I force myself to meet the cleaning staff’s bemused gaze. “If I were you,” I say, “I’d go home, climb into bed, and not emerge for a week.”
I don’t tell them the banknotes I’ve handed out will have no value come dawn.
Picking up a half empty bottle from a confetti strewn table, I totter from the Ballroom, Mia following in my wake.
In the empty corridor, Mia wraps her arms around me as I shudder and quake, buffeted by memories of what is about to happen.
“Why do you stay with me?” I ask, “Why not try and change your fate?”
She kisses my forehead. “You are my fate,” she says. “You’ve convinced me of that much.” She glances towards the Ballroom, the scene of such recent joy, celebrations of a New Year. “Do you—does your advice—save any of them?”
Stale air claws at my throat. “I don’t know. After… there are no records, no traces.”
“Yet still you try,” she nods. “Where to now?”
I wish I could share her serenity, wish I didn’t know her future. “To Parliament Hill,” I say, “We watch it burn, you and I.”
“Come then.” She plucks the warm bottle from my grasp, takes a sip and grimaces. “But let’s leave this behind.”
Liam is a London based writer and host of the award winning monthly literary event, Liars’ League. He was a finalist in Sci-Fest LA’s Roswell Award 2015 and has had work published at DailyScienceFiction and in Sci-Phi Journal. More via http://happyendingnotguaranteed.blogspot.co.uk/.
She wondered if – after you were dead – you ever dreamed of Earth?
Her papers whirled through the scanner, giving her a few moments to think. It was usually too hectic to think. But while the machine gave her the opportunity, she looked outside the big office window. It was 5 pm and the commuters were hurrying home. The sky was periwinkle, large cotton ball clouds assaulted by the heavy orange light of the setting sun.
There was a smell of autumn in the air, thick wet leaves falling from the oaks. She had been very upset recently, stress from work, from relationships, from impending holidays. And then she remembered: her father’s last consciousness had been in autumn. Before the cancer had claimed him. Mind, body, spirit.
She had dreamed the night before, her father appearing to her in the dream, speaking comfort and giving her the most reassuring hug she had in years. They say that when you dream of a dead loved one, they are in Heaven thinking about you.
She wondered if the dead remembered the smell of autumn, the wind brushing dead leaves from the trees, the autumn sky becoming heavy with the setting sun. Did the dead dream of the living?
The scanner stopped, its task complete. The world swallowed her again.
Laura Campbell lives and writes in Houston, Texas. She is an internationally published author, with over two dozen short stories published in the dark fiction, horror, and science fiction genres. She also has two novels (Blue Team One and Five Houses) currently in publication. In 2008 she won the James Award for her short science fiction story 416175. Her husband, Patrick, and children, Alexander and Samantha, support and encourage her daily in her writing.
The annual ritual always left Saint Nick shaken and exhausted. That’s why he used the workshop. This necessary act was not to be seen.
“I’ll clean up, sir. You get some rest,” Chief Elf Elroy said.
Most people thought the reindeer were born with their special abilities. If only that were true. Santa’s magic elixir gave them the power to fly, the stamina to travel the world in one night. But that potion carried a hefty price: madness at sunrise. And only a blow from Santa’s ax could prevent that transformation from taking place.
“Thank you, El. I’m going to the house.”
Mrs. Claus was waiting at the front door with hot chocolate and a tray of cookies. Bless her heart, she had no idea how every Christmas night came to an end.
“Welcome home, Papa.”
Santa kissed her warmly on the cheek.
“How was your night?” he asked.
“Oh, fine. After all these years, I still don’t know how to pass the time while you’re away. So I finally tried some of that concoction you always make. Can’t say I cared for it.”
Santa stood dumbstruck. Dawn was breaking over the horizon, and his eyes shifted toward the workshop.
Michael Balletti lives in New Jersey. By day, he’s a copy editor for a marketing research company, and by night, he tries to write as much as time permits. His work has appeared or will soon appear in Theme of Absence, The Last Line, Postcard Shorts, Sanitarium Magazine, Illumen, Black Satellite, MindMares and The Threshold.
The Christmas Key
He held out an unwrapped present that rattled like a pocketful of quarters. “Thirty seconds.”
She threw back the lid and plunged her hands into the familiar box. There were a hundred silver keys inside, maybe more.
Their first Christmas together, she’d taken too long to decide. She’d thought it was a joke and wound up empty-handed. That seemed so long ago.
