(AUTHOR’S NOTE: This flash fiction was written during a writers group meeting I attended. I was given a postcard with a photo and told to write a story inspired by it. I scanned the image and included it below. I thought at first it looked like a woman’s foot wearing a dance shoe, but then I thought it looked like a foot wearing a Greek sandal. That brought about this little tale. Enjoy!)
Achilles, clad in his best chiton, tapped into his warrior’s training as he rose onto his tiptoes and spun. His partner, Helen of Troy, whose face was ready to launch another thousand ships, spun with him, the skirt of her gold-trimmed white peplos billowing. But as Achilles descended, he stumbled and fell, nearly dragging Helen down with him.
“That’s the tenth time you tried that turn!” exclaimed Helen. “I’m going to need a new dance partner at this rate! The Greek Gala is only a few days from now!”
“I’m sorry,” replied Achilles, cradling his left foot. “I’ve not been the same since that heel injury during the Trojan War.”
Helen sighed. “Good thing I know an excellent podiatrist.”
Author’s Note: This is a sequel to “The Christmas Dance,” a story I wrote and posted back in December. Like that story, this one was inspired by a writing prompt from one of my writers’ group, which was to write a sequel story. I enjoyed it so much, I think I might do a series of 1,000-1,500 word stories about this young couple celebrating different holidays over the course of a year. Perhaps it’ll end with them getting engaged the next Christmas. ;P Anyway, enjoy this entry!
Resolution By Nathan Marchand
“Welcome to the New Year’s Eve Bash in Central Park!” booms the emcee over the microphone. The crowd surrounding the stage cheers. I’m always amazed at how the local parks and recreation department finds ways to emulate New York City’s holiday celebrations just because our little city also has a “Central Park.” This year they have a stage with a giant screen showing Dick Clark’s famous giant disco ball.
They’ve outdone themselves, I think. Almost as much as I did last week with Kara.
I hadn’t seen her since she gave me her number at the Christmas dance. The holidays are busy for both of us. But we’d talked on the phone and texted almost every day since. It was her suggestion we come to this event. We were to meet at the park office to rent some ice skates at 8 p.m.
I’d just arrived—at 8:05 p.m.
It’s cold enough for snow, but none falls. I pull my sock cap an inch lower over my frozen ears. The crowd is thick, but I push my way through it wishing I could part this sea of humanity like Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments. I say, “Excuse me,” more times in the next two minutes than I have in half of my life.
I cut through the last of the throng, emerging triumphant.
“Well, well, if it isn’t Goodwill!”
My heart jumps into my throat when I hear that.
“I swear you’re stalking me, Jimmy,” I retort as I look to my left.
There stands my old rival clad in a three-hundred-dollar coat and with a giggling blonde on his arm. He looks as smug as ever.
“No, I’m just Sir Fate’s little way of putting you in your place.” The blonde giggles more.
“Whatever. I have better things to do,” I say, smirking before I let him have it. “Like a date with Kara.”
Jimmy scowls. The blonde glares at him.
I look away and start walking toward the park office, but Jimmy shouts his parting shot: “She’ll be disappointed at midnight when she learns you resolve every year to kiss a girl because you never have!”
I stop dead, feeling like I’ve been hit in the back with an arrow. He laughs at me. I huff and walk on.
It’s not long before I see Kara, the prettiest girl in town, standing at the back of the line for skate rental. She’s wearing a bright blue wool coat with matching leather boots. Her red-gold hair braid hangs out of her hood across her collar bone. Before I can call her name, she waves at me with a gloved hand.
My heart jumps back into my throat.
“I’m so glad you made it, Ethan,” she says when I join her in line. “Even if you are a little late.” Her smile is as radiant as the sun.
“Yeah…sorry. I…ran into someone I used to know.”
Her smile flips. “You mean Jimmy?”
Hesitantly, I nod.
“Ignore him. He’s just jealous.”
Within ten minutes, we get our skates and head to the frozen pond. Dozens of couples, some of whom we saw dancing last week, look graceful circling hand-in-hand around the ice. Kara and I sit on a park bench to put on our skates. She laughs when I pull off one of my shoes and reveal the Superman socks underneath. I blush.
“No, no! I think they’re cute,” she says, seeing my embarrassment. “Besides, I used to watch Lois and Clark as a kid. It made me want to read comics, but I always got geek-shamed when I walked into a comic shop, so I never read any.”
“I’m sorry,” was all I could say.
Her smile brightened. “Don’t be. One of my New Year’s Resolutions is to start reading comics.” She finishes lacing up her skates. “What about you? Any resolutions?”
I bite my lower lip. “Not…really.” I grab her hand to distract her. “Let’s go!” I say, motioning toward the ice. She beams, and we hurry out. Her jacket’s hood flies off, unveiling her beautiful hair.
Now I wish I could kiss her.
The next few hours are a blissful blur. I hadn’t skated since I played junior hockey in middle school, but it was like riding a bike. A few times I had trouble stopping, but I didn’t fall. Kara, on the other hand, despite being a great ballroom dancer, wasn’t as surefooted on the ice. She held my hand for dear life. Well, for balance, anyway. One time, though, she started to fall, but I caught her. “My hero,” she called me. I’ve never felt such awkward excitement.
