Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 8

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6, Part 7

Christmas Day


He awoke with a start, Bree shaking his shoulder. He’d fallen asleep in the chair near the fire, which burned very low. Bree was excitedly pointing at the Christmas tree in the corner.

“Merry Christmas, Fin! Look! We have gifts!”

“Wha… where’s Maryam?” Fin asked, still trying to shake the sleep from his head.

“She left us a note that said that she’d gotten news of a big storm heading this way, and she’s gone to take care of some other things and that we should try to get out of here as soon as possible after breakfast, else we’ll be snowed in for at least a week. I’ve left your clothes on the bed. Hurry and change! I want to see what’s in the presents!”

Fin hurried upstairs, changed, and brought their luggage down with him. Bree was sitting at the table, eating a warm breakfast of eggs sunny side up, bacon, wheat toast, strawberry jam, and coffee. Fin wondered how it stayed warm, then recalled the conversation with Maryam of the night before. He accepted that the breakfast simply was warm, and began eating as well.

“C’mon! C’mon! I wanna open the gifts!” Bree was just like a kid when it came to Christmas.

“OK, good grief, Bree. I’ll eat. You open yours.”

Bree clapped, jumped up, grabbed both gifts, looked at the tags, and slid one over to Fin. She ripped the wrapping paper off of the other one and opened the box underneath.

“Oohh… wow…” Bree said, her breath catching in her throat. She pulled an ornament from the box, in the shape of a miniature open sleigh. Two horses were attached to the front, and three people were on the driver’s bench. They looked remarkably like Maryam, Bree, and Fin. The sleigh contained three large bags. Shaking the ornament gently caused a faint jingling sound, like a hundred tiny bells were inside the ornament.

Bree admired it for a few more moments, her face split with an ear-to-ear grin, tears of happiness collecting at the corners of her eyes. She dabbed at them quickly, sniffed and little, and laughed. “I’m not sure what I expected, but it wasn’t this.” She seemed to have forgotten about Finley’s present, which he was glad of. It gave him time to get a few more mouthfuls of food down before she remembered.

“OK, your turn. What’d you get?”

Finley took the paper off of his box more delicately and deliberately than Bree. Bree laughed at him, knowing he was partly teasing her, but also partly unwilling to shred the wrapping that someone had put so much work into. A couple of minutes later, he opened the box and looked inside. It appeared to be a snow globe of some kind. He took it out. It was a view of a cottage against a forest. You could just make out someone sitting in a rocker on the front porch. He shook it a little, causing the snow to swirl, and the scene changed to the old crone, who looked a little straighter and far friendlier than she had the day before. Another shake, and the snow was like the mist on the river, revealing a steamboat with a captain in red in the bow. The next shake caused the scene to change to the giant’s house set against the foothill, with the giant himself standing out front, his face set in what must’ve been a large and loud laugh. The next shake shifted to the small version of the cottage with three boys standing arm in arm in arm, beaming looks on their faces. A final shake returned it to the original scene.

Holding the globe, Fin felt something on the bottom, an etching of some kind. Turning it over, he saw the following engraved letters.


Fin smiled through his own set of tears, finally understanding. And he knew that he would remember the story, and pass it on to all that were ready and willing to listen.


Monday, December 19, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 7

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5, Part 6

Late Night Chat

Around midnight, they gave up waiting for Maryam to return. They wished each other Happy Anniversary one more time at 11:59, then Merry Christmas at 12:00, and went to sleep.

Fin was awoken by something moving around downstairs at about 4:00 a.m. He’d always been a light sleeper, especially in strange places. Quietly, he crept out of their room and peered into the darkness of the main floor. He could see the outline of someone rummaging around in the living area around the Christmas tree there. A moment later, the figure stepped into the light of the dim fire, stoking it back to life. It was Maryam.

She flopped into one of the rustic chairs and plopped her feet up on the coffee table there. Fin heard and saw a match being struck, then saw the flame dip downwards. A few audible inhales later, and Fin caught the faint scent of a sweetish tobacco being smoked, undoubtedly from Maryam’s pipe.

