This Is Christmas Metazen
A book of literary Christmas fiction by 47 various authors.
Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen ____________________________________________________________________________ Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen Metazen 24 hours on earth on christmas day by marcus speh (13:46 HRS) Four Things You Need To Know About Christmas By xtx 14:46 hrs By Marcus Speh Power And Light By Salvatore Pane 15:15 Hrs By Marcus Speh Isn't Next to the Rest By mike Young 15:46 Hrs by marcus Speh Stray by jordan castro 16:46 hrs by marcus speh Christmas on Earth by Stephen Tully Dierks 17:46 hrs by marcus speh The Twelve Days of Christmas (Partridge) by Vaughan Simons 18:46 hrs by marcus speh xmas list (the first 100) by sean lovelace 19:46 hrs by marcus speh Christmas Story House by patrick wensink 20:46 hrs by marcus speh christmas cards by vallie lynn watson 21:46 hrs by marcus speh Triple X is Impossible by Ana C. 22:46 hrs by marcus speh the last year of father christmas by dan powell 23:46 hrs by marcus speh The Twelve Days of Christmas (Doves) by Vaughan Simons 00:46 hrs by marcus speh Go Santa Go by chris tarry 01:46 hrs by marcus speh . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 6 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 7 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 8 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 9 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 10 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 11 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 12 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 13 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 18 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 19 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 24 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 25 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 28 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 29 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 36 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 37 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 42 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 41 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 43 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 44 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 48 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 49 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 50 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 51 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 57 c:\>hermes.exe by brian oliu Eternal Recurrence by james tadd adcox 02:46 hrs by marcus speh The Twelve Days of Christmas (hens) by vaughan simons 03:46 hrs by marcus speh anchor of the suburbs by kirsty logan 04:46 hrs by marcus speh star starry night by annie evett 05:46 hrs by marcus speh The Twelve days of christmas (birds) by vaughan simons 06:46 hrs by marcus speh variation on a theme by coldplay by martin heavisides 07:46 hrs by marcus speh pancakes are spooky by cameron pierce 08:46 hrs by marcus speh the storm by mike whitney 09:46 hrs by marcus speh shoes by susan tepper 1 samuel 17 by jesse bradley the twelve days of christmas (rings) by vaughan simons caution: watch for forklift traffic by jason jordan juneau the city in alaska by richard chiem age of reason by andrew bowen the new year by ashley farmer the music man by icy sedgwick the twelve days of christmas (geese) by vaughan simons something sweet for someone good to hold on to by roxane gay . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 58 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 63 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 66 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 67 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 68 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 69 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 72 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 73 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 75 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 76 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 77 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 78 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 79 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 80 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 81 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 82 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 83 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 84 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 86 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 87 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 88 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 91 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 92 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 97 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 98 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 99 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 100 god was born today by lauren tamraz midnight at the cab stand by randy lowens the twelve days of christmas (swans) by vaughan simons . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 106 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 110 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 113 letter from florida/everyone gets everything he wants for xmas by rick hale . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 114 mama elanore's turkey by aubrey hirsch The Twelve days of christmas (maids) by vaughan simons something about the rest (from the orange suitcase) by joseph riippi the twelve days of christmas (ladies) by vaughan simons secret by katrina gray The Twelve days of christmas (lords) by vaughan simons reindeer local 79: an oral memoir by jon alan carroll look hard by claire king the twelve days of christmas (pipers) by vaughan simons the real story of frosty the snowman by james valvis the christmas bird by nick kocz Behind the music: a christmas wish by dave housley mom's gift by john minichillo the days of christmas by wendy ann greenhalgh christmas poem by david fishkind on poems by tyler gobble old as the sun by k. a mielke timmy the bipolar elf by natasha cabot the twelve days of christmas (drums) by vaughan simons room by mel bosworth 10:46 hrs by marcus speh . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 116 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 118 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 119 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 121 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 122 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 125 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 127 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 128 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 129 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 131 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 133 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 134 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 136 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 142 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 143 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 144 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 146 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 152 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 154 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 156 . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . 157 24 Hours on Earth on Christmas Day Marcus Speh Marcus Speh takes an imaginary trip around the world. Starting in Berlin at 1:46 pm, he stops at 24 different locations, some more than less well known, each in its own time zone, he works his way around the globe finding different faces everywhere, couples and crowds, creatives and crazies, until he returns to Western Europe on the next day, looking the Holy Father himself straight into the face. Inexpensive travel indeed, but not cheap. These hours have been scattered about the landscape of this E-book. 13:46 hrs 13:46 hrs - Berlin, Germany. Done most of the Christmas shoping. A smal portion of puding by the window amidst pudles of love juice. The tre put up and decorated by the women like a coniferous corporal, glitering. Candles and lights: ornate fly catchers. Al verbs falen apart like last year's twisty tongued coton candy. Four Things You Need to Know About Christmas xTx 1. Christmas avoided mirrors and didn't like being stared at. He never let anyone take his picture. Everyone in town knew this; how to ignore what he looked like and the size of him. "Don't even fucking DRAW me!" he'd warn. Nobody ever did. They'd seen others get torn up before. Everyone learned long ago that the best way to live with Christmas was to never see him coming and when he came, never see him at all. 2. Christmas carried a switchblade; usually in his boot. His boots; black, steel-toe, war-torn thugs, but sturdy. He claimed they were his father's. "My dad used to bash fags' heads in with these boots," he'd say proudly, and then, under his breath, whisper, "Fuckin' fags..." The way he said it sounded like an echo of something that came before. 3. Christmas put out every cigarette he smoked on the palms of his hands. Nobody gasped when he did this and nobody looked away. One time a kid asked him if it hurt and Christmas asked him, "Does this hurt?" and punched him in his ear with his 10-gallon fst. Most everybody knew to treat Christmas like he wasn't different, like the ground didn't shake as he walked by. 4. Christmas never killed his sister, Easter. It's true. He only had her hair in his hands because it fell away from her head as he pulled her from the ditch. He only ran because he thought if he found her back at the house, it would prove it all a nightmare. He only hid because he thought if he stayed hid long enough she might come looking for him. None of these things stopped the mob who felt their time had fnally come. They opened him up one morning under a tree, throwing each of the pieces into the fre after they were done. 14:46 hrs Marcus Speh 14:46 hrs - Mbabane, Swaziland. Al stoped screaming sudenly. Kunene, who had puled his machete a moment earlier, let go of Hhoho's hair and sat down, his mouth open. I saw many people close their eyes and unfold their arms. They loked like black angels. I felt the snow flakes on my arm and as I eyed them closely, I saw they weren't white at al but colorles and made me fel frail in my skin. Power and Light Salvatore Pane Every year my father goes Christmas shopping with his best friend, and at twenty-fve I'm fnally old enough to be invited. We drive in Dad's pickup to the mall in Dickson City. We walk through Sears and Macy's, Bed, Bath and Beyond. We don't buy much, and I don't tell them I ordered all my gifts off the internet a month earlier. When we're through pretending to shop, we stop at a bar to watch the Eagles game. Dad and George have been going there half their lives, but I've never set foot inside. One of those off-the-beaten-path places where everyone wears Carhartts and drinks lager. We share a pizza and two pitchers and the night is good. My father knows everyone. The bartender, the old couple at the end of the bar who have begun to resemble one another. I don't know anybody and wonder how that's possible. I haven't called Scranton my home in six years and this startles me sober. When the game's over and the last pitcher's empty, we settle up. But then Dad sees someone he's missed and goes over to speak with him, to badmouth the bishop and complain about the mayor. George gives me a knowing look and we wait outside, both trying to ignore the cold, our bellies heavy with beer. George talks about the cutbacks at his job. He works for Pennsylvania Power and Light, and they might force him to retire early. He's only ffty years old, and I'm just beginning to realize how young they both are. George turns towards the Scranton skyline heavy in the distance, the Times Building, City Hall. He speaks without looking at me and says I was right to leave, that there's nothing here anymore. I nod and agree, mutter something about how most people my age left town the same time I did. But I wonder if he knows how untrue that statement is. That every day more and more of my old friends are sending out wedding invitations, announcing their intentions to stay here forever. They think of me in the past tense. I shove my hands in my pockets and kick a rock toward the gutter. We wait for my father. 