“I need a quick break,” I tell her.
“Okay. I can take a few solo laps. But don’t be long!” she says, winking.
My heart thunders in my ears.
I skate to the edge of the pond and sit on a bench. My calves are burning, but I don’t care. I haven’t been this happy in a long time. Kara waves at me as she skates by, nearly losing her balance. I snicker, admiring her bravery.
“Only fifteen minutes until midnight!” booms the emcee over the microphone on the stage. “Have your sweethearts ready to kiss when the ball drops!”
Suddenly Jimmy and the blonde appear in front of me, pretending they’re oblivious to my presence.
“Why wait until midnight for a kiss?” the jerk says to the poor girl.
Before she can reply, he grabs her, dips her like a professional dancer, and plants a long-lasting lip-lock on her. I look away like a grossed out schoolboy. They finally come up for air and walk away, Jimmy laughing the entire time. I feel like throwing up.
“Ethan!” calls Kara.
I look up and see her sliding by, so I spring to my feet and jump onto the ice. It doesn’t take me long to catch up and grab her hand.
Minutes later, everyone stops. 11:59 has come too soon. We all turn our attention to screen above the stage. Dick Clark is rattling off numbers.
“It’s the final countdown!” someone belts out, adding a terrible impersonation of the song’s guitar riff.
I glance at Kara. Her eyes practically sparkle. She smiles knowingly, expectantly, at me. My stomach is turning in knots like it did last week. Does she want me to kiss her?
“Thirty!” the crowd cries in unison with Dick Clark.
I should—no, I can’t. I’ll just disappoint her. I can’t start her New Year like that.
“Twenty!” cries the crowd.
But I want to impress her, to make her happy. But should I be that forward? It’s only a first date!
“Ten, nine, eight,” begins the crowd.
Kara wraps her arms around my neck and her jade eyes look deep into mine. I’m breathless.
“…five, four, three…”
I blink. My head hangs.
The crowd screams, “Happy New Year!” Noise and confetti fill the air.
Shame stabs me with a knife. I unclasp Kara’s arms and skate away as fast as my tired legs can carry me, not stopping until I reach an isolated bench. I flop onto it and bury my face in my hands. My tears are barely kept dammed.
You’re a coward, Ethan, just like Jimmy thought you were, I think. Your first date with her will be your last.
But just as I’m about to drown in a sea of self-pity, a soft hand squeezes my shoulder. “What’s wrong?” says that wonderfully lyrical voice.
I glance up and see Kara sitting next to me.
May as well come clean. You owe her that, I think.
“I thought you wanted me to kiss you at midnight. I wanted to, but…I just…couldn’t. I’m sorry, Kara. I ruined everything.”
“Why couldn’t you?”
I look away. “Because…I…I’ve never kissed anyone before.”
I brace myself for her to leave.
After ten seconds of silence, she’s still here.
Her warm fingers touch my chin. She lifts and turns my head toward her, unhanding it when our eyes meet. “You didn’t have to kiss me if you weren’t ready. I wouldn’t have been disappointed.” She snickers. “Honestly, I might’ve been weirded out. It’s jerks like Jimmy who pull numbers like that, and I know you’re better than that.”
“So, you’re not upset?”
Kara sighs, rolling her eyes. “No, silly!”
My hand touches hers on my shoulder. “Thank you.”
She just smiles.
“Tell you what,” she says. “I’m exhausted from all that ice skating, so how about you escort me home and we talk about this tomorrow over lunch?”
“Oh, and one more thing.”
Kara presses two fingers against her puckered lips and then places those fingers on my cheek. I feel it burn.
(Author’s note: I haven’t been posting much this month. It is December, after all, and I’ve been busy with the holidays. Regardless, I couldn’t let the season pass by without giving all of you, True Believers, a little gift. So, here’s a Christmas-themed flash fiction for your enjoyment. As you can see, I can write things other than weird speculative fiction. 😛 Merry Christmas!)
The Christmas Dance By Nathan Marchand
I can’t believe I’m here, I tell myself as I enter the natural history museum’s doors.
A rambunctious crowd of well-dressed people flows through the entry with me. Some of the guys are wearing Santa hats that clash with their fancy suits. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas” belts from the huge speakers at the center of the makeshift dance floor under the full-sized whale skeleton suspended from the high ceiling. With deer-like grace, a few couples are already practicing their dance moves. The smell of cookies and hot cocoa is in the air.
I should be with family, not at some…gala, ball, whatever, on Christmas Eve!
Seeing the practicing couples reminds me why I hesitated to come. I’ve only been dancing for a few months and only knew a few styles, some of which I got mixed up, much to my embarrassment. Worst of all, I didn’t have a steady partner.
My stomach ties itself in a knot as I hit an invisible wall. I start to turn back—when I see my reason for coming.
She stands at the edge of the dance floor about twenty feet away. Her long strawberry blonde hair hangs over her shoulder in an intricate braid. Her holly-green dress hugs all the right curves of her petite figure while its knee-length skirt all but demands to twirl. White open-toe shoes make her look an inch or two taller and as poised as ever.