“Come on down, Finley. Let’s get on with the chat you’re so keen to have.”

Fin made his way slowly down the stairs and took the seat opposite Maryam. She looked both relaxed and tired, puffing her pipe and gazing into the fire. She turned to face him and smiled warmly.

“Go ahead, ask the question.”

“What happened today?”

Maryam took a long drag on her pipe and exhaled it slowly. “What do you think happened?”

“A bunch of very strange stuff, most of which made no sense at all.”

Maryam nodded her head as she took another drag. “That sounds about right.”

“So? Did I miss something?”

“No,” said Maryam, and Fin thought she looked a little sad. That sadness had an unexpectedly powerful impact on Fin, and he found himself tearing up for not apparently reason. “How about I tell you a story?” Fin nodded, blinking his eyes to clear them, and settled back into the chair. It was more comfortable that he’d expected, especially considering it’s ancient construction. Maryam began.

“Once upon a time, when the world was young, magic was everywhere and in everything. People were kind and loving to each other because they didn’t know any other way to be, and there was peace and harmony and warmth and light. Then, as they grew older and more mature, mankind began to learn about jealousy, and greed, and fear, and hate. Things grew darker and colder as these new emotions began driving out the magic that had originally existed. In an effort to maintain a balance, the powers that were began to struggle against that powers that were becoming. In the eons since, the balance has gone back and forth. Recently, balance has swung to the darkness, and the remnants of the powers that were have banded together. At this time of year, they make a special effort to see happiness and joy spread throughout the world. We all do our parts, and hope that, given enough opportunity, mankind will find the hope they once had, and decide to simply love each other and treat each other with kindness again.”

“Wait… ‘we?’” Fin asked.

Maryam’s eyes twinkled merrily. “And very occasionally, there are a couple of otherwise normal people that stumble into our tale, and we sincerely hope that they take the message back to the rest of mankind, insofar as they’re able, and continue to hold the wonder and joy they felt during their adventure as they continue their journey.”

“So… who are you? You aren’t… Santa Claus… are you?”

Maryam smiled at Fin as he asked, knocked the ash from her pipe into the fire, then got up and stretched and yawned. “It’s been a long night. I think I’ll turn in. Goodnight, Finley.”

She left him there to stare after her.

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 6

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4, Part 5

Last Stop

The sun had just finished setting by the time they stopped again. This time, they were in front of a smart looking if small house, resembling nothing more than Maryam’s cottage in four-fifth’s scale. When juxtaposed with the house they’d left behind, this house looked positively tiny. Three boys dressed almost identically to each other were doing things outside the house: one was chopping wood, another sweeping the porch, and a third cleaning the windows. As the sleigh came to a stop at the end of their sidewalk, the three waved in unison to Maryam, who returned the wave. They then fell into a marching formation and went into the house, single file.

The evening was getting colder by the moment, so Bree and Fin took the stop as an opportunity to stretch their legs and warm up a bit. The driver’s bench was perfectly comfortable, but sitting for too long made Fin fidgety. As they stood stamping their feet and blowing into their hands, the three boys appeared from the side of the house, carrying yet another large bag above their collective heads.

Fin took one look at it, then said, “Let me guess: it’ll fit, no problem.” Maryam’s only reply was a quick wink. Bree and Fin helped the three boys push the bag into the back of the sleigh, as the boys could barely see over the edge. Maryam had wandered into the house’s front yard, and the boys joined her there as soon as the bag was in the sleigh. Bree and Fin were about to join them when Maryam turned abruptly toward them and hurried back to the sleigh.

“We’ve no time to lose,” Maryam said, her voice sounding strained for the first time since they’d arrived. “It’s later than I thought. Up you go! Hurry!”