15:16 hrs Marcus Speh 15:16 hrs - St Petersburg, Rusia. Two young men travel by train siting at oposite windows. One of them swarthy, the other one fair. One of them cocky, the other one demure. A handsome conductor moves into the space betwen them. Tickets please, he says. We don't have tickets, says the darker of the two travelers, but we are gentlemen. This is no time for gentlemen in Rusia, says the conductor, whose face has sudenly asumed an ugly, comon expresion. The kinder loking of the young men quotes Pushkin: "The ilusion which exalts us is dearer to us than ten-thousand truths." The conductor sighs and puls his uper over his lower lip, loking shiftles. The brash companion laughs. The conductor pats both of them on the shoulder, simultaneously, smiling. Myshkin, Rogoshin, he says, chortles and waves himself away like a fly on the wal. ISN'T NEXT TO THE REST Mike Young We had a room of zombie Christmas ornaments. It wasn't so much a room as a cabinet. Nor that so much as a little drawer hidden behind the water heater. Every year our friends were pretty impressed. "Your gingerbread man talks," they said. "Ours just sits around and listens to Bright Eyes." It was both a parlor trick and practical. Our worst relatives we just sent into the gazebo with tiny Zombie Santa and a bottle of Jim. They all passed out and let us watch Ernest Saves Christmas in peace. The next afternoon, in a parade of butt scratching and moaning, they showed up in the kitchen looking for tomato juice, red-nosed Zombie Santa waddling out front. Zombie Rudolph let the kids ride. Zombie Frosty turned out to be a pretty good marriage counselor. There was the year Cousin Eiken took Zombie Drummer Boy into the bathroom with him, but that's all in the course of growing up. No, the trouble really started when a box of Quaker Oats disappeared. "Weird," we said, and forgot about it. Other stuff started to go: Aunt Jemima syrup bottles, cans of Jolly Giant Green Beans. But we'd all gone baccalaureate. We tempered our allegiance to consumer society with whimsy and irresponsibility, never paid much attention to the price of canned goods. One gone? Grab another. Maybe this time organic. Then December rolled around and Santa comes out of the water heater closet holding hands with fucking Zombie William Penn, Mr. Quaker Oats himself. "Just because you're way up there," Santa says, "that doesn't mean what's in our hearts!" "Isn't," prompts William. "Isn't next to the rest of the stuff that's in our hearts! Right in there! A ventricle--" Santa's struggling. Then he stomps a jolly boot. "Ho ho hell no!" he cries. All the other Zombie ornaments join the cry and together they march around the kitchen foor. They tie themselves to a chair leg. Zombie Frosty sets himself on fre and the rest catch. The chair leg itself was mostly fame retardant varnish. Cleanup consisted of sweeping up dust, mostly. But we had trouble for weeks. We'd turn on a light and forget why. We'd be having sex in the car and something would smell weird. Then the kids in the backseat would wake up and complain of vague intestinal blah. "Where does it hurt?" we'd ask. "Forever," they'd say. We'd be driving to work or miniature golf and no music would play, nothing, none of the usual atmospheric soundtrack stuff that used to follow us around. We hired cellists to dress like real people and hide near ATMs. They quit after a week and skipped town. No one knows where they went. We write to them every day. All the things we want to say sound spongy, so we just write about our day. Each letter we end by signing love, then we scratch that out and write please. 15:46 hrs Marcus Speh 15:46 hrs - Baghdad, Al Iraq. The policemen came storming in the plaza, perhaps twenty of them. Despite their uniforms and sily hats they loked like al the other people, scared, disoriented, perhaps that's why I lingered, holding on to my bag of groceries. I stod not far away from the large man, whom they had come for: he wore a bright red, heavy coat lined with white fur and he loked friendly, like God. I waved and he smiled at me before the pady pack tok him down. Stray Jordan Castro I'm sweeping the foor. The cat will die soon whether I feed it now or not. I'm sweeping the foor and the fucking cat is going to starve to death. If I go outside with food, my co-workers will say things. They will whisper. I don't like it when they whisper The fucking cat. I can't save it either way. I'm sweeping the foor. I can't save the fucking goddamn cat. I want to scream. A cell phone is ringing, playing a loop from a popular radio song. Really? He's calling me now? (I hear this 8-10 times a night) I just got here and the bastard is calling me! What could he possibly need to say that is so urgent he has to call me already? Fucking hell. I am sweeping quickly. I am sweeping like a manic fucking douche bag. I am sweeping like this in order to decrease the amount of time I spend sweeping, to increase the amount of time I have to do other things. Things I want to do. Read, I don't know. Fucking hell. I am lifting mats, sweeping beneath them. The mats are black and rubbery. There are smudge marks on my fngers. I am sweeping with the speed and agility of an uninhibited people. I am sweeping with the speed and agility of an uninhibited people on adderall � sweeping like a fucking shit-dick. I bump into Laura. `S-Sorry,' I mumble. She doesn't hear me. `S-,' I begin again. I stop myself. You are a dickhead. You wouldn't even feed the fucking cat. You suck, bro. The foor is littered with vegetables. Onions. Green peppers. They need to be swept. I sweep them. I should beat myself with this broom until I die. I am going to kill myself right now. `Why are you doing it like that,' says Laura. I don't realize she is staring at me until she asks this. Today is her birthday. She doesn't say how old she is. I don't ask. `You were just reading, looking tired like two minutes ago. Are you on crack?' She smiles. She smiles wanly, I think. I shrug. Continue. Don't let people get in your way. You are a robot. You are a machine. Programmed for effciency. I hang the broom and dustpan in the bathroom. I pee. My penis looks strange. I gently pull some skin on my ball sack and watch as it moves � slithers � back into place. Atoms, I think. Things are just atoms. Things are just atoms in motion. Which, technically, is the same as not-motion. The arbitrary, binary nature of the universe. I fush the toilet. I run the water for a few seconds to make it sound like I am washing my hands. (I will wash them soon, after I mop and put the mats back.) The cat is probably gone now. The cat is gone now. It's too late. I can't save it. I spray water from the hose attached to the sink directly into the mop bucket � something my boss explicitly told me not to do. `Spray it into a container frst,' he said. `Not the bucket.' The fucking cat. I pour soap into the bucket, mixing it into the water with the mop as I pour. It looks murky. (This is the word I think immediately, and sporadically, later, while mopping, driving home, and once or twice while lying in bed. Murky.) I begin mopping with what feels like fnesse. I vaguely think of something Japanese. Caffeine. Adderall. I should drink caffeine now and function at a lower level of energy at school tomorrow. A lower level of consciousness. I lower `plane.' This is good. I am becoming a robot. Good. Great. Neato. No problem. The mop gets caught beneath the leg of a table. I yank the mop. Soap fings upwards and hits me in the eye. I crouch and remove the mop from beneath the table using my hands. I resume mopping, more recklessly this time. I am sliding the mop in and out of corners, behind trashcans, under tables. I am practically running. My co-workers are outside smoking. This is my chance. I am alone. I am saved. I double my speed, literally running backwards, the mop slipping and sliding in front of me. I fnish within seconds. I dump the water out. I roll the mop and bucket into the back room. I run around putting mats back, chairs down. I am done. I sit down and open a novel. In the novel, there are two characters named Will. It is thrilling. This novel is fucking thrilling, I think. Thrilling fucking shit. I am profound. Thinking profound things. In a pizza shop. I hate working. I don't want to work. I hate capitalism. I hate not-capitalism. Fuck the world, fuck it all. Just kidding, I don't know. I mean � I do know. Fuck the world; I hate the world. I hate bosses. Cops. Politicians. Parents. Teachers. (Okay, maybe not parents.) Lawyers. (Yeah, not parents.) Soldiers. I am in this fucking pizza shop. Reading a novel. My co-workers are inside now, walking where I mopped, making it muddy again. I don't care. I hate the world. I hate myself. I am going to kill myself now. No. I will not kill myself. Not yet. I will leave, go home, shower. Check my e-mail, work on writing, eat something, drink caffeine. No. I will not drink caffeine. I will lower my tolerance, go to sleep early tonight. Self-improvement. Robot, sweeper man. The store phone rings. The cat is outside. No - the cat is gone. The cat is defnitely gone. I answer the phone. (Hello, this is Uncle Mario's, how may I help you?) There is a pause, breathing. (Hello?) Click. Phewf. I turn around wildly and immediately make eye contact with Laura, who is standing right behind me. `Don't worry,' I say stupidly, `it was a wrong number.' `What?' she asks. The cat is still outside. Laura is looking at me. I want to disappear. I want to evaporate. I want to evaporate and rain down onto Laura as organic green tea. With agave nectar. I start to speak, then stop myself. There is nothing to say. Organic green tea with agave nectar. I am going to do things tonight. Work on writing, respond to e-mails, kill my shit-ass self. `Nothing,' I say. Laura doesn't hear me. She has turned, walked out the door. My other co-workers aren't around. I am alone again. I look outside at Laura. She is talking on her cell phone, laughing. 16:46hrs Marcus Speh 16:46 hrs - Baku, Azerbaijan. Noticed a young man, checking himself in the window of a shoe shop. His black oily hair. Prince Caspian perhaps. Loked for his sword. Saw his eyes were pruned prisms. Rightful ruler. Caustic remarks at schol: Go back to Narnia! Red ink al over my esays: day dreamer. Wonder about my place in this world. No wardrobe to hide in. He turns to me, eyeles in Gaza. Christmas On Earth Stephen Tully Dierks "I see a face," said Ana. "Scrub, scrub the face, until it is clean." "I see many faces," said Richard. "I see a hill of heads." "Spooky," said Steve. "Are they disembodied?" "They're alive," said Richard. "I see a great stout tree with a hole inside it, from its roots to the sky," said Maggie. "Yes, a hole," said Steve. "I like holes," said Ana. "I keep thinking the word `nothing,'" said Wang. "Just that word." "I like thinking of the word `nothing' as `no-thing,'" said Steve. "It's in a forest," said Maggie. "The tree." "I went with my father," said Ana. "To cut down a tree. We drove for three hours. But we never cut down a tree." "Do you yell `timber' when you cut down a tree?" said Steve. "We always yelled `timber.'" "I would yell `geronimo,' maybe," said Wang. "I didn't want to be young when I was young, but I didn't want to be old either," said Deirdre. "Now I'm older, and I don't want to be older, but I don't want to be younger either." "Fuck my life," said Ana. "Damn," said Wang. "I would like to `get my fuck on,' I think," said Richard. "Yeah, me too," said Steve. "I love sex," said Ana. "I can't believe it was me that did all the fucking I did," said Deirdre. "It doesn't seem real anymore. Was that me, all those times? What was I thinking while it was happening?" "What is there to think about?" said Maggie. "I just thought the word `why' but it registered simultaneously as `how,'" said Steve. "Damn," said Wang. "I just tried to think the word `why' and couldn't do it." "I'm alone," said Ana. "Me too," said Maggie. "I'm drinking whiskey." "I'm alone," said Steve. "Alone," said Deirdre. "Alone," said Wang. "I want to read something," said Steve. "I'll read something, out loud." "Do it," said Deirdre. "If I do it, will you do it?" "Sure." "OK," said Steve. "Here is a quote from Dylan Thomas, Under Milk Wood: `Alone until she dies, Bessie Bighead, hired help, born in the workhouse, smelling of the cowshed, snores bass and gruff on a couch of straw in a loft in Salt Lake Farm and picks a posy of daisies in Sunday Meadow to put on the grave of Gomer Owen who kissed her once by the pig-sty when she wasn't looking and never kissed her again although she was looking all the time.'" "Although she was looking all the time," said Richard. "I love that," said Ana. "Me too," said Richard. "Your quote made me think of another," said Richard. "In Joyce's `The Dead,' when Gabriel realizes how much that boy had loved his wife years ago, loved her so much that he died for her. `Generous tears flled Gabriel's eyes,' it says. `He had never felt like that himself towards any woman but he knew that such a feeling must be love.'" "'What is the phrase for the moon?'" Deirdre said. "Virginia Woolf. The Waves." "Yes!" said Steve. "`And the phrase for love?'" Deirdre said. "`By what name are we to call death? I do not know.'" "Yes," said Steve. "`I need a little language such as lovers use,'" Deirdre said, "`words of one syllable such as children speak when they come into the room and fnd their mother sewing and pick up some scrap of bright wool, a feather, or a shred of chintz. I need a howl; a cry.'" "Yes," said Richard. "`When the storm crosses the marsh and sweeps over me where I lie in the ditch unregarded I need no words. Nothing neat. Nothing that comes down with all its feet on the foor. None of those resonances and lovely echoes that break and chime from nerve to nerve in our breasts making wild music, false phrases. I have done with phrases.'" "I have done with phrases," said Steve. "Virginia." "Hurray," said Ana. "Should I leave my room," said Wang. "Do I want to eat something." "Leave your room," said Steve. "I don't know why I answered so fast. Do whatever you want." "I am outside," said Richard. "You are not," said Ana. "Oh yes," said Richard. "I am at the beach. I just saw a beautiful girl come out of the board shop. I just plotted a novel in my mind. It took a few seconds." "You're lying," said Ana. "No," said Richard. "It's true." "Maybe not factual," said Maggie. "Yes," said Richard. "But nonetheless true." "Is it warm where you are?" said Steve. "Pretty warm," said Richard. "It's cold in here," said Steve. "I'm cold," said Ana. "I am cold also," said Wang. "I'm going to do a jumping jack," said Maggie. "I'm doing it." "I am doing a push-up," said Steve. "I am doing Pilates," said Wang. "I did three crunches and then stopped," said Ana. "Fuck my life." "Are we like, a quirky indie movie?" said Richard. "Damn," said Wang. "Sometimes I hate quirky indie movies, and then other times I don't," said Deirdre. "But I hate the cult of seriousness all the time. So whatever." "I am so serious," said Richard. "Not as serious as I am," said Steve. "Prove it," said Richard. "I have a deep-seated insecurity due to being born with only one kidney. My ghost kidney haunts me and causes me to yell at my students in class. I unleash my onekidney demons on them every goddamn day. I don't care. This is my struggle." "Damn," said Wang. "I have issues with my phallus," said Steve. "Your dick?" said Ana. "Yes, my phallus," said Steve. "Your dick," said Deirdre. "Sometimes I'm dick-centric," said Steve. "And then other times I feel dick-less. And once, it was a Tuesday, I