He let her keep the keys that didn’t fit, and she spent the year studying them, learning which patterns were wrong.
She seized on two that could be right, neither had the same pattern as her pile of rejects. But which one was right? Were there multiples in the box? Decoys?
Was the right key even in there?
She held them up to compare. The left key had a thinner larger first tooth. Was that wrong?
She dropped it. Heart pounding, she scrabbled for the lock fastening her ankle chain to the furnace pipe. Her chosen key slid in.
She cranked her wrist to unleash freedom.
The key didn’t budge.
With a moan, she collapsed backward, striking her head hard on the cellar floor.
“Zero.” He clapped the box shut with a sigh. “Ah, well. You tried. Better luck next Christmas.”
Johnny dragged a chair away from the kitchen table, as quietly as he could. His father’s snores came from the bedroom down the hall, and every time the sound trailed out, Johnny paused, heart racing. Finally, the chair bumped against the kitchen counter. He clambered up and stretched on his tiptoes, just barely able to slide out the largest blade from the knife block.
When Johnny had asked for a super soaker last Christmas, what had he gotten? A duck, that’s what. A crappy wooden duck. Still optimistic in those days, he had brought it in for show and tell. The other kids in preschool had laughed at him, and laughed even harder when he ran to the teacher, crying.
Johnny shook off the memory. This was no time for weakness. The lights on the Christmas tree twinkled and flashed merrily, reflecting off the cool, smooth metal in his hand. He waited patiently by the fireplace until he heard jingling bells and heavy footsteps on the roof, and then he hefted the blade.
Boy, was Johnny ready for him. This time… this time, the fat man would pay.
Alison McBain lives in Connecticut with her husband and three daughters. She has over forty publications, including stories and poems in Flash Fiction Online, Abyss & Apex and Once Upon a Scream. She writes book reviews at www.bewilderingstories.com, blogs at alisonmcbain.com and tweets @AlisonMcBain.
by Jen Gniadecki
A low growl on the other side of the oak door catches her attention. She sighs and thinks how lovely a vacation would be. To get away from all this sorrow gone mad. Caring for them is no problem. They’re lovely, really. Until one can’t take it anymore and goes feral. This is when she doesn’t like her job so much. You cannot expect an elf to work forever, of course, but she had to agree with her husband when he says they should be able to last ten years. They really should be content knowing they give joy to so many children. Yet, the living conditions are awful and there are always going to be weak ones who can’t cope. The growl intensifies and Mrs. Claus knows it is time to act—before he becomes too strong to subdue. She reaches for the cattle prod next to her armchair. It is a shame her husband won’t listen when she suggests a rehabilitation program but he just goes on about the cattle prod and the incinerator. With the abundant supply she can see his point but changes should be made. She raises the cattle prod, turns the doorknob, and vows—as she does every year—to make improvements next season.
Jen Gniadecki enjoys dark stories and strong coffee.
Another Day in the Life
by Holly Schofield
Determined to make today special, Marnie hung dusty tinsel from the mantle at dawn. The Krawn Occupation had ruined the last four Christmases. Cate had spent them huddled in her wheelchair, battle-ruined fingers stroking her empty stocking.
This year, Marnie had found a gift. She slid the pair of shiny knitting needles into Cate’s stocking then slumped on the sofa, exhausted from her predawn excursion digging through the fabric store’s rubble.
The front door banged open. A Krawn, all gleaming armor and claws. “Marnie Greenlove? You are arrested for treason.” One eyestalk glared down at her.
“Who’s there?” Cate’s weak voice from the bedroom.
“Go back to sleep, it’s just me.” Marnie’s shiv was in the kitchen.
“Stand up.” The Krawn touched its holstered laser.
In one motion, Marnie rose and jabbed the knitting needles into the Krawn’s armpit, aiming for that sweet spot between the armor plates. The Krawn sagged, more quickly than if she’d used her knife. She’d have to tell the others about how well knitting needles worked.
She dragged the corpse behind the sofa and tossed the gore-slicked stocking and broken needles on top.
The creak of Cate’s wheelchair made her turn. “Merry Christmas, Marnie dear!”
“Merry Christmas, love.” She settled Cate next to the fire. Just an ordinary day, after all.
Holly Schofield’s stories have appeared in many publications including Lightspeed, Crossed Genres, and Tesseracts. For more of her work, see hollyschofield.wordpress.com.