Bree and Fin got back onto the driver’s bench as fast as they could while Maryam went to check on the horse’s harness. She took a moment to whisper to the horses and stroke their manes and necks, then dashed around the side and onto the bench herself. The horses were off before she could even grab the reigns. They immediately accelerated to what Fin considered an unsafe pace, then poured on more speed. It was dark and no one was holding the reigns. Fin was beginning to actually feel a little scared when Maryam reached behind Bree’s back to touch his shoulder. “Everything is still fine, Fin. We just need to get back to the cottage.” Maryam’s hand was warm and comforting, and her eyes seemed to twinkle a bit in the twilight. Fin calmed down a little as Maryam finally grabbed the reigns and handed them to Bree.

“Let them have their head,” Maryam told Bree. “They’ll get us back the fastest way possible. I need to organize a little.”

With that, Maryam vaulted over the back of the bench and into the sleigh bed. She opened all three bags and began rummaging through each, occasionally moving something from one to another or shifting items around within each.

It was snowing again, more heavily this time than earlier in the day. The darkness deepened as they raced along the landscape. The scenery seemed blurry to Fin, as if they moved too quickly for his eyes to focus on any particular thing. Bree stared steadily forward, a determined smile on her face. Steam rose from the horses in steady streams. The bells on the sleigh rang in a hurriedly jolly manner, their din louder than it should have been at that speed.

In what seemed to be only a few minutes, they were pulling onto the open fields where they had first entered the woods. The horses continued their frenetic pace until they came to a stop in the field adjacent to the cottage.

Maryam hopped back onto the driver’s bench. “Alright, here’s where you two get off for now. I want to thank you for your excellent help and company this afternoon and evening. Inside the house, you’ll find a romantic dinner for two set on the smaller table near the fireplace. I’m going to go drop these off,” she said, thumbing toward the bags in the back of the sleigh, “but it’ll be a few hours before I actually get back to the house. Please enjoy yourselves, and I’ll see you in the morning!”

“Wait, Maryam—“ Bree began.

“Can’t wait! Must fly! I’ll answer questions in the morning, depend upon it!”

Fin had already climbed down and helped Bree out of the seat. They stood back and watched the sleigh streak off again, picking up more and more speed until it seemed to fade from view. Even then, they thought they could still hear the sleigh bells jingling merrily, but eventually that, too, faded.

They made their way back inside the house and found everything as Maryam had described — a romantic, candlelit dinner for two was laid out for them. The lights in the house were low as well, just light enough to see the way through. When they took their seats, the lights seemed to dim of their own accord, so that only the candles and firelight illuminated the couple.

“This has been… odd,” began Fin, taking a sip of his wine.

“It’s been wonderful!” Bree said, hardly able to contain herself. “What a fantastic day! Maryam, and the horses, and the sleigh, and the woods, and the old lady, and the steamboat, and—“

“Bree, do you know how nutty all of that sounds?”

“Well… I suppose so, but—“

“No buts! We’re going to wait up for Maryam to get back and get to the bottom of this. All I wanted was a nice, relaxing, romantic get-away with you for our anniversary for once in our lives. Instead, we got this insanity!”

Bree put her glass down, walked around the table, and pulled Fin out of his chair by the hand. She put his arms around her, then her arms around him, and leaned into him, swaying slowly back and forth.

“Fin, today has been magical. I don’t have a better way to describe it. We rode over the river and through the woods and wound up at grandmother’s house. We were in a two-horse open sleigh with jingle bells attached. We helped gather handmade gifts for kids in need. Even if it was a bit… strange… we were together. I loved every minute of it.”

Fin hugged her tightly. “Alright, alright. It was definitely as unique an experience as we’re likely to have, and we’re no worse for the wear. I still want to know what that was all about. Why the rush there at the end? Where is she dropping those packages off so late in the evening where they can still be delivered?”

Bree shrugged slightly in his arms, apparently not caring about the answers to any questions Fin had. He sighed, swayed with her a few more moments, then Bree said, “Let’s eat. I’m starving!”