She turns and sees me.
My face burns.
She waves at me.
My feet are too heavy to run.
Suddenly, someone brushes me aside as he walks past, jolting me from the trance.
“Nice suit, Ethan!” scoffs a familiar voice. “Where’d you get it? Goodwill?”
I glance back and see Jimmy snickering at me. He’s wearing a black suit and tie that probably cost more than my car. I can’t believe I used to be friends with that jerk. As usual, seeing him leaves me torn between running away and punching him. He smirks at this and starts mingling with the girls.
He always has to rub in what a charmer he is.
The emcee welcomes everyone and plays “Jingle Bell Rock.” I look for Kara, but she’s already on the floor with another guy. It never fails. She’s popular at ballroom dance parties.
I sigh as I lean back against the wall. Jimmy runs by me, leading some poor girl—the first of his many conquests, I assume—by the hand onto the floor. He smirks at me again as they partner-up. I feel like I’ve been stabbed.
The night wears on. I dance with a few girls, but they never seem excited to be with me. Is it because I’m a novice or ugly? Or an ugly novice? I look for Kara after each song, but no sooner does she step off the floor does another guy ask her to dance. Even the Flash wouldn’t be fast enough to catch her! All the while, Jimmy goes from one girl to next, charming them onto the floor. He dances as smoothly as he talks. The entire night I’m never sure if I’m red with anger or green with envy.
I look at my watch. Only ten minutes left. Another song starts playing. Where’s Kara?
I glance over my shoulder and see her standing by herself at the food table, sipping cocoa.
I take a deep breath to steel my nerves. It’s now or never.
I cut through the crowd. She sees me coming and grins. I swallow hard and keep walking. She puts her cup on the table and folds her hands as I approach.
I suddenly find myself within arm’s reach of her. I can smell her lavender perfume. Her emerald eyes meet mine.
Jimmy swoops in, grabs Kara’s hand, and leads her away, saying, “Let’s dance!”
Just like that, she’s gone.
I look back at the dance floor. Kara is looking over Jimmy’s shoulder as they foxtrot to “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” (Am I the only one who thinks that song is kinda creepy?). Kara smiles awkwardly, her eyes pleading for a rescue.
Clenching my fists, I turn to leave.
“No,” I say to myself. “I won’t let that punk steal another girl from me!”
With newfound courage swelling in my chest, I storm onto the dance floor and march toward them, maneuvering between couples. I tap Jimmy on the shoulder. He glares at me, but I don’t care.
“May I cut in?”
Before he can say, “No,” Kara jumps from his arms and into mine.
Instinctively, we start foxtrotting.
A few seconds later, my courage wanes as I realize I’m dancing with the prettiest girl in the room. My palms are so sweaty, I fear my hands will slip from Kara’s grasp.
The song ends. My arms fall out of frame. “Th-thanks.”
I drop my gaze and step away—but Kara grabs my arm.
“This is the last song,” she says, “and I owe you a full dance.”
I shove the words out: “Uh…sure.”
“All I want for Christmas is You” starts playing. We swing dance to it. I’m so flabbergasted, I can barely do the basic steps and only remember to let Kara turn a few times. Her billowing skirt looks like a blossoming flower each time. She never stops smiling.
The song ends all too soon.
“Thank you for the dance,” Kara says.
I nod. Then I sigh and walk away. The fantasy is over. The clock’s striking midnight.
“Wait!” calls Kara.
I glance back as she rushes toward me. My stomach twists so much, it looks like her hair braid.
“I have a gift for you,” she says, reaching into her dress and producing a card. She takes my hand, puts the card in it, and folds my fingers onto it. “Merry Christmas!” she adds, gazing at me for several long seconds.
She walks past me.
I’m a frozen statue as people clear the floor, but eventually I look at the card.
It’s her phone number!
I turn around just in time to see Kara walk off the floor and wink at me.
Author’s Note: Merry Christmas, readers! As my gift to you, I present this special holiday flash fiction. (Special thanks to Catherine FitzSimmons for the suggestion that led to this story). Enjoy!
The Christmas Invasion (or “Santa vs. the Flying Saucer”)
by Nathan Marchand
Santa Claus whipped the reins, and his nine “little” reindeers ran forward and sprang off the roof, pulling the jolly fat man’s sleigh behind them. But instead of plummeting, they all threw off the shackles of gravity and arched into the night sky. As the wintry wind nipped at ol’ St. Nick’s thickly-bearded face, he was grateful for the ancient holiday magic that allowed him to perform his annual acts of grand generosity. Not since his days as a bishop so many centuries ago had he been able to do so much for the less fortunate.
“Ho, ho, ho!” he bellowed to himself. “The sun will rise soon in this time zone. This job gets longer every year. I miss the days when everyone had chimneys.”
The reindeer seemed to be slower, Santa thought, so he leveled out his sleigh at an altitude of three-thousand feet instead of the usual five-thousand. “Poor fellers must be exhausted,” said Santa. “I’ve run out of carrots from the children to feed them.” He laid down the reins and cupped his hands around his mouth. “Just one more city and it’s back to the North Pole, boys!”