was wearing all black, suddenly I felt dick-phobic." "You were scared of dicks?" said Ana. "I wanted to get away from all dicks," said Steve. "Cut off my dick. Cut off other people's dicks." "What would you do with the dicks once you cut them off?" said Wang. "Stuff them in people's mouths," said Ana. "Just kidding..." "I wasn't sure. What to do with the dicks." "What to do with the dicks," said Richard. "Don't women like have a dick that's tucked inside their vaginas or something?" said Steve. "Something like that," said Maggie. "Is everyone a hermaphrodite?" said Steve. "Jesus," said Wang. "I don't know if I would like being a hermaphrodite," said Ana. "I think one pussy is enough." "Yeah," said Deirdre. "I will never know what it's like to give birth," said Steve. "Neither will I," said Richard. "In my next life," said Wang, "I would like to be a female cow in Malaysia, or something." "Would you be eaten?" said Deirdre. "Yes," said Wang. "I would be eaten. They would capture me in a pasture one day, and lock me up in a pen, and then they'd chop me up and sell me at the grocery store. It would be a short life." "Then you can go on to life number three," said Steve. "But how many lives has he had so far?" said Maggie. "I think one life is enough," said Ana. "One life is too much," said Steve. "I like my life," said Richard. "Do you?" said Steve. "Yes." "There's nothing more to say," said Ana. "Should we sign off?" said Maggie. "Should I kill myself?" said Wang. "Please don't do that," said Deirdre. "It is Christmas tomorrow," said Ana. "I don't believe in Christmas," said Richard. "Was tempted to say, `Well, Christmas believes in you,' but that's not true," said Steve. "What isn't true?" said Ana. "Things just are, there's nothing to believe in, is what I mean," said Steve. "Deep," said Richard. "I'm going to go rub one out," said Steve. "Me too," said Wang. "I don't have a dick," said Ana. "Inside you do have a dick," said Maggie. "Plus, what's a dick?" "I'm going to celebrate Dickmas this year," said Richard. "Pussymas. Boymas. Girlmas. Personmas." "It is Humanmas," said Wang. "Merry Humanmas, you dirty fuckers!" 17:46 hrs Marcus Speh 17:46 hrs - Port-aux-Francais, Kerguelen Islands. Visiting cemetary. Next to my gramps lies a German guy with the name Bernhard Herman, which sounds like a dog barking. ,,The most southerly German grave", it says, and the year is 1940. A German science crew came here on this day one year ago, none of them blond, I think the people were disapointed. One of them showed me his poems and read a couple of them to me. We made out: I did not expect his tongue to be so soft. I loked for him when they came through again on their way from Antarctica but he'd died there, they said, and they left him under the ice. Can't even trust an epitaph. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons "The Twelve Days of Christmas" is a series of twelve short stories offering a modern take on the 18th century seasonal carol of the same name, which tells of a series of gifts given by someone's "true love" between Christmas Day and the Feast of the Epiphany on 6 January. Vaughan Simons is not a fan of the festive season, so that probably explains a lot about what happens in these tales. Look for Vaughan's twelve days throughout this ebook. PARTRIDGE On the frst day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a partridge in a pear tree. As I stepped into the communal hallway and turned to sift through the ever-growing pile of unclaimed mail, I became aware that there was a tall object standing at the bottom of the stairs. It was covered in cheap and gaudy wrapping paper. My true love's wrapping skills had not improved since last Christmas, so I could tell immediately that it was a tree -- although rather bigger than the unassuming bonsai I'd had in mind for a corner of my living-room. Oh well. It's the thought that counts. I hastily tore the wrapping off the gift. It was a pear tree. And sitting on one of its branches, frozen into a catatonic state of utter terror thanks to its journey through the parcel delivery service, was a partridge. The partridge stared at me, unblinking. I stared back at the partridge. It's not every day that you become the recipient of a large bird, and if you do then it's normally oven-ready and delivered by Tesco. "I didn't even realise that partridges ate pears. What do partridges eat? What the hell am I going to do with a partridge?" The partridge didn't answer. It did, however, put its head at a jaunty angle and stare at me quizzically, as if similar questions about what the hell it was going to do with a human were running through its mind. Some hours later, standing in the sweltering kitchen, I heard the front door slam. My true love had fnally arrived home. I realised with horror that I still had partridge feathers in my hair and that my shirt was covered in blood. Nobody had prepared me for the fact that killing a partridge with my bare hands would be such a messy business, but I felt certain that my true love would understand. Mixing bowl and wooden spoon in hand, I shouted through to the living-room, "How do you like your pear stuffng?" When no answer came, I put my head round the door. Nothing. No one there. Just the word `MURDERER' scrawled on the wall in fresh partridge blood. Jereme Dean 18:46 hrs Marcus Speh 18:46 hrs - Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. This is the best time of the year in the cal centre if you ask me. I spoke to a girl from Phoenix today, whose Reinder Hat with Lights and Song (order no. SC-98434), one of the favourite items of the entire catalogue, was not working. I said I was very sory and there was litle she could do except return the item. After Christmas, of course. She tok it lightly, unlike the guy from Key West the other day with the dep baritone (hard to understand) who hung up on me after a coughing fit that made me imagine he loked like a crazed, belshaped Hemingway. That desert blom from Arizona and I had a god fre chat. I told her some of what I do when I'm not talking to Americans on the phone at night and we practised pronouncing the name of my town. We laughed so hard! Xmas List (the first 100) Sean Lovelace I would like, 1. A sports bra of sliced words for my enormous stereo breasts. 2. To wing. 3. Fucklets, side dishes. 4. Fingle them up (bass). 5. My own hotel room. Hotels can be horny. Or sometimes sad. Hard to get my head around hotels. People come and go. For some reason I feel hotels are like graveyards, but that makes little sense. Hotels have lots of clunks and down-the-hall sounds. You can lie in bed and listen all night. Sometimes a headlight will paint the walls. The bed always makes me pause. What a history. If you look behind the headboard, on the foor, you will usually fnd straw wrappers, bottle caps, children's toys, green condoms, other things...You can open a bottle of beer on the jamb of a hotel door. Any hotel door. There's a tip for you, Nick. Nick, do you leave money for the sad people who clean the rooms? They talk loudly so you know they are sad. Nothing is more sad than being loud. Do you feel yourself sad when delivering presents to hotel rooms? Sometimes I sit in a hotel and feel like a boulder, but a hollow boulder and that's called a geode, I think. 6. Some glow. 7. Dopamine cookies. 8. Fracky diamond cookies. 9. Nick, do you hold back tears? 10. Two snowfakes exactly alike. 11. Bathing shoes. 12. My own wing of bomber-planes. Bomb Colorado! Erase its mind! Carpet bomb Versed on Colorado. For every peak a valley, a valley, another valley, you vomit-bags. 13. Bottle opener in shape of horse farts. 14. I knew a man once who collected vomit bags from Japanese airlines. Had them all splayedout on his walls. He was into vomit. He wanted me to vomit. He requested I vomit. 15. Shoes with embedded corkscrew. 16. Real star quality. 17. Snow. Something spiraling yet light. 18. Hysterical shoes. 19. Cookies made of fucking-near-horses. 20. Script tattoos on my ass in the shape of: -I had the urge. I was curious. -You're always curious, aren't you? -I wanted to see... 21. Hey, fuck you, Gary. Lure me with a stable, all that heavy breathing. Manure smells like fuck, it does, and it smells like life--sweet and wrong. Cowboy Gary. Please deposit broken glass in the pockets of Gary's precious jeans. In all the mouths of his dogs. Inside his stupid gray-with-red-striped socks. In his sockets. Ass and eyes. Fuck coal. Coal is for Belchknockers and Lick-Sniffers and the yellow drops of church-goers and movie-goers and anyone who is a motherfucking goer. 22. Spatula with a purple dildo handle. 23. Brass sighs counter. Like a pedometer for sighs. 24. Four NAUGHTY LIST do-over passes. 25. Mystery moments of devotion. The sound of running water maybe, or someone falling. 26. Hawk Love, crushed. 27. My daily dread. -What do you do? -Not a damn thing. 28. Something to carry in my mouth. 29. Nick, are you lonely up there? 30. Nick, you owe me 14 pink Zippo lighters, as you well know. 31. A device for breaking memory. 32. What kind of name is Gary? I want a spray canister that removes names. Gary as _________. 33. I will keep the hotel room above my studio apartment and I will go out the window here, climb up to the roof, and use my swipe card to enter my hotel room. I'll be needing cable, but would prefer no internet service. Oh, and a bathtub. I want a bathtub. 34. Teeth contact. 35. Reindeer loin. 36. Shelia, you know Sheila. Fuck, you know everybody. Bring me her gall bladder in a glass banana. Sort of modern sculpture I can set out and ignore. 37. I pledge the possible Chlamydia to the jet lag.... 38. My own contractors. Make the walls bend. Make four taps, I want four silver taps installed above my toilet, the little toady toilet in my little toady cave in Grand Rapids, Michigan, with the medi-vac helicopter thumping overhead my hangover-skull, wires of transmission--You, in the helicopter, oh fucked one, fucked broken stranger, I am sorry to ignore you now (as you will ignore me later in my time of need)--just four silver fowing taps: codeine cough syrup, coffee, Pepto Bismol, white wine. 39. A bracelet of shiny semen. 40. Silver bells. 41. A drop of your beard-cheese. To pack tight, to smoke. 42. _______ `s head on a sharpened chopstick. 43. Tantric lip gloss. 44. Nick, do you like TV, or something better? 45. Extra towels. 46. Four butt plugs made of pinecones. -Shut the fuck up. This is your deal. I wash my hands. -I'm nauseous. -Then get sick alone. I'm not holding any hair back. I'm gone. 47. An ability to teach the game. 48. Remove that type of thinking. 49. A cure for struck nails. 50. Or to have them never die when I am in attendance. 51. Chaos. Costumes. 52. Reliable stop-valves (I mean for life). 53. All those glitter-births. 54. Nick, your lips amaze me. Do lips amaze you? I can imagine the history of man that was built on simply the workings of this: lips. 55. Indentured elves. 56. A disturbing miracle. Like fucking an ear successfully. 57. A parachute. 58. Wooden bowls of _______'s veins. 59. A monolith of tofu. 60. An ice machine on wheels, a little green wagon I pull behind me. If all else fails, I will fll my ice machine with rain and sell my ice to the goers. 61. Fuck-me boots, in green and black. 62. Nick, what do you have to say for yourself? 63. Ten photos of fabby white stomachs. 64. Awkward pause removal. 65. Ornaments that hang from my thick nipples. 66. Nick, do you ever elevate yourself by bringing others down? 67. A contract kisser. 68. A green shoebox diorama I can keep atop my bathroom sink. Inside diorama: dogs, reclining bicycles, dogs, dog shit, kids, no comets, no naked people, a few runners (more joggers� nobody rolling it), dogs, a man screaming into a cell phone while standing on a bridge, a nice parcel of dead robins in the shrubbery, a house with a pond and this canoe at such an aesthetic angle, like some small Japanese print, I don't know, I will be jealous of the pondcanoe people but I am sure they have credit card problems and the wife still pays for porn (who does that?) and the teenager just started hardcore into the Furry scene and several rivers (rivers always make me glow and give me energy) and groundhogs gnawing ________'s bloody head and furrows of dirt and unearthed Oxycontin and someone mowing their yard and more dead robins and a few doves and several woodland/swamp areas I would not mind running naked through maybe at sun rise or down or never. 69. Penis trading cards. 70. Mad packing material. -Leave me out of it. -What do you want? -A blowjob. Quick. Then leave me out of it. 71. Hydraulic hardcover orgasms. 72. Sleeping shoes. 73. A kick. A good solid kick. The last quarter mile. 74. A long, hissing piss. 75. Lunch with Marguerite Duras. 76. Jalapeno KY jelly. 77. To drive. (I'll name where to.) 78. Golden ticket for my hotel. You hold this ticket, you get free drinks for one hour. How many drinks can you drink in one hour, Nick? How many FREE drinks can I drink? A fuck-load, sir. 79. Do you discontinue a toy if an elf dies? 80. An earned throttling. 81. Reactions to that. 82. Mile High Club Gold Card. 83. Anti-me derivatives. 84. A framed joker. If you want to go, let's go. But I think we're crazy. 85. Goatish smiles. 86. A kaleidoscopic device for looking behind my shoulders. 87. A tight ass of movement. 88. To take one thing--anything I name--off my hands. 89. A pantomime kit. 90. I know you have vast maps. Where is _______ now? 91. One very deep end. 92. Bring _______ 9 needy cats. 93. I want green! A sickly sort of green. Square, bound in six strands of silver, and clutching another square, tall, arthritic green letters on a milky patch of bled skin. But then the longer I stare into this green, its vibrancy, the more I want my mind to foat. I want to think of moments of fu, the cursing of birds within my eardrums, and then I will drink white wine during fu (the best thing to do when sick is to ignore the entire reality of the situation [maybe]) and then stumble out into the alley behind my apartment, to fall in the snow, to sprawl there and wait, for the vomiting, the slosh and wrack and upheaval, and then those long, hollow seconds afterward as I fold back against the prickly cold, as I feel a bit of earned self-pity (See? I told you I was fucking sick), the drool thickening off my lips, as I let go, down there with the slush now at head-level, and I will feel, well, yes, completely peaceful. 