Tied Up With Strings
by Rachel Anna Neff
Joseph worked his way through the crowded mall, ignoring the whispers and stares. Past the three-story Christmas tree, a little girl ran into his leg. She looked up at him, gasped, and pressed a green envelope into his hands. He looked down to see the letter was addressed to “Santa” in the kind of handwriting only a second-grade teacher or parent could love. When he looked back up, he couldn’t find her.
“I don’t want this,” he muttered, looking for a trashcan. He hated being mistaken for Santa. No, he hated being reminded that his grandson Clark loved thinking of him as Santa. His son’s girlfriend had taken off four years ago on New Year’s Eve. With Clark. Without a trace.
His grief was a splinter that dug deeper and deeper each passing holiday. He loved his full, well-groomed white beard. But the recognition as Kris Kringle was too much for the sharp prick he felt in his heart.
“Dye it red, then,” his wife, Edna, had decreed. “I don’t want to hear you complain about this for the next twenty Christmases. You think I don’t miss him too?”
He found a trashcan and set the envelope on top.
Rachel Anna Neff has written poetry since elementary school and has notebooks full of half-written novels. She earned her doctorate in Spanish literature and recently completed her MFA. Her work has been published in anthologies, Dirty Chai magazine and Crab Fat Magazine. You can find her on Twitter as @celloandbow or check out her editing venture at www.exceptionaleditorial.com.
by Mary Casey
The bishop has done it before.
This year’s soul is dressed in a sagging red and white costume and sporting a soiled beard. The bearded man is standing over a black kettle while ringing a bell as though he is calling for heaven’s notice. He approaches the man and slips a ten dollar bill into the kettle.
“Don’t do it,” he whispers to the man. “Think of your children finding out what you are planning to do. Remember why you ring the bell and who it is for. It will work out. Trust me.”
He smiles and pats the man on his skinny back and walks off into the crowd.
The bearded man calls out. “Wait! It is because of my children I need to do this!”
The bishop stops and turns. “Trust your better nature. Merry Christmas to you, son.”
The bearded man feels a lump in his pocket. He pulls out a wad of cash, exactly the amount he needs to buy his children Christmas presents. Tears fill his eyes and he picks up the bell. “Bless you!” he calls. “What is your name?”
A deep chuckle sounds through the parking lot. “Nicholas,” he answers. “You may call me Nick.”
Mary Casey writes from the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she is inspired by her surroundings and two Tibetan Spaniels.
Peace on Earth
by Vaughan Stanger
On Christmas Day 2019, billions of Hildreth fell like snowflakes from their orbiting bauble-ships. Summoned from their homes, most of Earth’s population floated up into the sky without saying farewell. Abandoned by his wife and daughters, Bill Dennison contemplated a life as vacant as the chairs
surrounding his dining table.
One year on and Christmas Day delivered sporadic gunfire, also a knock at Bill’s door. Lonely enough to accept the risk, he tugged back the bolts. Three Hildreth stood on the doorstep: the tallest chin-high to him, its companions identically shorter. Golden skin notwithstanding, the trio resembled his family closely enough to make him shudder. “Merry Christmas!” echoed in his skull as he slammed the door. He dismissed subsequent visitations from the sanctuary of his armchair.
On the fifth anniversary of his family’s departure, Bill noted the lack of gunfire and his depleted stock of food. The knock came. He heaved a sigh and opened the door.
“Merry Christmas,” he said.
The twins’ smiles set off fireworks in his head.
“Please come in.”
Bill began spooning beans onto biscuits.
The twins spoke in unison. “We’ve something for you, Daddy!”
Hearing another knock, Bill shuffled to the door with tears prickling his eyes. He knew what to expect.
Finally, it was his turn.
Formerly an astronomer and more recently a research project manager in an aerospace company, Vaughan Stanger now writes SF and fantasy fiction for a living. His stories have appeared in Daily Science Fiction, Abyss & Apex, Postscripts, Nature Futures and Interzone, amongst others. He has recently released a new collection of short stories as a Kindle ebook: Sons of the Earth. You can follow Vaughan’s writing adventures at vaughanstanger.com or @VaughanStanger.
The little tree sat out, overhead light reflecting off its shiny, plastic, needles. There were boxes packed full of dishes and clothes, being donated before their departure, but the fake tree didn’t have a destination. Jenny caught her wife looking at it and asked, again, if there was a reason it was still in the living room.