All nine of them grunted affirmatively in reply.
“Ho, ho, ho! I can’t wait to get home to see Misses Claus, too!”
Santa reached back and grabbed a huge scroll, which he unrolled until he reached the “Nice” section for the final city. “Hopefully my first stop has a chimney—”
Suddenly flickering lights flashed in his eyes.
“Is that you, Rudolph?” he said, peering over the scroll. But his most famous reindeer’s nose wasn’t glowing.
Santa dropped the list and grabbed the reins. “It must be an airplane! I can’t let it see me!” With a flick of the reins, his reindeer, though tired, would take evasive maneuvers.
But he saw no more flashes. Nothing but pale moonlight filtered through clouds. Only the whistling wind was heard.
Santa stroked his white beard. “Perhaps I imagined it.”
Instantly, from out of the clouds came a spinning disc that seemed to be made of neon. Its lights blinded Santa. He held up a hand and blocked just enough of it to see it fly in front of him. He yanked the reins, and the reindeer groaned as they turned to port, almost clipping the sun-like saucer.
His heart racing, Santa rubbed his eyes with one hand, holding the reins with the other, but it took several long seconds of blinking to clear his vision. That didn’t help his headache.
“That’s no airplane!”
He looked over his shoulder. The saucer was a quarter-mile away but still bright. Santa squinted to get a better look. It was at least three times the size of his sleigh, perfectly round, and lined with windows.
“No aircraft on Earth looks like that! It’s from space!”
Leaving a trail of light, the saucer sped away—toward the city!
Santa’s beard ruffled as his face contorted with righteous anger befitting a saint. “You picked the wrong night to invade, sonny!”
He yanked the reins and banked the sleigh sideways, making a wide U-turn. “Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On, Cupid! On, Donner and Blitzen!” The reindeers galloped, kicking at the air, their sleigh bells thundering as they fought exhaustion to accelerate. Santa could feel their fatigue through the reins. But the saucer came closer.
“Onwards!” Santa shouted.
The saucer darkened its lights and vanished into a mountainous cloud.
“Rudolph, full power!”
The lead reindeer’s nose glowed, shooting a red beam that cut through the cloud. The saucer was silhouetted inside.
“Faster, boys!” shouted Santa, whipping the reins.
They were a quarter-mile behind now, but the city was only fifty miles away. The cold wind bit Santa’s cheeks and stung his eyes. He whipped and shouted. They inched toward the saucer. Rudolph kept it bathed in red light. Santa’s teeth rattled as the magic surged through his sleigh. His old transport felt as though it would fall apart. He only whipped the reins more.
The reindeers’ painful groans mingled with the peels of their sleigh bells, but now the saucer was only a hundred feet away. Before Santa could think of what to do next, the spaceship dove. Only then did Santa look down and see the city’s suburbs below.
“Down, boys!” he shouted, whistling to signal a descend.
They arched downward, but the rhythm of their bells slowed. The saucer shrank before them. Panic seized Santa. The world can’t end on Christmas Eve!
He expected to see flashes of flame, but there was nothing. Then, to his shock, he saw the saucer had stopped below them and a few hundred feet above the houses. Ten seconds later, Santa leveled out his dead-tired reindeer and floated next to the spacecraft.
With his sleigh hovering, the old saint put down his reins and stood.
“Go back to your planet, invaders, or I’ll…sick my reindeer on you!”
All nine of them moaned.
Santa slapped his forehead.
An electronic hum.
Santa looked at the bottom of the saucer and saw white beams of light shoot out. Momentarily, his chest tightened, but then he saw what looked like strange dolls and model ships floating down the beams like they were tall slides.
“Toys!” he exclaimed.
The playthings descended along the beams, phased into energy particles, and fell into houses’ chimneys or through skyscrapers’ windows.
Santa looked up at the saucer, which now glowed with warm multicolored lights.
He smiled. “You just wanted to help deliver toys.”
A white light danced across the saucer’s hull as if to say, “Yes.”
His frozen cheeks suddenly burned. Then he burst into a hearty, “Ho, ho, ho!” and his belly shook like a bowl full of jelly.
“Thank you! And a Merry Christmas to you!”
With that, the saucer’s teleporter beams ceased and it darted into the sky, vanishing in a twinkle.
Santa sat down and grabbed the reins. “I hope Misses Claus has cups of hot chocolate ready for all of us, boys! We need them!”
Pizza Hut recently unveiled 17—yes, 17—new pizzas and several other new products in an effort to appeal to a younger demographic (and become the Subway of pizzerias?). I’ve tried several of these new products, and they are tasty. The problem is they have ridiculous names. Some sound like titles for cheesy workout videos, like the Skinny Beach, Skinny Club, and Skinny with a Kick. One of my favorites is the Buffalo State of Mind, which on their computer screens is shortened to “Buff State of Mind.” That sounds like an exercise video hosted by Arnold Schwarzenegger that will prepare you to go to the Skinny Beach and join the Skinny Club.