94. A vitamin made of steak knives. I'm in bad shape. I've noticed that about people. Don't try to teach me a damn thing. I detest teachers. 95. To fuck turbulence. 96. Black beans, a green mug you like, a hunk of wax, a train-run dime, a buckeye, a knife, a green pipe, a green condom, a tooth, a raw onion bit hard, a wooden box in a time rift of wooden boxes, beer-bread, a good hat. 97. Fucking while actually asleep. 98. Something as good as ketchup. Name me the man who improves ketchup? 99. To drop. 100. To land fuckly. 19:46 hrs Marcus Speh 19:46 hrs - Thimphu, Bhutan. The monk bowed to the abot. The abot bowed to him. What he wanted, it wasn't time now to turn to the monastery. His work was on the stret, in the vilages, with the people, not with Budha. The monk said he didn't want to stay. He came to report a vision: he'd sen thre children with shaved heads and wise eyes, clad in long robes hoisted to the kne and held in place with a woven cloth belt. The talest of the thre caried a larkspur. The midle one, a bowl of steaming rice. The last, a Betel nut. The abot recognised the sign of the heavens. He thanked the monk and asked him in for poridge and water, then he went to the temple to pray, his heart a thundering dragon. Christmas Story House Patrick Wensink Right now, outside of downtown Cleveland, a lamp is glowing. This lamp is in the window of a modest two-story home. Heck, snow is probably falling as we speak. This lamp is shaped like a leg and covered in a fshnet stocking. This lamp is, most likely, the most famous lamp in movie history and this sexy appendage has somehow come to represent wholesome Christmas fun. This lamp belongs to the A Christmas Story House. But now I wonder, is Ted Turner trying to stuff this leg down my throat? A Christmas Story is based on the comedic memoir by Jean Shepherd, and is a hazy warm tribute to Christmas, 1940. It follows the escapades of young, moon-faced Ralphie's attempts to convince his family he needs a B.B. gun from Santa. In between, tongues are frozen to fagpoles, the word "fudge" takes on a new meaning, and a host of other misfortunes fall upon Ralph and the rest of the Parker family. A while back I heard you could tour the Cleveland home where the movie was shot and I'd been looking forward to seeing this holiday attraction for the last few years. Finally, an opportunity arrived when I went to visit friends in Northern Ohio. I am drawn to this site much like little Ralphie was drawn to the power of a Red Rider B.B. gun. I have a sense of urgency, thinking, "I've got to check this out, it's too weird to stay in business for very long. I mean, are there really more people than me who care enough about A Christmas Story? Enough to drive into one of America's fastest-dying cities, just to see a house from what should be considered, at best, a cult flm?" And so we track down the home in the scruffy Tremont neighborhood, just a few miles from downtown. People in Tremont don't have couches on their porches and cars on cement blocks in the yard. Not because the residents are above that, but, hey this is Cleveland, it's too cold eleven months out of the year to sit on the porch and who's going to clear all that snow from the yard to put the car up on blocks in the frst place? There are no signs off the road advertising A Christmas Story House. While all the neighboring homes are a little gray and sagging, the main attraction is the same mustard yellow with green trim made memorable in the flm. And there is that lamp--that high-kicking, seductively glowing lamp-- in the window. There is also a steep drop-off behind the home, leading to the Cuyahoga River (you may remember it as the body of water that caught fre once in the 60s) with a view of several factory smokestacks. These elements fght my urge to enjoy the Christmas magic of this sacred spot, but I don't let it get me down. This is a special place. It's where the mastermind who directed Porky's, Baby Geniuses and Black Christmas created one of the most treasured holiday flms in history. You can keep Jimmy Stewart and It's a Wonderful Life, give me a bright lamp with a hint of ass cheek below the shade. You can have Rudolph and his nuclear nose, give me a boy shooting his eye out with a B.B. gun. You can have Santa eating cookies and milk, I want Ralphie's mom stuffng a bar of Lifebuoy soap in his mouth. The movie was shot in 1983 and the house fell into disrepair until a few years ago when some investor from California bought the iconic home on eBay. Inexplicably, this gentleman turned it into a tourist attraction. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to me, Ted Turner--deep within his dark, stone castle in Atlanta--was brainwashing the planet. A Christmas Story, as the tour guide points out, was a fop. Nobody paid to see it and critics apparently hated it too. But, by some holiday gingerbread-scented miracle, I discovered it and fell in love. And apparently, according to the guide, so did 100,000 others who have made the pilgrimage. "One-hundred thousand?" I think. "But I'm the only one who loves this movie. It's my little secret. How is that possible? Maybe they were lost and stopped for directions." This question sits on the backburner as the tour begins. We enter the home and it looks just like the movie. There's a rough-looking Christmas tree, a B.B. gun hiding in the corner, oddly patterned wallpaper, a turkey waiting to be eaten by the Bumpus' dog in the kitchen, Ralphie's bedroom and a Little Orphan Annie Decoder ring in the bathroom. It is like entering a time warp, some miracle of shrink-wrapping technology, nothing has changed since 1983...except for the very sad-looking gentleman in a paperboy hat standing by the freplace (more on him in a second). "So, this is where they shot the bunny suit scene?" one woman asks as we mull around the living room, pointing to the stairs. "Aw, that's where the mom broke the leg lamp," another says pointing to the living room window. "Hey, is that the kitchen cabinet Randy hid in? `Dad's gonna kill Ralphie.'" "No, actually," the guide says in a very rehearsed way. The way General Electric switchboard operators probably respond to the question of whether their refrigerators are running twenty-dozen times a day. "Most of the flm was actually shot on a soundstage in Toronto. The interior of the house didn't look like this at all. The crew actually only shot a small portion of the exterior shots and the backyard sequence with Black Bart's gang and Ralphie shooting his eye out." Before this comment, there was a sweet helium in the air. A sparkly dash of wonderment. But now I can see something in everyone else's eyes: "Eight bucks for a phony house? Let's just go upstairs, see the bedrooms and get back on the road." We diligently complete our tour, but kind of shrug things off. There's a little giggle about the bathroom actually having Lifebuoy and wondering where they got that soap--it hasn't existed for decades, right? In the backyard, with the view of some mammoth brown smokestack and the dense gray clouds, we peek into the shed that played such a big role in the movie. Give the House credit, it pays attention to a lot of detail, so we guess the shed will be flled with Black Bart's gang, eyes X-ed out. Instead, it is a clearing house for legs. It looks like Jeffrey Dahmer's linen closet. At least fve busted legs in black fshnets are piled up, collecting dust and grit. We go back inside the house for one fnal lap and notice something strange near the freplace. That sad man, probably in his early thirties, wearing a paperboy hat and looking perpetually bored, is shaking someone's hand and giving an autograph. "What's going on here?" I ask the guide. "Why that's Ian Petrella, he played Randy, Ralphie's kid brother who couldn't put his arms down in the snowsuit." "Why is he here?" "He lives in California, but comes back periodically to the house. He'll sign an autograph and tell you anything you want about the movie." My mind can't crank out a single decent question, so we don't speak, Ian and I. It is all too much. I'm equally fascinated by all the hubbub and visitors one nearly-forgotten movie creates and also kind of depressed. We later learn that other bit players, like the grade school teacher and fur-hatted bully, Skut Farcas, come back for holiday celebrations and (I'm not even making this up) A Christmas Story conventions. All of these events and appearances and home renovations smell of money to be made. Money that Ted Turner, in his grinchiest Grinch costume, is counting from that barbed-wire and alligatormoated castle in Atlanta. I just didn't see it until the gift shop. We decide to hit the gift shop because, well, it's here...we're here...what are we going to do, look at the smokestack some more? A neighboring home has been converted into a gift shop and I think it'll be a good time-waster. Probably a postcard of the famous house, a few copies of the movie, hey, maybe even a Red Rider B.B. gun! Jeez Louise, was I wrong. This small bungalow is stuffed tight like a rich kid's stocking, but with A Christmas Story ephemera instead of Rolexes and gold bars (or whatever rich kids get for Christmas). The place is foor-to-ceiling with junk that must have kept Chinese factories running for months on end. We're talking adult and child-sized pink bunny suits, t-shirts with famous slogans (The aforementioned eye-shooting, "Oh, fudge"; "The pink nightmare"; "I triple-dog dare you"), blankets emblazoned with a cast photo, a Monopoly set, a checkers set, a Yahtzee! set, wrapping paper, paper cups, action fgures, beer cozies, leg-lamp-shaped cookie molds, a Little Orphan Annie decoder ring and, I kid you not, bars of Lifebuoy Soap. The gift shop offers everything short of prefrozen fag poles. This isn't even counting the lamps. Leg lamps in four different sizes and wattages. From the genuine fragil�-sized from the movie to a desk lamp gam to sex-up your cubicle. You can even buy a replica of the famous wooden shipping crate the lamp came in. At this point I need to clean my glasses and take a step back. "How the heck did all this get made? I thought I was the only one who watched A Christmas Story?" I think. But clearly, though I don't currently see anyone purchasing these goods, someone saw ft to produce this stuff. People must buy it, right? It hits me that during those 24-hour marathons TBS runs every year, I'm probably not the only one watching. Okay, that makes sense. But still, it was an important part of my childhood, is it possible everyone else's too? Then my friends and I begin talking, the more we think about it, A Christmas Story wasn't part of our childhoods, we'd never heard of it until about 1998, about the time those allday force-feedings of the movie were crammed down our mouths like pink bars of soap. I fnally realize one man was doing the shoving. Right here, amongst a marketing blitz I haven't seen since the 1980s heyday of Star Wars, I piece everything together. The back of my ticket claims, in cataract-inducing print, that A Christmas Story's copyright is held by the Turner Broadcasting Company. Ted Turner's pride and joy. For those uninitiated in their Georgia-Broadcasting-Mogul-History, Turner owns Turner Classic Movies, CNN, TNT and...of course...TBS: Home of the day-long celebration of all things Ralphie. There it is, but like the mom in the movie and that lamp, I don't want to look at it. If I ignore the facts, maybe my happy memories will eventually crawl back home. I don't want to see that my nostalgia and the special feeling of being the only person on Earth who loves A Christmas Story has been somehow orchestrated. Did Turner simply wave his basic cable magic wand and create a cult flm? I'm starting to think that's exactly what Ted's team of marketers/scientists/Chinese factory workers and astronauts (Oh, Turner has astronauts, don't kid yourself) have done. A little bit of research shows that Turner took over the rights to the movie after purchasing MGM pictures and that the 24-hour marathon quietly made its debut in 1997. Right around the time these nostalgic memories began popping up. Does this make the movie somehow tainted? Of course not. A Christmas Story is still fun. I will be quoting that baby until I die (Personal fav: "Whoopee, a zeppelin!"). In fact, the movie's message is perfect for this entire Turner-ized fasco. The heart of A Christmas Story is about disappointment and coping with that disappointment, no matter how brutal. A Christmas Story basically tells us: Hey, your parents don't want you to have a B.B. gun? Teacher doesn't want you to have it? Hell, Santa doesn't even want you to be armed? Bullies punching your lights out? Dogs ate your Christmas dinner? You actually did shoot your eye out? The movie basically says: Oh, well, keep plugging along, good things'll happen. And that helps my holiday glee return, if only a little more ragged than I remember. It just makes you wonder, if Turner's brainwashing succeeds, what next? Will we soon see attractions that let you take a ride in Bill Murray's limo from Scrooged, visit the Ernest Saves Christmas house, see Sinbad's mailman costume from Jingle All the Way? Let's just say I'll spot you A Christmas Story, Ted Turner. But the minute I start seeing the 48-hour Fred Claus marathon, it'll take an army of Red Rider B.B. guns to keep me from storming your Atlanta castle. 