Sunday, December 18, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 5

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3, Part 4

Third Stop

The sky was a dusky rose fading to purple by the time they emerged from the woods into a clearing in a slight valley at the base of a massive foothill. The bottom of the foothill was itself obscured by a massive house. Fin could tell that the house was not only large, but built largely. The front double doors must’ve been at least twelve feet tall and half again as wide, with equally large windows on either side. Fin thought he could see a shadow moving behind one of the windows just before the front doors were flung open. The largest man Fin had ever seen stood inside. The man must have been close to eight feet tall, and was wearing a beret of some kind. It covered the top of his head, but his bushy hair spilled out from under it in dark gray and white streaks. He also wore a warm-looking vest made of some kind of light colored fur, but perhaps the oddest part of his outfit were his shoes. They appeared to be almost dancer’s shoes or slippers, with ribbons or laces that ran criss-crossed up and around his lower legs all the way to his knees.

He let out a boisterous laugh on seeing Bree and Fin’s expressions and started speaking rapidly to Maryam in a language that seemed familiar but which neither Bree nor Fin could quite understand, something between Latin and Spanish. Maryam laughed back at the large man, replying in the same language. A moment later, the man went back inside and quickly returned with a bag that was just as large as the one they already had.

“Maryam, I’m not sure that bag’s going to fit back there,” Fin said, glancing back at the mostly full cargo space.

“There you go again with what will and won’t fit. It’ll fit just fine, Fin! Trust me, my boy!”

Fin glanced back at her skeptically as the large man brought his bag up and slung it over the side. Strangely, it landed with a sigh, not clanking into the bottom as Fin had expected. The giant reached over to make an adjustment, moving both bags around slightly. Finley turned to look back at the situation, and was surprised to see that the two bags were sitting neatly side by side, with room to spare. In fact, the first bag seemed to be in even better shape than it was at the river.

The man said something to Fin and Bree that they didn’t understand. Instinctively, Bree held her hand out to him. He smiled and took it, then looked at Fin expectantly. Fin extended his hand, which was taken by the man. The man’s giant hand completely engulfed Fin’s. His grip was firm and strong, but as gentle as the first warm rain of spring. He said something else to them, just above a whisper, and once again they felt like they were on the edge of understanding, but not quite grasping. He released their hands, said something to Maryam, tipped his hat to all of them, then stepped back. As soon as he did, the horses took off.

Maryam turned in the bench as they pulled away and playfully blew the man a kiss. His hearty laughter could be heard rolling around the clearing and into the woods for quite a time afterward.

Saturday, December 17, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 4

Part 1, Part 2, Part 3

Second Stop

A longer while later, they came to a wide river. Mist and fog from the river swirled all around them, obscuring everything more than a few yards away. Maryam guided the sleigh with a sure hand, never looking the least bit concerned. They crossed the river over a bridge, and just afterward pulled off of the main path onto a gentle downward slope toward the riverbank. Maryam finally reigned the horses in just shy of what appeared to be an ancient yet well-maintained dock on the edge of the river. As they came to a full stop and were dismounting, they heard something bumping up against the dock. Maryam signaled that they should follow her, and a moment later they were at the end of the dock. They were surprised to see a steamboat moored there, and even more surprised to see an older gentleman dressed in a deep red double-breasted blazer with a captain’s hat to match.

The gentleman smiled at Bree and Fin as he said something to Maryam the other two didn't catch. He disappeared a moment later, and Maryam turned back to the other two. “We’re going to have to use Befana’s bag. You two go grab it out of the sleigh and bring it aboard. Syn's gifts are piled up in the bow.”

Bree had completely bought into the adventure by this point and immediately turned back to the sleigh. Fin jogged to catch up with her, doing so as she was clambering into the sleigh to start pushing the bag over the side.

“Bree, I’m feeling a little… unsettled about all this.”

“Fin, you’re in a bona fide Christmas story. Embrace it!”

Finley pulled his cell phone out. As he had guessed, he had no signal at all. The GPS showed a pin on a completely blank map, even though Fin had downloaded the maps for the entire area before they’d set out earlier that day.

“Fin, I know it’s strange,” said Bree, still struggling with the bag, “but I’m trusting my instincts here. I get the sense that this is all good and right and, in the end, full of wonder. Just trust me.”