“It was ours,” Sarah said, again. “Everything else is just stuff, but Christmas was ours.” Jenny sat next to her, and put her arm around Sarah’s shoulders. “We can still have holidays in space, baby.” “If we’re assigned to the same ship. If we don’t blow up leaving orbit.”
“That’s the plan, Sarah. We’ll be together.”
“But we won’t have our tree.” Jenny smiled a little, and pulled Sarah into a hug. “I will find you a new tree.”
“You’re going to find me a Christmas tree. In space.”
“If that’s what you need to feel better about going, yes, yes I will.”
They both smiled at that, and Sarah relaxed, leaning in toward Jenny.
“Goodbye, Christmas tree,” Sarah said. “Take care of the Earth for us while we’re gone.”
Carrie Cuinn is an author, editor, college student, and geek. In her spare time she works toward a degree in Creative Writing, listens to music, watches indie films, cooks everything, reads voraciously, and sometimes gets enough sleep. Find her online at @CarrieCuinn or at http://carriecuinn.com.
He caught up to her outside, lit her cigarette before his own. They stood close, silent at first, keeping warm beneath the glow of the marquee.
“Do you remember our first apartment?”
She thought for a moment, “Of course. The tiny cottage by the beach.”
“It was tiny, wasn’t it? The kitchen was practically in our bedroom.”
“Didn’t matter to us then. Remember the smell of the ocean?”
“We’d leave the windows open every day, that salty breeze billowing through the sheers.”
“That’s how the stray cat got in.”
“But never left. Windows wide open, she chose to stay.”
“Tell me what else you remember.”
“Lazy nights tangled up in bed. Tasting moonlight on your shoulders. And you?”
“Waves crashing against the shore. Making love with the ebb and flow of the tide.”
“In time, the sea’s rhythm kept pace with the ebb and flow of us. Our love changed an ocean.”
Inside the lobby, the lights dimmed twice. She left their cottage first. At the bar, she took her husband’s arm and disappeared into the theatre. The stranger watched her go, fed the cat, closed the windows. Once inside, he returned to the stage, still brushing sand from his feet as the curtain parted.
Kathryn McBride is the author of an anthology of short stories currently featured in a boxed set (literally a set of boxes) under her bed. She is delighted to finally let them see the light of day. She welcomes feedback and craft beer suggestions @finishwhatyou.
Mambo is outside, talking to my kids about going back to school or getting his GED. “I drop out, they gotta let me drop in.”
I nod at his reasoning and cut another slice of cheese. There’s a nick in the blade, each piece has a ragged line. Mambo won’t care. Last week he said, “Doesn’t affect the taste none.”
Jonah, my youngest, tells a joke. I can tell because no one answers right and when he says the punchline, he is the only one laughing. Paula’s next words drip with sarcasm. I want to smack that mouth of hers sometimes. It sounds just like my own, and I know what pain it caused.
I toss some crackers on the plate and go out to the porch. They swoop in like bees to a bloom. Mambo, a bumblebee; mine hungry wasps.
“Damn, this is good, Missus J.” Mambo’s thanks is better than a cat call back in my tight ass high tit days.
“Glad you like it.” I look across the street, a similar after-school connection is being done over there, using Cheetos instead, the easy way.
I say, “You kids got homework?” They shift, moan, go upstairs.
I take Mambo back to my room. We start with orals; he earns his bachelor’s degree.
T. L. Sherwood is the Assistant Editor of r.kv.r.y Quarterly Literary Journal. At Literary Orphans, she serves as a fiction reader, book reviewer, and interviewer. She is the 2015 Gover Prize winner and her blog can be found here: http://tlsherwood.wordpress.com/
Your last meal at the base camp was spaghetti, bread, carbs carbs carbs. You remember only names, not tastes. Your last meal ever is Bob, whose name you remember and whose taste you’d rather forget. Good old protein-rich Bob. He’s taken you this far. Wherever this far is.
Your last match flickers and sputters and…Shit. That was your last match. Necessary for melting all that gorgeous powder around you. Maybe not necessary. Do not eat the snow. Do not eat the snow. Repeat this until you no longer want to eat the snow, knowing you will end up eating the snow.
Your last block breaks the shelter’s back and you start again on the walls with hands hard as shovel blades but not quite as useful. At nightfall, you settle for a trench. A shallow, icy cocoon that feels unpleasantly like a coffin. Or pleasantly. Hard to tell the difference.