20:46 hrs Marcus Speh 20:46 hrs - Chongquing, Zhong Guo. We watched an old movie tonight, What a Wonderful Life, and we're talking about what may come for us while we wait for Dun Che Lao Ren, the Christmas Old Man. Al of us, the girls, who do not exist. I love the prety faces, scrubed, in clean blankets, siting under paper lanterns and flowers. We hold hands, we sing `Rudolph the Red Nose Reinder' the way we know it. Everybody's got a voice and even if you kil them you can't take that voice away. Even the rain flowing down the guter and on the stret and from there into the Yangtze and into the sea, knows that. Our voice goes with the rain to the ocean and touches everyone else. And if they don't hear us because we are litle, they dream us. (Appeared previously in: ,,52|250 a year of flash") Christmas Cards Vallie Lynn Watson Dog Driving Convertible Veronica didn't plan to shop while she was in New York--she was there only to determine if she could bear to live in the city--but the second morning she passed an upscale stationery store and realized she hadn't done Christmas cards. Inside, Veronica found a box of cards picturing a convertible much like hers. A dog was in the driver's seat and a Christmas tree leaned out of the back of the open car. There was only one package left and she bought it. As she was leaving, her cell phone vibrated in her pocket. It was her cousin Kate, who suggested that Veronica treat herself while in the city, do some shopping, maybe buy some nice stationary. Veronica stood still and asked Kate what made her think of stationery. Kate said she had no idea, and Veronica told her she had done just that. The women stayed on the line, silent. Snow-edged New York Brownstone Veronica, her ffth day, was in a four-story chain bookstore when Dylan called to see what time they would meet for the play. She told him she was looking at New York Christmas cards, which she couldn't possibly send unless she became a New York City resident, and she added a silly line from that movie: "If you build it," then blushed. Dylan laughed but later repeated it back to her. The fnal night, after she told him, Dylan put her in a cab and back in her hotel room, she grabbed the package of brownstone cards and fung them across the room; the box hit the wall and the cards scattered across the thick navy carpet. Veronica watched the cards, which blurred and seemed to move, then found a pen and wrote messages in each: "I had to tell him," "Go home," "Go to church," and then, "Go to church or the devil will get you," which made her laugh a little. She gathered the cards and opened her door, moved the brass latch over to crack her door open so she wouldn't have to look for the key card, and moved down the hallway, sliding a card under every door. Six rooms down the door opened just as Veronica was bending over to deposit a card, and she ran back to her room without looking. 21:46 hrs Marcus Speh 21:46 hrs - Hobart, Tasmania. The old man has picked his grandson up to show him the Royal Botanical Gardens. He loks at him from the side as the boy loks around for places to hide, and thinks: it wil be a few more years before he'l begin pitying me. As they walk towards the grenhouse, the man fels the holines of the site for his people. He loks up in the sky and ses a single bird circle. So much space, and yet he imagines it not lonely up there. He wonders if the birds have ghosts, to, and where they go when they're dead. He wouldn't mind joining them when the time has come. The child takes his hand and hudles under the old man's grey heron wings. (First published as ,,Heron" in Like Birds Lit) Triple X is Impossible Ana C. Grandma was bending down. Her hands were on her bed, and I was holding her back so she wouldn't fall down. Mom put latex gloves on because grandma told mom to put creamy medication in her ass. Mom was trying to apply the cream but grandma pooped and it fell on the foor. Mom held her hands, and told her what happened. I held grandma's back. Mom told grandma to run. I told grandma "run, run, run," even though she can barely walk now. (She's almost blind and is constantly afraid of falling down). We were trying to walk fast and grandma dropped something. I was walking behind her, and another piece of poop fell down. She said "oh no oh why," and we told her to sit down. Quick. Come on. Sit down. We sat on her bed while she sat on her potty. I hugged mom. I felt like celebrating with a high-fve, but instead I just stared at grandma. Grandma asked who picked up her poop. Mom told her I did, but she lied. Grandma said I was the best. Grandma has a "poop calendar," and whenever she poops an X is marked on that day. Double X if she poops twice. Triple X is impossible. "Thank God I pooped again. Merry Christmas, everybody!" said grandma. 22:46 hrs Marcus Speh 22:46 hrs - Auckland, New Zealand. The two Art Deco houses stod in a valey on Tuarangi Road next to one another, in view of the highway leading downtown. For some strange reason, one could not hear the cars near the houses. Two families of artists lived in these buildings, which were to smal for their perenialy expanding minds, but were loved for their almost human daintines. Their backyards were swampy despite the ocupants' earnest atempts at draining the land. The artists' sculptures rested on the wet gras. Whenever a new sculpture apeared like a big friendly giant, the children were the first to claim it by climbing al over it, unsupervised except by the huge eucalyptus tres by the side of the road, who curiously peked over the fence. (First published as ,,The Family" in: Blue Print Review) The Last Year of Father Christmas Dan Powell In the weeks before his eighth Christmas Adam began to doubt the existence of Santa Claus. It wasn't the proliferation of store Santas he saw every time he trailed his mother round the shops, all of them so different despite the red and white uniform, nor the fact that the queues to see them were flled mostly with children younger than him that raised suspicion, though these things played on his mind even last year. No, it was the sudden and frequent arrival of parcels all marked with the word Amazon that drew his attention, each one arriving in the early weeks of December, and, more than that, the sheer volume of them. He noted their arrival last year, jotting his observations in the reporter's notebook Dad had given him when they played spies. Adam ransacked his room for the notebook, fnding it in a box of ignored toys crammed under his bed. Flicking the pages, he slapped a fnger down on his twelve-month-old scrawl and exclaimed a loud `Ah-hah!' `Why do we get so many parcels delivered just before Christmas?' he asked Mum as she iced the fruit cake. Adam had the notebook ready to jot down her response. `Presents for the family,' she said, pulling a tray of hot mince pies from the oven. Adam noted this and, in his head, tried to match the estimated volume of the packages he had seen arriving with the cluster of wrapped gifts squatting beneath the tree. Something didn't add up. `What happens to all the extra parcels that get delivered if they're not under the tree?' Adam asked Dad, who was busy fetching in crates of beer, water and soft drinks from the car. `We post them to Grandma and the uncles and aunts. Now mind out.' Dad squeezed past Adam and deposited a crate in the under-stair cupboard. Adam jotted this down. `Why not send them direct and get the website to wrap it for you? You can do that you know,' he called after Dad who was heading back out to the car. It didn't make any sense. Looking at his notes, which by this time included charts and diagrams comparing estimated size and weight of the arriving packages to those posted or collected under the tree, Adam knew something was amiss. By his estimate, the remaining parcels arriving at the house after deducting those under the tree or posted elsewhere equalled the estimated size and number he received on an average Christmas morning. Adam, deciding he was getting nowhere with his mathematical approach, opted for a more active course of action. He had tried and failed to stay awake to see Santa before, drifting off to sleep long before there was any chance of sleigh bells or reindeer hooves on the roof. He was eight now though, nearly nine, and determined sleep would not thwart his plans. When Mum and Dad crept into his room to check he was asleep, Adam lay stock still. They seemed satisfed and left the room, only to return moments later. The pair rustled about a bit and then left. Adam slipped open an eye to check the coast was clear, then sat up. By the light from the landing he could see that his stocking had been flled just as it was every year. He snuck from his bed and listened for movement out on the landing. Happy that they were both downstairs Adam snuck down and squeezed an eye to the living room door that was open just a crack. In the living room Mum and Dad were busy piling presents beside the sofa, leaving them just where Father Christmas did every year. `Is that all of them,' Mum said. `I think so. The attic's empty and our wardrobes.' They sat down on the sofa. `You better drink the sherry and eat the mince pie.' Dad smiled and chomped on the mince pie. Adam put a hand to the door handle, readying himself to burst in and shatter their deception. `Bit sad really,' Mum said. `This'll probably be the last year we have a proper Christmas with Adam.' Dad nodded. `Yeah, he seems to be fguring it all out.' Dad sipped the sherry and Mum cuddled into him. `He's not our little man anymore,' she said. Adam let go of the door handle. Stepping quietly he made his way back to bed, certain that the best Christmas present he could give Mum and Dad was another year of them believing he still believed. 23:46 hrs Marcus Speh 23:46 hrs - Kiritimati, Christmas Island. I am a bomb but I mean you no harm. That I stil am here to tel this, is a miracle: I was deployed on May 15, 1957, but I didn't go of because a British nuclear enginer, a young father, developed qualms after seing pictures of native children marveling at the mushroms in the sky, and sabotaged me. I could se why during that short drop before I hit the atol: the island loks like god's knuckles in a bathtub, the ocean is beautifuly translucent, corals glow underwater, a dead city of bones, alowing a glimpse into a white netherworld. I met the water and fel a few fet into a chromatic cemetery. The longer I lie here, listening to my stil functioning electronic inards, the more afraid I grow of detonating after al this time. I don't share your gods, but I pray I shal die a silent death. Mery Christmas to you al. The Twelve Days of Christmas Doves Vaughan Simons On the second day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: two turtle doves. At frst, I puzzled over this gift -- what did it mean? Why two turtle doves? -- until my true love lapsed into a laughable attempt at Cockney rhyming slang. "Turtle dove equals love. Oh, you know -- feast yer mince pies on that? Up the old apples `n' pears? Cor blimey, guv'nor. Born wivvin the sahnd o' bow bells, innit?" I couldn't stop sniggering, but at least I got the idea. So the two turtle doves took up residence with us, living in the grandest gilded cage that our meagre funds could buy. My true love and I spent the long dark nights wrapped in each other's arms, listening to the doves cooing gently to one another. They were falling more and more in love, just as we were. Winter came and went, and one spring morning I pulled the cover from the cage to fnd our two doves sitting at opposite ends of the perch, their backs turned, each refusing to look at the other. Their feathers were ruffed; a couple lay on the foor of the cage, obviously having been pulled out in the heat of a violent argument. My true love and I spent the rest of the day considering the situation carefully, whilst sitting at opposite ends of the sofa, our backs turned, refusing to look each other. "It's obvious that your dove upset my dove," said my true love, frmly and dispassionately. "I think you should move out and take your dove with you. You can have half the bird-seed, but I insist on keeping the cage." I packed my bags. We divided up the spoils of our relationship, agreeing surprisingly amicably on who owned which books and CDs. Finally, it was time for me to take my turtle dove and depart. There was only one problem. "So which is your dove, and which is mine?" I asked. 00:46 hrs Marcus Speh 00:46 hrs - Juneau, Alaska. The writer wants to write a story about Patsy An, the Bul Terier, who was stone deaf from birth like the writer. Like the dog, the writer hears the whistles of aproaching ships long before they come into sight, and like the dog, he's never wrong. He wonders if his subject isn't to smal though. He wants to give something back to the municipality, who has treated him wel even though he's not published much, and not to great aclaim. He simply likes to write about what he ses, and even more about what he canot se. He fels he's linked to the terier somehow, if only because of his unering sense of loyalty and his love for ships, because here, near the end of the world, ships mean life wil go on. He plans to get a dog like Patsy An and give her that name, which reminds him of a whorehouse madam with a friendly face, and over this thought he fals aslep, his large fury ears filed with ship horn sounds, distant reminders of the friendship betwen man and beast. (First published as ,,The Writer" in: Blue Print Review) Go Santa Go Chris Tarry It wasn't the fact that Santa had decided to take the $900 fight voucher that concerned little Ronny Fairbanks. Or that Santa seemed a little drunk while sitting perfectly stuffed into his undersized airport chair. It was more that their conversation had ended badly. "Nine-hundred bucks is nine-hundred bucks, kid. Now let me sleep." Ronny grabbed his Unaccompanied Minor name tag and rolled it around between his fngers. These credentials had afforded him a few perks: plastic wings, his own airport chaperone, and a private meeting with the pilot on the last fight. Pretty high-level stuff, he thought. He wondered if there were any additional security clearances associated with the name tag that might help Santa out of his current predicament--stranded in Boston's Logan International Airport, terminal seven, gate B45, December 23rd. It had been a long day. Two chaperoned fights from Ronny's father's place in Florida, and a third fnding him here. The last seat, on the last plane, to the last open airport on the east coast. If Ronny's fight to Minneapolis