That, however, isn’t what I’m writing about today.
What follows is a transcript for a fictional ‘70s exploitation action film using the names of other new Pizza Hut products (they’ll be in bold). No joke. That’s how goofy these names sound.
In a ‘hood where a restaurant doubles as a whorehouse, Pretzel Piggy, the fattest and tannest pimp in Harlem, gets rich forcing his girls cook meals and sell their bodies as dessert. Even the cops turn their backs because his women were sweeter than donuts.
Now three of his hottest hookers are fighting back!
Ginger Boom-Boom, the black babe with a shotgun!
Ginger: I’m gonna smack that fake bake offa Piggy’s face!
Sweet Sriracha Dynamite, the roller derby girl who loves pipebombs almost as much she does skates!
Dynamite: I’m a recipe for disaster!
Cherry Pepper Bombshell, the femme fatale who’ll seduce you and then stab you in the back—literally!
Cherry: For the last time, I use a knife, not cherry bombs!
Nothing can satisfy their hunger for justice. These sisters-in-arms won’t stop until they find Pretzel Piggy and blow his house down!
Author’s note: If you’d been following my Facebook page (and if you haven’t, why not?), you’ll remember I was commissioned to write a 140-word short story for a friend participating in GISHWHES. Well, now that the contest is over, here’s the story! The requirement, besides the word limit, was that it had to involve Misha Collins, the Queen of England, and the Elopus (the mascot for GISHWHES). Enjoy!
Teatime with the Elopus
By Nathan Marchand
Misha Collins kicked open the door to the Queen of England’s chamber, cocking his shiny magic shotgun. The elderly Queen dropped her teacup in shock, as did the half-elephant, half-octopus creature sitting across from her.
“Never fear, Your Majesty! I’m here to kill that unholy abomination!” Misha said, aiming his shotgun at the creature.
“But you’re just an actor!” replied the Queen.
“I’m a real-life monster hunter. Where do you think the Supernatural writers get their ideas?”
“Enough! You’ll do no such thing! The Elopus is my friend!”
Misha stopped. “That…spawn of Cthulhu…is your friend?!”
“How dare you call him that!”
“My apologies, Majesty.”
“Not all strange creatures are soul-eating monsters. Such prejudice!”
The Elopus huffed in agreement.
“Now go before I feed you to him!”
“But you said—”
“Yes, Majesty!” Misha said, stumbling out the door.
Author’s Intro: No new blog post this week, but I do have a new story to share. It’s a flash fiction prompted by an assignment in my local writers’ group to write about E.S.P. The following story is loosely based on my own life. (I’ll leave it up to you to decide which parts are “true”). 😛 Enjoy!
Pizza and a Psychic
By Nathan Marchand
Like Garfield, I hate Mondays. Nothing happens, especially at Pizza Barn, and when you’re a delivery driver, that means no tip money and, worse yet, unending boredom. I spend my time folding boxes and oiling pans. Mundane. Menial. Mind-numbing. There’s just one problem with that: I churn out crazy ideas when I’m bored. Like answering customers’ phone calls with obviously phony names. One time on Independence Day, I answered the phone saying I was George Washington. I was disappointed the customer didn’t notice.
As I was folding what seemed like my thousandth box, the phone rang. I jogged over since no one else liked answering phones. The customer’s name and phone number flashed up on the computer screen. I pressed my thumb on the fingerprint scanner and picked up the phone.
“Thank you for calling Pizza Barn. This is Joey. How may I help you?” I droned reflexively, trying to smile (my manager says customers can “hear a smile” on the phone).
“I’d like to place an order for pick-up,” replied the woman on the phone.
Darnit. Not a delivery! I thought.
I tapped the name flashing on the screen and brought up the customer’s info.
“Is this for Smith?” I asked.
A brief pause. “Yes,” said the customer, surprised.
“Is your address 234 Main Street?”
“Yes. How did you know that?”
My boredom suddenly seized my mouth. I can’t be held responsible for what I said next.
Another pause. “What do I want to order?”
I figured I’d take a shot in the dark, get it wrong, and explain we have caller ID. We’d both have a good laugh, and then I’d take her order.
So, I said, “A large pepperoni pizza and an order of breadsticks with cheese.” That’s about as bland and generic an order you can get—and I learned I was dealing with an equally bland and generic customer!
“That’s right! Oh, my gosh!”
I raised my eyebrows. Talk about luck, I thought.
Ms. Smith kept raving about my E.S.P. as I keyed in her order. After a minute or so, I read back her order and gave her a total. But instead of saying goodbye, she asked me another question.
“Can you tell me my fortune? What will happen to me tonight?”
I rolled my eyes. I wanted to tell her the truth, but she sounded so earnest, I decided to humor her.
“You’ll meet the man of your dreams and win five-hundred dollars in the state lottery.”
Ms. Smith squealed. “I’ll pick up a ticket on my way to the concert tonight! Thank you!” With that, she hung up.
I didn’t think much of it the rest of the evening.
The next day, I was equally as bored folding boxes when the phone rang again. I reflexively answered, not looking at the computer screen.