Your last word (Mommy, not God) stifles itself under a heavy, sliding blanket. In your mind is a mountain, a camp, a friend, spaghetti. You recite the rule of three and think how lovely it is that you will only need to wait three minutes before all thinking stops.
Christina Dalcher is a linguist, novelist, and flash fiction addict from The Land of Styron. She is currently matriculating at the Read Every Word Stephen King Wrote MFA program, which she invented. Find her at ChristinaDalcher.com or @CVDalcher. Or hiding in a cupboard above the stairs. Or read her short work in Zetetic, Pidgeonholes, and Syntax & Salt, among other corners of the literary ether.
An angel of light came to the night woods, searching for what was unobtainable in his Heaven. He had never ventured to my paradise before and arrived with guardians, though his brothers must have told him not to be afraid. His three holy wolves bared their alabaster fangs as I approached, my Nereid shell opening to woman form. But when I spread my own ribbed wings and beckoned, they whimpered and lay at my feet.
“You are far from home,” I whispered, and kissed his rigid jaw. “How sad there is no sex in your heaven, no fertile soil, no animal flesh.”
The wolves cried for they too were made of light. I sensed their sad longing for the pack, earthly memories of pups licking their faces and the taste of prey on their tongues.
My wings touched his and he sighed. We mated in the aqua sky; starlight shining upon virgin trees, amid a thousand fireflies burning through the ecstasy of their short lives. He now carries my child—angels are like seahorses that way—and has returned to his paradise. I descend to roots and the sweet decay of matter bearing life in a much different way.
Alethea Eason is a writer, artist, and teacher who lives in Northern California. She has written the young-adult novels Hungry (HarperCollins) and Heron’s Path (Spectacle MPG).
This is the moment I want to remember kissing you. We’re standing in the parking lot in the middle of an ice storm. You have on your Evil Dead sweatshirt with the hood up, your bangs struggling out of the pulled drawstring. We’re saying goodbye as things freeze around us and this is the moment I want to remember it happening.
Not after we’ve talked it over a thousand times. Not after we’ve decided that it is wrong but that it just might be worth it after all. Not after we’ve convinced ourselves that nothing will happen even though we already know that something unstoppable already has. Not after we’ve decided on any course of action.
I want to remember it happening now. You start to get into your car and stop, looking back up at me. It’s a purely filmic moment, a scripted event; framed and lit by the concentric glows of streetlights reflecting a sheen over everything, everything iced over. I want to remember it happening now because it has to happen. Now. Before everything changes. Before this moment passes into the next and we’re nothing but opposing glares of headlight over ice-glazed streets, two beacons leading away from each other. Before this moment is over. Now. Like this.
C.C. Russell lives in Casper, Wyoming with his wife and daughter. His writing has recently appeared in such places as Tahoma Literary Review, Word Riot, Rattle, and The Colorado Review. His short fiction has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, Best Small Fictions, and Best of the Net. He has held jobs in a wide range of vocations—everything from graveyard shift convenience store clerk to retail management with stops along the way as dive bar dj and swimming pool maintenance. He has also lived in New York and Ohio. He can be found on Twitter @c_c_russell.
Her hand dipped into the icy cold Atlantic. By reflex, she raised her arms above the surface, as the seawater rose higher up her legs—a form of escape, of avoiding—stupid, she thought, still not letting go, after all that has happened.
Her searching feet found the rocks that tried to trip her; had she not snatched up her track shoes at the last moment, the barnacles would have ripped her bare soles raw. The irritant sand between toes fell subordinate to the Atlantic cold.
The water licked her stomach, an invasion of modesty of her own choosing. The tide now surged between the soon-to-be-submerged rock islets, swinging her wet shift to one side, making the fabric cling form-fitting on the other.
Slow and careful stepping brought her closer to the small lighthouse. If he were there, she would survive this. The edifice of his will would be enough. And if the lighthouse lay empty, then at least she would be safe. For now.
Unless her father found a boat.
Garth Pettersen is a Canadian writer whose stories have been published or accepted for publication in Queen Anne’s Revenge, The Opening Line Literary ‘Zine, Dark Gothic Resurrected Magazine, and in anthologies published by Main Street Rag, Zimbell House, and Horrified Press. Read his blogs on writing at www.garthpettersen.com or follow him on twitter @garpet011.