left in this storm it would be a Christmas miracle--and with Christmas sleeping in the seat next to him, there didn't seem to be much hope. The storm had locked everything down, the fight to Minneapolis only possible because the plane sat waiting outside. Minneapolis--being quite used to all things snow--was apparently feeling removed from the storm, sending a man to the television station to wonder openly as to all the fuss. He didn't look much like Santa when Ronny frst sat down. The Tommy Bahamas shirt and matching shorts echoed of three pars and a birdie coming down the stretch, screamed of margaritas with extra salt--something the man had apparently already decided to partake in. His beard was more like fve-o'clock shadow and the skin around his eyes looked tanned and freshly minted with sun tan oil. His stomach was very Santa-like. So large and bulbous that the arms of the airport chair strained to keep their function obvious and clear. He snored in a way that hinted at the most subtle of ho-ho-ho's. Like someone caught in a dream about Christmas, while at the same time requiring the use of an asthma inhaler. The giveaway was the list. Its edges poked from the outside pocket of the man's custom red luggage, the frst three names bright and clear. Goodness and badness columns ran down the right side, blue checkmarks in the appropriate felds. This is the man himself, Ronny thought--and the man was about to miss Christmas. "Are you on your way up north?" Ronny asked, poking Santa. The man woke with a start, looked down at Ronny. "Oh, hey kid," he said, and tried to close his eyes again. "Are you on your way home?" Ronny asked, again. The man opened one eye, then two, and tried to take in the question. He let out a long sigh. "I'm stranded here, kid. My fight's been bumped. Trying to get on the fight to Minneapolis but it's all sold out. Doesn't look like I'm going anywhere." "Why not?" "Why not? I just told you why not. There's no more room, and nobody's going to give up a seat this close to Christmas. The airline gave me $900 bucks for my troubles though." The man grinned and tapped his shirt pocket. "Why are you traveling so close to Christmas?" Ronny asked. Santa attempted to sit up straighter but the chair wouldn't have it. "Don't like the cold," he said. "Florida's nice this time-a-year. Man, I wish there was a place I could lie down. I think I need a drink." He looked towards the in-terminal TGI Friday's. Ronny watched him calculate the distance between himself, the bar, and his options with the chair. "Don't you think you've left things a little late?" asked Ronny. "Never too late for another drink, kid," he said, succumbing to the chair. "What about your job?" Ronny asked, quietly, so as not to blow their cover. "My job?" The man whispered back. "What does my job have to do with this? I got people. And besides, nine-hundred bucks, is nine-hundred bucks, kid. Now let me sleep." Ronny thought about all the children, especially the ones younger than himself who would not understand. No presents, no toys, no Bionicles with the Snap on Defender Sword (something Ronny had specifcally asked for), no Christmas, no nothing! The world without peace and harmony, uneaten cookies under the tree, spoiled glasses of milk the world over; it was a tragedy in the making. Leaving Santa to sleep it off, Ronny grabbed his backpack and made his way to the desk at the front of the gate. He fashed his credentials at the lady in charge and got a wide smile and something about taking a seat and boarding soon. Not the reaction he was looking for, so he spoke up. "We have to get Santa on this fight." The lady looked up again, smiled a big lipstick smile and said, "If Santa's not on a fight by now sweetie, I'd say we're all in whole heap of trouble." "Exactly!" said Ronny, hoisting one of his mittens in the air, not quite getting the joke. "You have a seat sweetheart. I'll come get you when we're ready." Ronny stood and stared. Counted his options, considered his kid credentials, and went back to his seat next to the man with the red suitcase. Ronny scanned the concourse. TGI Friday's, Cinnabon, and a Borders framed the edges of the terminal. Passengers walked by in various states of canceled fight oblivion, and Frosty the Snowman blared from invisible speakers. Ronny turned to give Santa a look of, "bet you've heard this one before," but found him fast asleep wheezing a quiet ho-ho-ho. "I think you need to start taking your job a little more seriously," said Ronny, poking the man again. "There's a lot of people counting on you, and you just can't give up. Christmas is important." "No one really expects me to show up anymore," said the man. "Maybe in the old days, but not any more. My brother can do it, he's qualifed." "It's not the same without you, the kids need you, the family, they'll miss you," Ronny said, poking the man again. "They will, will they? We'll see about that." . "I want a Bionicle," said Ronny. "A what now?" "A Bionicle. It's a Lego. A toy. Specifcally I want the Bionicle character Stronius. He's the guardian of the Rock tribe and loves fghting other Glatorians--other Lego creatures if you will." The man with the red suitcase softened. "Hang on, let me get a pen." "Yeah, he's the coolest character. If you can't swing it I'd also go for Ackar, or Vastus, they're pretty cool too." "Spell it for me." "A.c.k..." "No, the frst one." "Oh. Like it sounds. StrOH-nius." Santa put his pen away and smiled. "Sounds like you've got this all fgured out." "I do my homework," said Ronny. "And I fgure, since I have your attention, I may as well back up the letter I sent." "Letter?" said the man, hesitating. "Oh right. The letter." Santa took a long hard look at Ronny, and Ronny could sense something change inside the man--maybe his heart, potentially his kidney. Ronny's pictured his words rolling themselves into Santa, planting a seed in which newness, love, happiness, and Christmas could begin again. Santa gathered his things and popped himself from the confnes of his airport chair. "Let me go check on the fight again," he said, "let's see what we can do," and headed for the stewardess behind the desk. The idea came to Ronny from somewhere new. A place deep inside the recesses of his brain that signaled adulthood, yet courageously held strong to the beliefs of a child. He grabbed his backpack and made a break for the bookstore. Halfway across the concourse the announcement sounded. Flight 235 to Minneapolis is now ready for boarding, anyone traveling with small children, or those needing special assistance please board now through gate B45. Ronny looked back and saw the man with the red suitcase talking with the stewardess while another employee walked to where they had been seated. He sprinted the last ffty feet into the bookstore. The bookshelves were tall and brightly lit. Like buildings leaned gently against a wall. Ronny ducked and weaved, negotiated legs, tables, sparkling holiday sale signs, and came to rest behind a rack of miniature Christmas tress. He knelt down behind the display and shimmied his body between the wall and the trees. It was a startling vantage point, perfectly hidden even from those in the store, with the capability for watching frst hand the goings on at gate B45. Ronald Fairbanks, please report to gate B45, the announcement said. Ronny stood his ground. Thought of his family, the children, Bionicles, and spoiled glasses of milk. The police and other airline personnel showed up at the gate minutes later. The passengers were boarding and Ronny could see the stewardess with the big smile waving her arms and pointing to where he had been seated. The man with the red suitcase was there too, pointing and waving all the same. Search parties were organized, teams of three and four. A few came into the store but neglected to look behind the rack of miniature trees. The fight had boarded, everyone but Ronny and Santa seated comfortably on the plane. Santa waited patiently with the cops and fight attendants. Another announcement crackled across the P.A.--Ronald Fairbacks, please report to gate B45, your parents are here. It was a ruse, he wasn't about to fall for that one. Get on the plane, Santa, GET ON THE PLANE!, he thought. The man with the red suitcase talked with the gate personnel. Much arm waving and discussion ensued, one fight attendant started to cry, and one of the policemen shrugged his shoulders. A few of the additional gate workers left and split up. "We'll give it another look," Ronny thought he heard them say. Santa waited, slowly tapping his chubby fngers on the desk. He made a phone call. Ronny fgured he was alerting the elves about making it after all. He imagined the conversation while watching the man's lips futter into the phone. "Hey." "Hey." "It's Santa." "I know." "I might just make this thing after all." "Really?" "Yeah. You're going to have to meet me in Minneapolis." "Minneapolis, Minneapolis?" "Yes, Minneapolis. We still got the backup sleigh there?" "I think so. Where are you now?" "Boston." "Jesus." "Don't mention Jesus." "Sorry." "Just meet me in Minneapolis." "You got it." "And bring my stuff. The beard. Toys. Suit. All of it." "Got it. We're on our way." "Gotta go, Santa out." The fight attendant waited for the man to fnish his call. They two of them exchanged words, a boarding pass was printed. They both took one more look around the terminal and it was then that the man with the red suitcase spotted something. He stared straight into the bookstore, his gaze piercing the rack of fake miniature Christmas trees. He squinted and then strained to get a better look. Ronny felt the fear of discovery take hold and was surprised when his body wormed its way out from behind the trees and stood tall and strong in the middle of the store. "Go Santa, go!" Ronny yelled. The store clerk jumped, surprised by his tree-dwelling stowaway. The stewardess pointed and a few of the policemen broke into a run. The man with the red suitcase held his ground, boarding pass in hand. As the policemen approached, Ronny dialed up some tears. He beckoned them from deep within, and as the policemen reached his side he was in full cry--the can't-breathe kind of cry. He surprised even himself at how fast he was able to summon tears of this magnitude. One of the policemen knelt down by Ronny's side and tried to put a hand on his shoulder. Ronny realized that one last detail remained for his improvisation on the plan to be complete. He pushed back from the policeman, and in a voice not all that different from the one he'd used years ago when grandpa Fairbanks had attempted--and failed--to introduce Ronny to a swimming pool, he said, "I'm not getting on that plane! I'M NOT GETTING ON THAT PLANE! YOU CAN'T MAKE ME!" "Easy kid, easy," said one of the policemen. "Just calm down now," said the other, and he picked Ronny up. Over the shoulders of the policeman, and on the way to the room for lost children, Ronny caught the eye of the man with the red suitcase waiting patiently by the desk. Through tears and heavy breathing Ronny gently mouthed the words again. Go Santa, go. And Santa understood, for he turned, thanked the stewardess, and picked up his red suitcase. Handing her his boarding pass he walked through the door, down the ramp, and onto the plane that would ultimately save Christmas. 01:46 hrs Marcus Speh 01:46 hrs - San Diego, California. Something very strange hapened to me today as I came out of the homeles shelter in the smal hours. An il wind blew from the sea and I wished I had camped out on the beach instead, but then I remembered they don't let you do that anymore for fear you might soil the pristine waterfront. The jogers don't like us. They want to lok out over the sea and fel god about themselves before they disapear in their glas cubicles to make the world go round. As if. The strange thing that hapened wasn't a thing as much as a woman in pyjamas, who semed to have lost her way. She reminded me of Virginia Wolf. You know who I mean and you get the picture. She drifted past me like a specter but I wasn't drunk and I knew that she was real. As I loked, she turned round, came back and stod in front of me just like you now, only closer, much closer, so that I could smel her womanhod. Man, I was hungry, I was tired, I was sick, but that made me fel so god, I can't tel you. She said only one thing to me hardly opening her lips, said it to my bare, stubly face, which made me fel as if I had brushed against fine gauze: `You're lovely, Gary'. She said that, I swear, she said it twice even and it made my day. C:\>hermes.exe Brian Oliu There is always something that needs to be delivered from x to y to you and no way to put it with the skill and fourish of a man much more intelligent than I am, someone who can say without saying, someone who knows the proper language for breathing, the word to signify a breath. My fngers are too fat for this, too stiff from the start, failed piano lessons because of a lack of grace inside of my body, a lack of grace throughout, and it would be foolish to think that my hands, the most delicate of things, would be spared this sloth and stiffness, no music to be created from these hands, the strumming of strings impossible, the muscles taught incorrectly, frm to the touch like a well-done steak left out over the coals too long, dried out and removed of moisture until it hardens, the carbon I eat now, here, cured and salted to prevent spoiling, if something must keep it must never be wondrous to the touch, delightful to the touch of tongues. This is a tongue I keep in my mouth thanks to advances in short message services and gateway providers, far from upside down numbers being interpreted as words and greetings of the Christ child, as I was always better with silence, always better with words abbreviated to the letter and this was a way to make these hands dance, somehow, some way, tapping numbers in succession to tell you that you are missed and a reminder that I am here while you are there, no proof that it is you, or that I am who I say I am, spelling out things never said through the propelling of air and the straining of chords