“Alright, I’ll trust you,” Fin said, reaching over the side and helping get the ratty bag over the edge, although it didn’t seem as ratty now as he’d originally thought. Fin slung the bag over his shoulder as before. He and Bree then boarded the steamboat at the bow, and immediately saw, not a large, but a HUGE pile of gifts stacked in the center of the open deck. Maryam appeared to be inspecting then, occasionally moving them around, as if collating them.

“Alright Fin, bring it over here, and just hold it open.”

“Maryam, there’s no way all of those are going to fit in here.”

“Oh, they’ll fit! It’ll be tight, but they’ll fit. Don’t you worry about that.” said Maryam, winking at Fin as he held the bag open for her to start depositing gifts. Bree began grabbing other gifts indiscriminately and putting them into the bag.

Maryam, Bree, and the old gentleman made fairly quick work of what had at first seemed an insurmountable stack. Every now and then, Maryam paused long enough to check inside the bag and make minor adjustments. As she had predicted, all of the assembled gifts fit, but just barely. As they finished, Maryam took the cords and cinched the bag closed. It seemed to strain at the seams a bit, but held together.

“Alright, back to the sleigh! We’re a little behind, so we’ll have to make up some time!” said Maryam, making her way off of the boat and onto the dock.

“Uh, Maryam? How are we supposed to carry this without it falling apart?” asked Fin.

“The same way you did getting it down here. Together!”

Bree grabbed the back of the bag and helped Fin sling it over his shoulder. The bag was larger, heavier, and more cumbersome, but not nearly as much as it should have been. Bree held the back so that it didn’t drag on the ground, and they made their way back to the sleigh without any issue. Bree climbed in and pulled as Fin pushed the bag back over the edge. At this point, the bag took up most of the back of the sleigh.

“C’mon, we’ve gotta get going!” said Maryam from the driver’s bench. The steamboat let out a whistle. Fin turned back long enough to see that the mist had rolled in again. He couldn’t see anything beyond the edge of the dock, although he knew the boat had to be there. Bree was already climbing in, and Fin quickly followed her. As soon as they were seated, the sleigh was turning around and heading back for the main path.

Friday, December 16, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 3

Part 1, Part 2

First Stop

As soon as they left the back yard, the temperature dropped at least forty degrees. Fin quickly handed Bree her coat and slipped his own on. Maryam seemed immune to the cold, smiling and laughing as the wind blew a few strands of her hair free from her bun. She shifted the reigns to one hand while knocking her pipe on the heel of her boot to empty it. She stuffed the pipe into one of her coverall’s many pockets, leaned back, closed her eyes and raised her face to the sun. Bree looked at her in wonder, while Fin shifted his gaze nervously between her and the horses and back again.

“Do you want to drive?” Maryam asked without turning her head or opening her eyes. Both Bree and Fin hesitated long enough to cause Maryam reassure them. “It’s not really driving so much as it is holding the reigns. The horses know the way, after all…” She held her hand open, the reigns dangling limply there.

Bree reached out and took the reigns from Maryam. “Can we go faster?” she asked, a reckless look in her eye that Fin recognized and dreaded.

Maryam’s only reply was another loud laugh. Bree gave the reigns a flick similar to the one she’d seen Maryam use, yelling “Giddup!” in a voice louder than Maryam’s laughter. The horses responded with a joyous lurch forward as they strained against the harness.

At that pace, they were across the open fields in a flash and into the vast woods themselves, where the horses slowed down naturally as the light dimmed. The path wound gently between the trees, while the canopy was thick enough to prevent the lightly falling snow from getting to the forest floor. In the distance, the could hear a river flowing, making its way down the mountain and eventually into the Gross Reservoir, or so Fin thought as he listened to it.

