagine that under your Christmas tree?” Rachel sighed.  “He’s been watching you since we came in. He’s rather yummy Sarah. You should say hello.”

His sandy blonde hair was cut short, arms were bicep central and blue eyes to die for. He was the very image of masculinity that warmed special places in a woman. Sarah felt her heat rising as she casually gazed over his perfection.

The waitress brought over the coffees and Sarah was grateful for the moment to gather herself, her hands shaking and heart pounding furiously.

“Well, are you going to say hello or what? I would but I don’t think Jason likes to share.” Rachel laughed, twisting the wedding band on her finger absently as she continued to stare at the handsome stranger.

“No, I’m not,” Sarah said, keeping her eyes on the mug in front of her.

“Why the hell not? He looks like he could make you scream for hours,’ Rachel said with obvious longing.

“Rachel!”

“Come on Sarah. How long has it been since you’ve had some action? Look at him for heaven’s sake. You can’t tell me you wouldn’t want him unwrapping you on Christmas morning?”

Sarah said nothing, feeling anxious and wishing Rachel would just drop it.

“Seriously, don’t you get lonely?” Rachel asked, sincerely worried about her long suffering spinster friend.

“No, I don’t. Now I’d like to go.” Sarah stood up, collecting her bags.

“What?” Rachel asked, caught off guard. “What about the coffee?”

“I don’t care… I’ve got to get out of here.” Sarah rushed from the cafe, not waiting for Rachel or looking at the handsome stranger.

***

Jared awoke the next morning feeling tired and drained after a restless night filled with disturbing dreams of blood, pain and sex. Heat rose in him as images flooded back. He dreamt he was attacking her, hurting her and fucking her with such wild, uncontrolled aggression it aroused a need in him that longed to be dealt with.

He was shaking and felt the compulsion urging him on, wanting him to find her and make the dreams a reality.  The ache was so strong it hurt.

***

The caterers were expected to arrive in an hour and the small team of staff she’d hired to help host the party were due shortly thereafter.

Rachel had been a godsend and Sarah owed her big time. Sarah went looking for her friend and found Rachel in the hallway where she was putting up the last of the seasonal decorations. The hall was lined with boughs of holly.

“Wow, Rachel. This looks amazing.”

“I know,” Rachel stepped down from the chair and surveyed her handy work.

“It’s stunning,” Sarah sighed, standing beside her friend.

“Deck the halls in boughs of holly fa la la la la la la la….”

Sarah laughed and gave her friend a gentle shove. “Don we now our gay apparel,” she sang through snorts and giggles.

“Yes, we should don our gay apparel. I better head off and get ready.” Rachel, still laughing, moved to the doorway and collected her handbag. “I’ll be back in a few hours.”

“Thanks for helping out.”

Rachel waved her off. “No problem. It is going to be a kick ass party Sarah. Don’t worry. Everyone’s going to love it.”

“God, I hope so,” Sarah smiled nervously.

“It’ll be fine.”

Rachel blew her a kiss and headed for her car.

***

Sarah stood at the front door and waved good night to the last of her guests. Jared watched as she turned to survey the damage, slipping off her shoes and kicking the expensive heels aside. She quickly grabbed the hall table to steady herself, obviously a little affected by the wine had during the course of the evening.

Jared’s little compulsion awaken deep within him as he watched the way the black dress clung to her body made when she bent down to pick up some of the rubbish in the hall. He couldn’t restrain himself any longer.  He had to have her.

She stood up and turned.

Jared felt the excitement rush through him as he saw the fear on her face; frozen, struck dumb by the sight of him. He smiled a cruel twisted grin and  casually moved his hand into view so she could see the knife.

Sarah screamed and ran down the hall. He was faster and stronger though,  grabbing and spinning her around, throwing her against the wall. His excitement raged as  her head hit with a loud thud. She slid to the floor, dazed but trying to fight him off.

Jared put the knife to her throat and slapped her; yanked a fist full of her blond hair and tossed her to the hard, wood floor. Sarah lay in stunned silence as the knife sliced through her dress, crying out as when it cut into her. She tried to fight him, clawed  and scratched him, drawing blood. The pain sent Jared into a wild frenzy, unable to hold back any longer.