“Thank you for calling Pizza Barn. This is Joey. How may I help you?”
“Joey! Thanks for answering. You were right!”
I looked at the screen—it was Ms. Smith.
“I won five-hundred dollars and snagged a boyfriend last night at the concert!”
“That’s…great, Miss Smith….” What else could I say?
“I told him about you, and he asked me to call you for advice before he went to the horse races today.”
I shoved my way out of the warzone that is a mall on Christmas Eve. Bags of junk food, worthless trinkets, and stupid holiday novelties dangled from my arms like overripe fruit on a tree. I could barely peek over the four boxes in my arms—which were quickly going numb—to see the crowded parking lot. Jack Frost nipped at my few patches of bare skin. Angry soccer moms yelled at me or shoved me out of the way while I crawled to my car. The sun was setting behind the thick gray clouds, bringing the dark sooner.
Joey, why did you marry a procrastinator? I thought. This isn’t how I wanted to spend our first Christmas together! I hate shopping only a little less than I do cooking!
The thought of Mary “slaving away” in a warm kitchen made me hate this frigid weather even more.
Snow and ice still caked the parking lot! Were the snowplow drivers home for Christmas? I walked where angels feared to tread now. One wrong move, and I’d have a shallow grave under snow and packages. I stepped lightly, tensing every time I slid even an inch. My forehead was cold and moist. I think it took me ten minutes to cross one parking lot.
Reaching the car, I laid everything on the hatchback. My arms tingled as blood rushed into them. I clicked my key fob, unlocking the doors. I opened the driver door and tossed everything inside. With that, I harrumphed and slid into the car myself.
It seemed colder inside. I jammed the key into the ignition and turned it, but the car only whined. Cursing, I tried two more times before it finally started. I flipped on the headlights, but instantly found myself boxed in. A line of cars crept down the lot behind me. I had to wait five obnoxious minutes before a man—a fellow husband, I wager—stopped to let me pull out. Even then, my wheels spun out the first time I hit the gas. That husband’s understanding started to melt. But I floored it again and managed to get out.
It took me ten minutes just to move a quarter-mile and get onto Main Street. I narrowly avoided rear-ending the car in front of me. I knew I should’ve had the brakes repaired, I thought. But I was too busy with Christmas! The sun was now gone. Storefronts were going dark. The street wasn’t much clearer, but at least I wasn’t sliding. For now.
Mary and I live in the countryside just outside of the city. Which meant our roads would be the last to get plowed, if ever. Anger surged through me, warming my body. All this for last-second gifts for her least favorite nieces and nephews and supplies for a party she was throwing tomorrow! I gripped the steering wheel so tightly, the cover was indenting my palms.
A few turns and traffic lights later, I reached the city limits. Now I was where snowplows fear to tread. Or where they didn’t care to plow. Regardless, the roads were ice rinks now. I felt the car’s tires slide underneath me and manically gripped the steering wheel. Snowflakes the size of cotton balls fell from the clouds, obscuring my vision. My intense concentration could barely see far enough ahead to avoid immediate hazards.
Even then, I didn’t see the first stop light that came into view. Not until it was too late. I slammed on the brakes, but the car slid, threatening to jackknife. I held my breath. My heart stopped. I wrestled with the steering wheel to keep it straight. Five harrowing seconds later, I realized I was in the middle of the intersection.
Now I just need another car to skid into me to make this perfect! I thought. But Mary still probably wouldn’t forgive me for being late!
I pressed gently on the accelerator, but the tires spun, unable to grip the road. I let up and tried again. The same. Cursing, I hit the steering wheel. Despite planning for extra time to get home, I was beyond punctuality now. I’d get nothing but nagging if and when I reached home. So much for holiday cheer!
The third time was the charm; the tires gripped the road and inched forward. I was out of the intersection in a few seconds.
What followed is a blur. I was focused like a laser on the road as I crawled along. I plowed through just-formed snowdrifts. The brakes reminded me of their need of repairs every time I skidded to a stop at an intersection. A pothole nearly broke my concentration and sent me into a snow-filled ditch. But I refused to break. Each little victory bolstered my confidence. A smile slowly crept up my face. Do your worst, Old Man Winter!
Suddenly, out of the darkness to the left sprang a buck. I swear it even had a red nose, but that might have been a cell phone tower in the distance. Anyway, he leaped in front of me, just a few feet from my bumper. I gasped and reflexively swerved to the other lane. I narrowly dodged the buck, which vanished in one leap, but the car wouldn’t straighten. Slamming the brakes did nothing. Tires screeched. Adrenaline was oil on my fires of panic. Against my will, the car veered off the road.
I suddenly found myself staring at the white ground at an awkward angle. A ditch. I was in a ditch. A snow-laden ditch. Hopelessly, I shifted the car in reverse and hit the gas pedal. The wheels spun, but the car didn’t budge. In fact, I felt it dig an inch deeper into the snow. I was stuck.
I smacked the steering wheel, cursing a blue streak. Slipping on gloves and a sock cap, I ventured out of the car, the cold air biting my bare cheeks. The car was so deep in the ditch and snow, there was no way I’d be able to push it out. I glanced up and down the road, but there were no headlights to be seen. Just darkness and a white haze bathed in pale moonlight.