They rode through the woods for a while before they came to their first stop. It was, as Maryam described, unexpected. They stopped in front of a dwelling that was little more than a shack, a lean-to built up against the side of a rock face. No sooner had they stopped than Maryam had dismounted and jogged to the front door. A quick knock was immediately answered by a squeaky, scratchy voice, although Fin couldn’t make the words out from where he was on the sleigh. Another moment, then the door opened and an ancient lady hobbled out. She was stooped over, almost as if she’d bent over one day and forgotten how to straighten up again. The top of her head was covered in a long gray scarf, which obscured most of her face, save her overly large proboscis. A faded red shawl was draped across her shoulders, and her skirt covered the rest of her in what once might have been an elegant plumage, but now looked like nothing more than dirty curtains draped around her legs.

The old lady seemed to be dragging something rather heavy behind her, as she paused just past the threshold of her hovel, turning back to it to grab whatever was stuck in the door with both hands. Fin climbed quickly off of the sleigh and jogged over to where Maryam and old woman were struggling. With their combined efforts, the door was finally unblocked. The object that had blocked it turned out to be an oversized bag made of some kind of moth-eaten velvety cloth.

“Fin, take this and push it up into the sleigh, if you please,” said Maryam, turning back to the old crone after issuing the command. Fin turned to obey, too bewildered at the encounter to object.

He didn’t have any trouble carrying the bag, slinging it over his shoulder, but struggled getting it into the sleigh. The bag wasn’t very heavy, but it was bulky and cumbersome because the packages inside shifted around. Bree hopped down, and together they finally succeeded in shoving the bottom of the bag into the back. They were climbing back onto the driver’s bench when Maryam rejoined them.

“Excellent work, you two. Next stop — the dock!” Maryam grabbed the reigns, and before she could even flick them, the horses took off, leading them deeper into the woods.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 2

Part 1

An Errand

“She’s back!” Bree exclaimed from the bedroom window out of which she’d been staring. Fin, who had been dozing, woke groggily if not suddenly, but slipped his shoes back on and joined Bree at the window. It had begun to snow again, although none of it seemed to be sticking in the back yard. Maryam had been gone for half an hour or so when Bree indicated she had returned, both of the big Clydesdales in tow. They left their bedroom and met Maryam just as she was reentering the house from the back door.

“Sorry about that, folks,” said Maryam. “Sometimes the silly things get excited over the most common occurrences.”

“Can I see them?” asked Bree, barely able to contain her glee.

“Of course, but I should warn you — they’re very friendly, and if you get too close to them, they’re liable to nuzzle you until you fall over. Here, take these just in case,” Maryam said as she grabbed two oversized apples from the bowl in the center of the kitchen island. 
Bree clapped again, accepted the apples, and dashed out the back door, slowing only when she got close to the horses. They didn’t seem shy or intimidated in any way, and walked to her eagerly when she brandished the apples at them.

Fin watched the interaction out of back window for a few moments, trying to decide if he wanted to go out as well, when Maryam made the decision for him. “I hate to impose on the both of you, but if you are willing, I could use your help running an errand. I think you might enjoy it.”

“What kind of errand?”

“It involves those horses and that sleigh.”

Fin smiled broadly at Maryam. “I suspect Bree will love it, and anything she loves…”

“You’ll need your coats. We’ll be going into the woods, and it’ll be chillier there.”
Finley grabbed both of their coats from the bedroom and met Maryam and Bree in the back yard. Maryam and Bree were bridling the horses, whose names were Hershey and Thumper. The horses appeared to be helping with the bridles, apparently eager to be underway. Now that he was closer, he could tell that the horses’ tails were gathered neatly and tied into an intricate knot. There were bells woven into the knot at places. He glanced over to the sleigh, and saw that it was lined with similar bells.

“Sleigh bells and bobtails, if you were wondering,” volunteered Bree before Fin could ask. “Exactly like in the song, except it won’t be a one-horse open sleigh!”

They quickly finished the harnessing. Fin and Maryam pulled the sleigh from its stall and hooked it up to the harness. The sleigh itself was larger than Fin had expected, with a wide bench for the driver elevated slightly above two lower benches, facing each other, for passengers. He was even more surprised when Maryam pulled one of the passenger benches out and indicated he should grab the other one.