He took her, violently, sliding the knife down her breasts and stomach, cutting small wounds into her flesh. Trails of blood ran down her skin as he thrust into her over and over again. He covered her mouth with his free hand, muffling her screams.

Like an animal he growled, tossing the knife aside and wrapped his strong hands around her throat and squeezed. He arched as the pleasure began to build in him. He caught sight of the boughs of holly above him and his lust intensified as he spotted flecks of blood on the decorations.

He was out of control, squeezing harder and ramming into her savagely. He felt the pressure building and then her gargled attempt to scream threw him over the edge.  Her body shaking beneath him and he peaked again and again. He released her throat and she gasped for air and tried to scream, but only a hoarse cry escaped her lips.

Jared leant down, pleasure still rippling through him and whispered in her ear. “Your present is in the garage. Would you like to come help me open her up?”

Sarah, her body covered in blood, looked up at him, smiled and nodded. “ Merry Christmas, sweetheart,” she said and kissed him.

Rebecca Dobbie is a writer and foster carer in Brisbane Australia. She has had a number of short stories and articles published but for the last three years has been working on her first novel. A supernatural fantasy for young adults which is now in the final editing stages.
See a prologue for her novel at rebeccadobbie.webs.com

Who's on When

Below is a list of the story roll outs for tomorrow by prompt,  time and author. For those outside of Australia all times are GMT +10. If you’re not sure what that equates to in your local time, check here (link compliments of Chia Evers).

Deck the halls with boughs of holly

04:00 Obsession by Rebecca Dobbie (Aust)

05:00 Drench the School by Benjamin Solah (Aust)

‘Tis the season to be jolly

06:00 A Jolly Pair by Chris Chartrand (USA)

07:00 ‘Tis the Season to be Jolly Sam Adamson (UK)

Don we now our gay apparel

08:00 Apparel Jen Brubacher (UK)

09:00  Don we now our gay apparel by Graham Storrs (Aust)

Troll the ancient Yule tide carol

10:00 Modraniht by Annie Evett (Aust)

11:00 Bosch’s Book of Trolls by Susan James (UK)

See the blazing Yule before us

12:00 See the Blazing Yule Before Us by Jonathan Crossfield (Aust)

13:00 ‘Til Death Do Us Part by Emma Kerry (UK)

Strike the harp and join the chorus

14:00 End of a Tradition by Paul Servini (FR)

15:00 Not a Whisper by Lily Mulholland (Aust)

Follow me in merry measure

16:00 Don’t Follow by Kil Conor (USA)

17:00 Midsummer’s Eve by Stacey Larner (Aust)

While I tell of Yule tide treasure

18:00 Broken Angel by Jodi Cleghorn (Aust)

19:00 A Golden Treasure by Chia Lynn (USA)

Fast away the old year passes

20:00 Fast Away by Jim Bronyaur(USA)

21:00 Fast Away the Old Year Passes by Icy Sedgwick (UK)

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses

22:00 Perfect Light Dan Powell (Germany)

23:00 Hail the New Trevor Belshaw (UK)

Welcome

DECK THE HALLS

Welcome to the first literary mix tape… a Christmas themed feast of short fiction inspired by the lyrics of the carol “Deck the Halls”.

The stories will be published every hour for twenty hours across Christmas Eve beginning at 4:00am Australian Eastern Standard Time. Don’t be bored rotten by Christmas carols this year… be amazed, moved, shocked and horrified by our authors who all bring their own dark and twisted flavour to the festive season.

And for those who find eReaders under the tree on Christmas morning… at midnight a free eBook will be available for download.

What more could you ask for? (Oh… that… um, yeah! Sorry, but the authors don’t do that, however one of their characters just might!)

Until then… refresh your knowledge of the lyrics and anticipate just what is around the corner.

Deck the halls with boughs of holly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Tis the season to be jolly,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Don we now our gay apparel,

Fa la la, la la la, la la la.

Troll the ancient Yule tide carol,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

See the blazing Yule before us,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Strike the harp and join the chorus.

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Follow me in merry measure,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

While I tell of Yule tide treasure,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Fast away the old year passes,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Hail the new, ye lads and lasses,

Fa la la la la, la la la la.

Many thanks to the lovely Icy Sedgwick who shares her photography and graphic skills on our front cover (and features in the header and background).