I was alone.
I pounded the car’s roof, undoubtedly leaving a new dent. My cell phone was in my coat pocket, so I ungloved my hand and grabbed it. I glimpsed a text message from Mary that said something like, “Where the hell are you, you dolt?!” Then it went black. Dead. Typical, I thought. I pounded the roof again.
What was I to do now? Sit there and hope that someone, somehow, would drive by? On Christmas Eve? When everyone was at home with family and friends? Lucky them. That’s where I should be. Or not. Mary is probably ticked that I’m late. Never mind that I narrowly avoided killing Bambi and ended up in a ditch. Maybe I’m better off out here.
A few more minutes of near-zero temperatures changed my mind. Especially when I realized I only had a quarter of a tank of gas left.
“Dammit! What am I gonna do now?”
Just then, a bell rang in the distance.
Quick as a flash, I remembered there was a little country church not far from here. I drove by it every day on my way to work, but it was just scenery in my mind. They must be having a Christmas Eve service or something. Maybe they’ll help me. I just have to make sure they don’t realize I’m a “heathen.”
The bell seemed a bit loud, so I squinted at the icy veil, managing to catch a faint glimpse of the church. It was maybe a half-mile away. My face wouldn’t be too numb by the time I arrived.
I pulled the keys from the ignition, locked the car doors, and started walking.
After what seemed like an eternity of cold wind, relentless snow, and hatred of Christmas, I reached the church. A warm, candlelight-like aura seemed to emanate from it, though some of its lights were on. Few cars were in the parking lot. I guess the weather had scared away even the faithful. Or the service was over. Just my luck if I missed everyone. But the light gave me…hope. I walked up to the front door and discovered it was unlocked. Trusting people, churchgoers are. What if I wanted to rob the place? I smiled despite my numb face. Robbing a church on Christmas Eve? I bet that’d get you sent to Hell twice.
I must’ve looked like a living snowman when I stepped inside. I brushed myself off and peeled off my cap. I hadn’t been in a church since I was a kid, but I remembered it was a requirement to remove one’s hat. Before me was the entrance to the sanctuary. Low organ music playing “Silent Night” hummed in my ears. It was dark except for candles sitting on the sills of the windows lining each side of the room, which led to an illuminated cross hanging above the pulpit. I stepped closer and saw a few silhouettes sitting in the pews. Muttered prayers mingled with the organ music.
I was suddenly hesitant to cross the threshold into the sanctuary, like I was unworthy to disturb this holy ground. But I pressed on.
No one seemed to notice me. They just went on praying. I was annoyed. But just as I was about to shout, someone saw me.
“You can sit here,” he whispered.
I glanced to my left. A young blonde man scooted over and offered me a spot at the end of the pew.
Though I suddenly felt uncomfortable, I said, “Thanks,” and sat down.
“What’s your name?”
“Mine’s Gabe. Nice to meet you.”
No much for not looking like a heathen.
He paused only briefly at my terseness. “I’ve never seen you here before. Welcome.”
“Honestly, I’m only here because I need help.”
“We all need help from the Lord.”
I snickered. “Think he’ll dig my car out of the ditch?”
Gabe flinched, surprised. “Oh. Well, we do have some shovels in the janitor’s closet. We can dig you out after the service.”
“Is it gonna be much longer? The wife is probably contemplating divorce as we speak.”
It was none of his business, but for whatever reason, I started talking. “Yeah. She insisted on throwing a last-minute Christmas party and gave me a mile-long list of things to buy. I hate shopping and this weather, but I hate dealing with her. I’ll be lucky if she just makes me sleep on the couch tonight.”
“She sounds a little demanding.”
“A little?” I blurted, almost raising my voice. “She’s really demanding! And obnoxious! Always has to have her way. All because she wants to keep up appearances at the holidays. I don’t know what I hate more—her or Christmas.”
“I’m sorry. Christmas should be a time of—”
“Spare me the Christmas Carol crap! I just want to dig out my car and go home!”
I think that earned me a few annoyed glances.
Gabe somehow kept his cool, and said, “I think you need more than that, Joey.”
I huffed. “Like what?”
As if on cue, the well-dressed preacher standing behind the pulpit started reading: “And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.”
He stepped down and sat on a pew. The organ music continued to play. The bell rang again outside.
I’d heard those words every year on the Charlie Brown Christmas show, yet now…they touched me. Touched me somewhere deep inside. My heart of ice thawed a little.
“I’m sorry for disrupting things,” I whispered to Gabe.
“You’re forgiven. The service will conclude in a few minutes. We’ll dig you out then. Merry Christmas.”
“Thanks.” The next words I said surprised even me. “Could my wife and I come here this Sunday?”
Gabe laughed quietly. “There’s no need to ask. Just come.”
That night, I was searching for traction on the road, not realizing I was searching for traction in my life.