“You two will be up front with me. We’re going to pick up some packages.”

“Packages? In the woods?” Fin seemed more than a little skeptical, and was beginning to wonder what they’d gotten themselves into. He checked to make sure he had his cell phone on him just in case.

Maryam gave him a broad grin and held his gaze for a few moments with her eyes. “Yes, packages. It’s Christmas time, after all. There are a few families that live out here that make hand-crafted toys for children that wouldn’t receive them otherwise. Thing is, these wood folks don’t have the means to get out and about very easily. So we’re going to swing by their homes to gather the gifts.”

“Today’s Christmas Eve,” stated Fin. “Aren’t they cutting it a bit close?”

“They always do, but the toys always manage to get finished and delivered by Christmas day. And this year, you two get to be a part of it! Be aware, though: some of the folks we’re visiting will be… unexpected. They’re all perfectly friendly though, even if they seem strange.” Maryam smiled warmly, then leapt nimbly onto the driver’s bench. Bree and Fin each used the step but didn’t have any trouble getting situated. As soon as they were, Maryam gave a gentle flick of the reigns, calling “Git!” The horses launched forward, causing both Bree and Fin to almost tumble over the back of the low bench seat. Maryam let out a hearty laugh as the horses raced out of the back yard and toward a well-worn track leading to the woods.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Christmas Eve Anniversary, Part 1

Gentle reader, I have no intention to mislead you, so let me clarify some things at the outset.

Firstly, my wedding anniversary is not on Christmas Eve, and I don't know of anyone that has actually been married on Christmas Eve. I don't claim to remember every couple's wedding anniversary either, so I could easily be mistaken about everybody else. I am, however, quite sure that my own wedding anniversary is, as stated, not on Christmas Eve.

Secondly, the events depicted in this short story are completely fictitious, but do not have to be so. They have not happened to me, but that doesn't mean that they won't or can't, aside from the above proviso regarding my wedding anniversary.

Finally, the short story itself holds true to its nature, being short. However, it is longer than a regular blog post. As such, I'm choosing to break it into multiple blog posts, and hope you will bear with me during the process.

Without further adieu...

Christmas Eve Anniversary

by Rusty Bentley

“We’re lost, aren’t we?” he asked, hands clenching the steering wheel.

“No, it should be just around this next little bend,” she replied, never looking up from her phone.

“We’re driving through the middle of a pasture. There’s no road!” he said, waving one hand vaguely at the windshield.

It was true, or appeared to be so. The ground was covered with snow that had started falling about three hours ago. It had stopped now, but the countryside the couple was driving through was already completely blanketed with an beautiful white sheet. At least it’s not so deep that the car can’t get through it, Fin thought to himself. It’s a good thing Bree forced me to put the snow tires on last weekend.

“Just because you can’t see the road doesn’t mean it’s not there,” Bree replied. “Although, I would feel better if we could get a better cell signal out here.”

She raised her head from the phone and let her eyes wander over the snow-covered landscape outside of the passenger window. Finley regarded her as well. She felt his gaze on her, turned her head back toward him, and offered him her smile. Her smile — that was what had originally caught him. Not that she wasn’t striking otherwise. With dark brown hair in short, lazy curls kept at shoulder length, olive skin, and hazel eyes, she would have turned heads in any setting. But her smile, with that one dimple in her right cheek… the first time he’d seen that, he knew he was hooked.

By contrast, Bree had fallen in love with Fin in stages. Her type was normally tall, dark, and handsome. Fin was tall enough, standing just under six feet, and handsome enough, but wouldn’t have been classified as dark at all given his dirty blonde hair and pale complexion. Still, he was charming in every way, especially his persistence. Bree found herself changing for the better the more she was around him, and before too long found that she didn’t want to be without him.