in my throat, every time the word love meaning less and less as it bounces from one place to another, possessives dropped, letters dropped, accents dropped, the Americanization of all things, bigger than it needs to be, smaller than it should be, all things, all declarations sent en masse, this sign of mental illness and withdrawal from technology without my fngers touching your neck or touching something that will stand in for it while I am breathing air that you will never breathe and listening to the hum of loudness, a stir of wings and smoke, all things graveled, the salted ice before melting under tires you trust to take you from x to y but never here, god no, never here. You should see these hands, cracked and misplaced by knuckle hitting helmet, knuckle hitting bone, pain radiating like the dawn when there is no dawn, stirred awake by sensory experience and unpleasant awareness of nothing but fracture, the seeing of something not there. YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A SATURDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 I miss you. There is hope for you yet. If I could tell you I would let you know that if I could tell you I would let you know. And so, there is nothing to let you know, because there is nothing I could tell you, but if I could tell you, I would. Yet there is nothing to tell you, so there is nothing to let you know, but I can't tell you anything, let alone nothing, so I could let you know, if there was nothing to know. If there is nothing to know, I could tell you, but there is nothing to know and nothing to tell. But know that if there were something to tell you, if I could tell you, I would let you know. Hit F6. Stop all the clocks. If I could tell you I would let you know to stop looking over your shoulder, smashing statues of salt to pillars of salt, foating on eastern seas via eastern seaboards, on top of sanity and salinity, yet still at the most lowest point. If I could tell you I would let you know to stop looking over your shoulder, looking east through skies like lead, American beauty roses choked to create dance-foors of LED lights and broken martini glasses, please watch your heels, kick them up. If I could tell you I would let you know that you must leave water and public doves, orange and peanut butter to return to water and public doves, orange and peanut butter as harsh and as ferce as tigers in an ice storm leaving children stranded elsewhere, stranded at airports. Partly plane, partly palisades, you escape to eleventh foor atriums (one foot in front of the other, the cyclical nature of ground) peering over into lobbies, elevators and balconies as vortex, endless loops. You say I sleep better after removing dark chocolate from gold foil from red and orange bedding from pillowcases from pillows, and while I don't agree, I can understand, despite bedrooms at home with higher thread counts and energy colors, hues driving you to solve algorithms, a magnifcent turbine, heat without passion. I've never been where you have been. I've never been in the same place at a different time, points of reference non-existent. I've never been in the same place at the same time, attempting to fog up unfoggable mirrors with the power of multiple water-heaters to serve a highrise commercial commercial, steam from suites and singles. Despite evaporation, despite mist droplets mixing with private airspace, despite breaths of water slowly rising like heavy cakes, spinning like roulette, despite wishing the Rankine cycle was ours to seduce, to turn, despite looking back over shoulders, despite wishing for dead salt to weaken bonds to saccharine, sal-ila to sakar, for us to fall from clouds together, to rose water, despite all this, despite. If I could tell you I would let you know I know the hima protects paths to waterways that I will never cross and never break, azizam. But amber lights from underneath pink pumps bounce off tan skin, sending the glow skyward through Class G and E airspace, moaning and scribbling a sweet vision of elsewheres. YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A TUESDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 You gotta hear this story. You cannot leave here until you complete a task, a task that has multiple stops on a line, transfers of power, electricity. Arrow to elephant, yesterday to tomorrow, crosses over naked torsos, the crux a metropolitan heart. You are a 3536 mile alternative to swaying the vomer bone, or steam of oolong through nostrils slapping away zinc fngers. If we let xi be the rate of fow i, the act of stirring before comfort zoneCl be the capacity of link l, and rli be 1 if fow i uses link l and 0 otherwise. Let x, c and R be the corresponding vectors and matrix. Let U(x) be an increasing, strictly convex function, called the utility, which measures how much beneft a user obtains by transmitting at rate x. Let you be m, sucking on color coded feathers in the kingdom, so royal to the ear, though tundras and blue-eyed stares are less than hierarchical these days, a shame really. Let you be here, let us drink Russia, let me be here, let you be chocolate in bows, let me be chocolate melted in hot milk on hill tops, let you be in make shift factories in make shift tables, let me take photographs, let you smile in them, let me twist ankles in boots, let you blow out knees in heels, let m to be a topological space. Then defne open(m)= set of open subsets of m. There is a natural partial ordering of open sets by inclusion. In fact, any partially ordered set is a category where the objects are the sets and the morphisms are inclusions. Let it be later. Let it be cigarettes in non-smoking areas. Let it be 6. Let m be greater than c, yet dependant upon it. Let it be albion, albionoria, borealia, cabotia, colonia, efsga, hochelaga, laurentia, mesopelagia, norland, superior, tuponia, transatlantica, ursalia, vesperia, victorialand. Let c be the guardian of it all, aeronautics over imaginary fy-zones, jokes about monitoring Tyneside balloon festivals, stripes on sleeves, stripped of royalty, thirteen wings across that one dominion, de Havilland's evolving from caribou, jet-stream ficks of tongue de-iced over Newfoundland, up and out and north to old Christiania, city of oranges and tigers pawing at mermaids and hemiboreal climates, wheels up then down not via Flytoget, but through Sandelfjord, salted tarmacs like spaghetti water, raise that temperature up, north. YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A THURSDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES CHECK THIS WITHOUT HESITATION IT IS A NEW MESSAGE FOR YOU 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 Hey. There is hope for you yet. There is a perfect number in all of this, drawn on backs of high fyers back home, limbs swinging underneath glass, the up and under, the up and over. Remember how they changed the rules against you? There are fewer things to remember these days, as somewhere the task was lost, the channeling in of thoughts and turning into caramel like others, collecting at the bottom of glasses, me collecting myself on cars across provinces, dinners on yellow plates waiting in the evening, as our time is short, too short for a meal, soon enough for lumped Bolognese (I can laugh about it now), the sound of backward punchcards buzzing and hanging slightly before the bite. I was in the wheelhouse, leaving the guttural to embrace the romantique, head down, left ear up to absorb the shift of tongues, rocks in knees outside of moated cathedrals, language of adolescence, certainly beyond the accenting of mirrors, houses named after future professions, birthdays celebrated without icing but with future grooms, the coconut shavings masquerading as the process. There were tracks to forget. There were processes to run. There were baths to be taken. Let Sud be Zuid. Let Midi be Centraal. Let Nord be Noord. YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES AND THIS IS THE ONLY REPRIEVE THE ONLY THING TO HOLD ONTO SOME DAYS AND MOST NIGHTS 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 FW: TWO PEOPLE WALK INTO A BAR AND ONE OF THEM SAYS HOT ENOUGH IN HERE FOR YOU AND THE OTHER SAYS YES IT DOESN'T MEAN IM NOT GONNA TRY TO FUCK EVERYONE HERE PRETENDING THAT THEYRE SOMEONE ELSE!!!!!!! IF YOU THINK THIS IS FUNNY FORWARD THIS TO FIVE FRIENDS YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES AND THIS IS THE ONLY REPRIEVE THE ONLY THING TO HOLD ONTO SOME DAYS AND MOST NIGHTS 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 im good YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES AND THIS IS THE ONLY REPRIEVE THE ONLY THING TO HOLD ONTO SOME DAYS AND MOST NIGHTS 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 FW: merry christmas everyone!!! YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES YOU HAVE RECEIVED ONE (1) NEW MESSAGE FROM CALYPSO ON A FRIDAY NIGHT WHERE THERE IS NOTHING TO BE SEEN BUT THE GLOW OF SMOKE AND THE REDDENING OF EYES AND THIS IS THE ONLY REPRIEVE THE ONLY THING TO HOLD ONTO SOME DAYS AND MOST NIGHTS 1. VIEW NOW 2. VIEW LATER 1 FW: A GIRL STARTS DATING ANOTHER GUY AND THE OTHER GUY IS HEARTBROKEN. HE ASKS THE GIRL IF SHE'S HAPPY. THE GIRL SAYS YES SHE IS. PASS IT ON YOU HAVE RECEIVED NO (0) NEW MESSAGES DELETE ALL MESSAGES, INCLUDING UNREAD? N Eternal Recurrence James Tadd Adcox Christmas By Christmas Robert and Viola are talking about marriage. Neither has met the other's parents. Whenever the subject comes up, Viola makes jokes about her mother's alcoholism, and Robert gives her a look like he doesn't fnd these very funny. Geist Robert's parents live in Geist, a suburb just north of Indianapolis. He spends the week before Christmas trying to prepare Viola. "They're somewhat, well, conservative, you know..." "Really, Robert? Your parents? No one would've guessed." "It's just that my mother doesn't come out and say things, exactly--" Viola is making vegan brownies. She measures out two cups of soy milk. "Robert. Mothers love me." The vegan brownies, Robert knows, will taste horrible. Robert's Mother Robert's mother opens the door and offers Viola her hand. Viola curtsies. Robert's Father In the den Robert's father makes jokes about Hillary Clinton and the diffculty she might have, if one day elected president, keeping her First Man in line. Many of these jokes feature talking cigars. Robert's father's talking cigar voice sounds disturbingly Hispanic. Viola laughs so hard she almost spills her drink, though Robert knows, for a fact, that she doesn't fnd these jokes funny. He pulls her aside when she goes to the kitchen to refll her drink. "Look, what's going on?" "What, what's going on? I'm having a good time with your family." "I don't have a good time with my family. No one does. Don't you think you're coming across a little--clingy?" "Clingy?" "You're throwing yourself at them, for Godssakes." The Meal Arrives The whole meal fts in a single large box. The turkey, in a sealed plastic bag, sloshes in its own gravy. There are styrofoam bowls of macaroni and cheese and baked beans and dressing, and thirteen individually plastic-wrapped cookies. Robert's brother and his father unload the items onto the dining-room table, humming a little "ta-da!" for each item. "Mom, I told you, Viola doesn't eat meat." "There's macaroni and cheese," Robert's mother says. "Robert, there's macaroni and cheese," Viola says. "Fine, fne, a big plate of macaroni," says Robert. "God, what was I thinking?" "Shoot," says Robert's mother, "I forgot to pick up the cake." The Cake Robert rides with his brother to pick up the cake from the grocery store. His brother is six years younger than him, a junior in college, but ever since he hit his growth spurt, has been bigger than Robert, in a hulking, jockish way. He seems as well to have developed an inability to keep his eyes on the road for more than a few seconds at a time. He keeps giving Robert these probing looks. "What?" Robert says, fnally. "Dude. She's got that tongue ring and all? You know what's up-- what's that shit like?" The End of the Meal Robert's grandmother is the only one still eating. She is slow, tireless, and all-consuming, ancient and hungry as a glacier. She glances about the table between bites. "Who made the cake? Christine?" "Nobody made the cake, mom." "Christine, this is lovely. This cake is delightful, Christine." "Mom, she didn't make it." "Christine, don't listen to a word he says. This cake is delightful." After dinner, everyone except Robert's grandmother eats a single vegan brownie, chewing as if in penance. That Night Robert's mother insists that Viola sleep in the guest room, and Robert in his old bedroom. "You're kidding me," Robert says. "Well, Robert, it wouldn't be seemly, you know, the two of you unmarried, in the same bed." Viola gives Robert a shut-up look, an it's her house, who really cares look, an are you still fghting these teenage-assed fghts look. "Fine," says Robert. Along the wall of Robert's old room are a bookshelf of encyclopedias that Robert, as a child, covered with brown paper covers and carefully relabeled, making sure to write on each spine the name of the encyclopedia, the year, the volume number, the span of articles included. He takes down and fips through dromedary-effervescence and fnds, near the middle, the pornographic cards he'd hidden there as a teenager. He takes them out and examines them by the bedside lamp. The print quality is so bad that the woman's nipples might as well be large moles or skin blemishes. This, he thinks, is what love once was, blurry and unobtainable and always, fundamentally, lonely. He puts the cards back between the pages, puts the volume back on the shelf, turns out the lamp, and waits in the dark, wondering. 