You may recall a few may recall a few months ago when I did a “writer-ly exchange” with my friend Nick Hayden. We each wrote a story that took place in a world the other created. This resulted in my Christmas story, “The Discarded Gift,” a love story set in Nick’s fictional small town, Vienna. Nick took a little longer to finish his story, which he posted on his own website a few months ago. Now after letting it be exclusive to his site for a while, I am reposting it here.
It is called “House of the Living.” It was inspired by my novella Destroyer(which I co-wrote with his wife, Natasha). Here’s a synopsis:
When scientists stumble across the perfectly preserved body of a Tyrannosaurus Rex, the first question is: How? But as one scientist spends his life studying the extraterrestrial crystals that caused its preservation, his questions become deeper, touching his deepest fears of life and death.
It’s a haunting story, and a great expansion on the world of my novella.
AUTHOR’S NOTES: Here’s the Christmas short story I promised. As I said earlier this week, it’s set in the small Midwestern town of Vienna, a place created by my friend and fellow writer, Nick Hayden. (Nick has ideas for his half of the story exchange percolating as I write, but I don’t know when he’ll have it done).
Just like Nick’s other Vienna, USAstories, this one is based loosely on an actual event. When Nick’s mother was in high school, a boy asked her out by climbing their hometown’s water tower and spray-painting her name on it. Besides that, many of the other details are cobbled together from my own experiences living near many small towns in Indiana (the comic shop and pizzeria are amalgams of several such places I’ve frequented). Speaking of the comic shop, I created that place (and the most of the characters seen or mentioned there) the first time I wrote a Vienna story back when Nick created this town as the setting for a serial called Cobblestones. Maybe I’ll post that story sometime. Ironically, it was called “The Gift.”
Anyway, take a break from your busy holiday schedule and enjoy this story. MERRY CHRISTMAS!
(FYI: If you’re reading this on the main page, click the title above so you’ll see the pagination).
The Discarded Gift By Nathan Marchand
The Mayans predicted the world would end today, and now Calvin Clark was wishing they were right.
The cold night air bit his cheeks as he stepped out of the door, the fresh snow crunching under his dress shoes. It had been a long, tiring day at the offices of the ironically named Crook and Straus Law Office. It seemed all the Scrooges in Vienna—maybe even the whole county—wanted to file or settle all their lawsuits the last week before Christmas.
I’m so sick of working here, thought Calvin as he buttoned up his navy blue wool trench coat over his suit. All I do is stare at papers documenting people’s petty squabbles. And if I hear one more “Clark the clerk” joke, they’ll be prosecuting a murder case! He pulled an equally-blue sock cap over his earthy hair, thinking, I didn’t go to college for this.
Since he forgot his gloves, Calvin stuffed his hands into his pockets, and his freezing fingers rediscovered the pockets’ contents. He sighed, slumping his shoulders. Out of his right pocket he produced crinkled piece of yellow paper, which he unfolded. Written at the top in his legible but messy handwriting was, “Maria’s Christmas List.” He had drawn his little sister’s name in the family gift exchange, and she would be coming home on break from college in Florida.
I’ve been so busy, I forgot to get her anything. I better do it now before she arrives tomorrow.
Calvin pocketed the list again and started walking down the sidewalk. Downtown Vienna was only a few blocks away. His sister loved the quaint shops and avoided the Wal-Mart as much as she could, so he knew that would be the best place to buy gifts for her. While it was already six o’clock, most of the stores would be staying open a little later for last-minute shoppers like him.
I’ll get the gifts and come back here for my car.
The crowds thickened, the Christmas music amplified, and traffic congested the closer Calvin got to downtown. It was the annual Christmas on Main Street Celebration. He heard music by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which was undoubtedly blaring from Mozart’s Music. The smells of freshly baked cookies and bread wafted through the icy air. The laughter of people young and old blended into a joyous noise. A rainbow of flashing colors from the thousands of lights splashed across the snow, making the cold powder sparkle, as he neared Main Street.
It was then Calvin’s gait slowed. His feet felt heavier with each step. Finally, he stopped as he came to the corner of Main and Schett Streets. He hung his head. For a moment, he just stood there, breathing in cold air and breathing out mists that seemed to envelope him like a dark cloud.
He wanted to shut out everything around him.
I thought I could do this, but…
He clenched white-knuckle fists in his pockets and gritted his teeth behind closed lips.
He straightened, took a deep breath, and rounded the corner.
Main Street was a Christmas card brought to life. Snow was piled along the edges of the cobblestone street and the sidewalks. Lights flashed. The night was illuminated. Wreaths hung on every door and every street lamp. Children, clad in their thick coats and earmuffs, dragged their parents into Candy’s Candies and Toyland, among other shops. Young couples nuzzled and cuddled on every bench. This last image pricked Calvin’s heart.
If that was all there was, Calvin could have handled it. But he barely walked half-a-block before he heard the sound of the clip-clop of horseshoes against the cobblestones behind him. He stopped in front of Josie’s Just Desserts, bracing himself. He had hoped farmer Griffith was not bringing his horses in for the holiday carriage rides that night. That was obviously what the young couples on the benches were waiting for. The clatter came up beside him on the right. Then it stopped.