Aubrey and Finley had been married for ten years exactly. Who would have thought it would be a good idea to get married on Christmas Eve? Apparently, Aubrey and Finley did. Every year since they’d eloped, they’d been splitting time between his family and her family gatherings, with only an occasional anniversary dinner out to celebrate their nuptials. This year, they’d decided to get away from everything and spend the holidays together. Aubrey had researched a bit and found what looked like a charmingly quaint bed and breakfast about an hour outside of Denver, just southwest of Boulder. It was up in the hills a bit, but seemed easy enough to get to.

Unless the road was completely covered in snow. Driving around foothills without being able to see the end or edge of the road clearly tested the mettle of even the most native of Coloradans.

Fin slowed the car to just above a crawl as they came around a curve that rose slightly before leveling off again. As they cleared the curve, the path straightened and declined slightly, leading straight towards a cottage nestled up against the edge of the forest. They pulled up to the front of the house and, not seeing anywhere specific to park, stopped the car at what they thought was a respectful distance away.

The cottage itself was a fair size, not large, but certainly larger than modesty required. The website said it was a three bedroom, three bathroom house with a large common living area aside from the dining room and kitchen. Smoke curled out of a central chimney, its light grey hazing lingering around the roof for a moment before being caught up by the breeze swirling above. There was a wrap around porch as well, with several rocking style chairs. One of those chairs was currently occupied by an elderly woman.

Fin and Bree got out of the car, shivered a bit as they pulled their coats on and collected their belongings, but finally started making their way toward the cottage. The woman remained where she was, rocking back and forth, back and forth. She was dressed simply in coveralls made of a coarse, faded material, and a long-sleeved white blouse. One of her arms was held across her torso in support of the other arm, which was in turn supporting a pipe. As with the cottage’s chimney, smoke curled lazily from the pipe, lingering around the woman’s ash gray hair, which was pulled into a smart bun. Small, round glasses were perched on her nose, and her eyes appeared to be closed.

“Hello!” called Fin just before they made it to the porch.

“Hello to you!” called the old woman back, finally opening her eyes and standing. She was shorter than Finley expected, and thinner, but with icy bright blue eyes. “Fin and Bree, I presume?”

They nodded. “Glad you made it! I’m Maryam. Come on inside and I’ll give you the grand tour!”  She opened the door and gestured for them to follow her.

As Fin and Bree stepped onto the porch, they felt the temperature change from a bracing chill to a pleasantly friendly warmth. They glanced at each other, puzzled. The wrap around porch was open on all sides, but the breeze that bit at the trees and shrubs just past the steps didn’t follow them up, as if it couldn’t be bothered to make that short journey.

“You two are the only guests this weekend, so let me know if you need me to adjust the temperature. The control’s a little finicky, so don’t bother trying to do it yourself,” Maryam called to them from just inside the open door. Bree shrugged her shoulders at Fin, smiled again, and went in. Fin followed.

The interior was as quaint as advertised. The decor was rustic, featuring a set of aged wooden couches, chairs, and coffee tables. A chandelier made from a series of lanterns suspended from a wagon wheel helped illuminate a room with large windows on each wall.

Maryam led Fin and Bree inside. “The floor plan is open. We want our guests to feel like they can talk to anyone that’s not in their bedroom or bathroom without having to raise their voices too much.” She led Fin and Bree through the living room and around the staircase to the dining room, which opened straight onto the kitchen. Visible through the windows here was a back yard, beyond which was a stable or barn which housed an actual sleigh of some kind. Two very large horses milled about between the cottage and stable. Bree clapped in excitement on seeing them.

As the group was watching them, the horses began to stamp the ground with apparent excitement. They trotted to the end of the back yard and disappeared around the corner of the stable together. Maryam looked distractedly out the window, her gaze following them, then said, “Your room is at the top of the stairs and on the right. Why don’t you go drop your things off up there and make yourselves at home? I need to attend to something for a moment. Please excuse me.” With that, she went out the back door and jogged across the back yard, following in the tracks of the horses.

Bree looked at Fin, raising an eyebrow at him. “Let’s follow directions,” Fin said to Bree in response to the unasked question. Bree frowned at him in mock disappointment. “For now, at least. We just got here, after all. I don’t want to get kicked out… yet.”