02:46 hrs Marcus Speh 02:46 hrs - Santa Fe, New Mexico. A mother lies aslep, dreaming. Gose is in the oven, gren and red cabage on the stove, boiling away, dumplings ready wraped in warm towels. Two of the kids have ben charged with seting the table. Peace before the storm because I can never remember how I cok gose since I only do it once a year, usualy in a daze. On my bed: halfwraped presents and a bok that I started before the feast hit us like a bulet train: one of those luxury ships on rails where they cok, serve, chat and create unearthly comfort al at the same time. Would've ben nice to travel away from al this in one of those. The Europeans are worse of: they have to hand out presents tonight, to. When did I last lok out the window? Is it snowing? Two more kids now under the table, fighting the others for who is alowed to chose the dishes. They kep me busy. Gose, don't forget the gose is in the oven. I'd like a man around, any man realy, preferably their father. My only two dreses: I am the worst mother in the world. I am the best mother in the world. Which one am I going to wear tonight? Who wil care? I want someone to care. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons HENS On the third day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: three French hens. We named the hens Faith, Hope and Love, in honour of the God-fearing farmer who had supplied them to us. They were to be our small contribution towards living a life of self-suffciency. We hastily fenced off a corner of our garden to provide an enclosure for our clucking trio, and waited eagerly for our frst fresh eggs to appear. The frst hen to go was Faith. The hole in the fence showed where the fox had got in and dragged away its feathery prize. My true love found the only egg that Faith had managed to lay in her short time with us, but we didn't have the heart to take it. The two of us repaired the hole in the fence in silence. We'd never mourned a hen before. The fox got Love next. He didn't manage to remove his prey on this occasion, so as I drew back the curtains on another frosty morning, the twisted body of a hen lying in a pool of blood and feathers was the frst sight that greeted me. We buried her where she had fallen. "All we've got left now is Hope," said my true love, quietly. Our last remaining hen was brought into the house, where we thought she would be much safer, and she took over incubating the eggs laid by her two companions. That was the end of our self-suffciency experiment, because we couldn't bring ourselves to take any of Hope's eggs. For the next year, all our friends and family will be getting chicks as birthday presents. We can't do much about Love and Faith, but at least we can share a little Hope. 03:46 hrs Marcus Speh 03:46 hrs - Houston, Texas. The security man is on guard, alone. He's fat and he fels old enough to be his own father. He walks through the tunels under the city. Every night on duty he wonders about the people who clean the fod and the gunk of the flor a few hours before he begins his rounds. It makes him a litle hungry to think that. It is a tad chily because they don't heat the underground pathways at night in this city of energy. Bunch of bozos, he thinks, I don't want to run into a bunch of bozos. He likes the sound of that. But the pasage is locked shut now, nobody could get here. His bots make clicking sounds on the marble flor. His wife's stiletos. He mises her. The scent of a woman's neck: why is it so hard to find someone who smels right. Sudenly, his flashlight goes out and he fels the darknes lick him al over with a giant velvety tongue, tender yet daunting . At that moment he knows that he's in a giant anthil, that he's walking towards his grave and that he must get out of here as fast as he can to stay alive. He begins to run. Anchor of the Suburbs Kirsty Logan It was halfway through the spring of '84 when Sandra decided that she was going to become an anchoress. `I am going to live,' she announced one evening during the advert break of our nightly TV soaps, `in the crawlspace beside the laundry room.' She warned us that being an anchoress included refusing all contact except food in the morning, removal of her bucket in the evening, and the weekly updates on the TV soaps. Our mother was displeased: `I did not buy a house at this address, complete with jacuzzi and wide driveway, to spend my time emptying slop buckets. Oh no, little miss anchoress; it's a long time since I stopped cleaning up your do-do, and you won't catch me starting now.' The row was postponed when Sandra realised that she was missing Eastenders, the most vital of the soaps. The next morning, Sandra lined up her anchoress supplies in a row outside the laundry room: a bucket, a selection of Danielle Steele novels, a blanket, and a refllable water bottle. `You won't make it to the end of spring,' I shouted through the crack of my bedroom door. `I hope you catch the swine fu and die!' Sandra shouted back through the wall of the crawlspace. She seemed to remember the live-and-let-live philosophy that had sent her to the anchorage in the frst place, and added � `I take it back!' Her outburst was understandable: we had all lived together at the same address for thirteen years, and old habits are hard to forget. I watched Sandra potter about with the rest of her supplies, but I refused to help; if she wanted to be fragile and holy, she could do it herself. That evening Sandra put out her bucket of refuse, complete with its neat cling-flm lid, for our mother to empty. I arranged my desk chair so I could see it through the gap in the door; I knew there was going to be a row and I didn't want to miss it. My mother had a variety of ways to address issues with her children, and none of them was pleasant. I settled into my chair, ready to spring up and join the fght if it looked exciting enough. `If this is the way we must live,' said our mother cheerfully as she picked up the bucket and went to empty it, `then so be it.' I waited for an hour, still sure that I was going to catch Sandra breaking her anchoress rules of quiet refection, but the crawlspace stayed silent all night. Every day I tried to catch Sandra cheating on her anchoress duties, sure that she was too weak to stick to them. I even glanced in her refuse bucket to make sure she hadn't been sneaking in contraband: Twix bars, gossip magazines, or notes from friends. She didn't even come out in May, when the TV soap awards were live on Channel 3. Mum and I had a row over whether we should put the TV nearer the door so that Sandra could hear it, but then Sandra just sang hymns loudly until we turned the volume back down. Spring soon turned to summer and Sandra was still living in the crawlspace, still leaving out her refuse bucket, and still missing the TV soaps every night. In August, a man from the newspaper telephoned to ask if this was the address of the Anchor of the Suburbs. `Anchoress,' said my mother, and confrmed the address. The newspaper man said he wanted to write a fattering piece about Sandra, but mum was sure there would be a catch: with newspaper men, she said, there always was. `Will he spring for all these new dietary requests she's having, that's what I want to know,' said mum as she boiled a dozen eggs, which was all Sandra was eating that day. When the newspaper man showed up, I knew mum wouldn't refuse to give him whatever he wanted. He had teeth like a movie star, hair as curly as worms, and gold rings in a row along his knuckles; just like the man who runs the local pub in Eastenders. `Is this going out live?' asked mum, which was a silly question because he only had a tape recorder, not a camera. `I, and my readers, are just dying to see how you are all living,' said the newspaper man from between his icy teeth, `with The Anchoress.' He said it just like that, the words all starting with capital letters, as if this was the Queen's address and not just 19 Greenwood Drive. The next week the article was published in the middle pages of the local newspaper, and I knew that mum wished she'd put up more of a row. The article said Sandra was quiet, fragile, and utterly dependent: the perfect catch for today's modern man. `What rubbish!' shouted mum, `Refuse and rot! My Sandra doesn't care about any silly boys; she's got far more important things to think about than cooking dinner and sweeping the foor.' Sandra agreed: she stayed being an anchoress all the way to the next spring, whispering her meagre requests through the laundry-room door. There was no row, or shouting match, or fnal straw that fnally made me break down the door to Sandra's anchorage: I just couldn't live with her silence any more. Don't Hate the Playa, Hate the Dating Game Bradley Sands The Fourth of July asks Christmas out on a date. Christmas is surprised. Holidays do not usually fnd it an appropriate choice for romance. Christmas wonders if it is a cruel prank that will leave the holiday season in tears. But Christmas tries not to think about it because the Fourth of July is awfully hunky. On the night of the big date, the Fourth of July picks up Christmas in its Toyota Pruis. Christmas appreciates a holiday that is concerned about the environment. On the way to the movies, Christmas and the Fourth of July discuss frst dates. "First dates are for getting to know one another," the Fourth of July says. "How are we supposed to get to know one another when we're sitting in the dark for two hours without speaking?" Christmas suggests they go to the Baltimore Aquarium instead. The Pruis drives to Baltimore at the speed of light. A police car tries to pull them over. But they are traveling at the speed of light. Christmas is excited. "Bad boys" excite the holiday. It is excited all the way to Baltimore. It stops being excited once it realizes the Baltimore aquarium is the worst aquarium on Earth. But Christmas and the Fourth of July are ok with this. Because walking past dull goldfsh gives them a lot of time to get to know one another. They discuss life, their dreams and aspirations, and the destruction of unwanted presents with the assistance of frecrackers. During the discussion, their hands unite in a clandestine partnership. When Christmas and the Fourth of July are fnished, they exit the aquarium and other holidays are outside waiting for them. Martin Luther King Day, Halloween, Thanksgiving, Veteran's Day, Easter, and Rosh Hashanah point at Christmas and laugh malignantly. The Fourth of July stares into Christmas's spot on the calendar and kisses it passionately on the number fve. The cruel holidays gasp. Christmas feels superior to them. This holiday season, give yourself the gift of knowing you are better than everyone who you do not love. O4:46 hrs Marcus Speh (First published as "El Asesino" in 52|250 - A Year of Flash) 04:46 hrs - Habana, Cuba. I can't slep. To much to think about. Jim's a handsome felow and I figure he'd rather spend his day fucking our creamy whores, smoke our cigars and write slimy novels instead of teach me (I read this somewhere that al therapists are blocked novelists). But I'm Castro's last and deadliest weapon, el asesino cubano. To bring down imperialism, I must understand American from the inside. Jim gave me Hemingway to read, un escritor bianco, who wrote: "Al modern American literature comes from one bok by Mark Twain caled Hucklebery Fin." When I inquired why I was not taught Hucklebery Fin instead of the chesy `For Whom The Bel Tols', Jim said that Mark Twain's sense of irony was not contemporary enough. I sensed ambiguity, which I hate. I lok out the window of my hut at las putas, and I stroke my cock, and there's no ambiguity there. Ambiguity is the death of the revolution. Long live El M�ximo L�der, chupame ahora. Star Starry Night Annie Evett So this is how it will end. I struggle to turn my face. Soft, sweat ridden pillows devour my head. I suck in thick, hot gulps desperate to escape. My husband sleeps ftfully beside me. Wheezing and gasping for air, a thin line of drool constantly travels from his mouth, downward to his own yellowed pillow. I'd always imagined death would visit me in a dramatic and outrageous manner; given the lifestyle I maintained. Something so boring, so dreary of just slipping away, breath by insurmountable breath; seemed preposterous. And yet now, I realize with sickening disappointment; this is how it will end. Weak moans and pitiful coughs from the other room rouse me. I am too weak to rise; but motherly instincts force my leaden legs into action. They crumble under me but I crawl out the doorway. The seductive cool tiles in the hallway press against my hot cheek and I rest for a while before carrying on. I clamber onto my daughter's bedside and brush the wet tresses of her hair away from her face. Tears spring to my eyes. She is lying in day old vomit and waste. She moans and her cornfower blue eyes futter open momentarily. A tiny smile lights her pale, cracked lips. "Mummy. I thought you left me" A determination grips my resolve. That we are dying, I am certain. However, we will die as a family; together. I clumsily hug her and bury her face in kisses. "Mummy would never leave you. Never" It takes me half an hour to lift her tiny body from the bed and onto a clean sheet on the foor. She fitters between consciousness, mumbling incoherently as I work. I drag her back to my bedroom, resting every few feet and pull her up onto my bed. The exertion thumps blood in my ears and I pant like a dog. I am now aware of the fetid stench my once pristine home is wrapped in. I am determined to my last breath to unite my family. The sour smell of illness overpowers me as I enter my son's bedroom. My heart hammers as I gaze at his still, pale face. I exhale thankfully as I see tiny gasps of air still being drawn. He is heavier and he tumbles out of bed like a rag doll. Dragging him back is harder; but I am running out of time. Tepid water from our tank runs like liquid crystal into a bucket. I bless my husband once again for insisting we install one; despite our suburban lifestyle. Fumbling in the bathroom cupboard for some soap, my hand touches the unimaginable; a crinkly packet containing one paracetamol tablet. Out of date and crushed,I stare at it in wonderment. After the widespread sickness, all medical supplies had been exhausted and the populace left to cope; or not, alone. I look over at my husband and then from child to child. One tablet would not be enough split into four and would only offer a pathetic temporary relief from the fevers. It would not stop the inevitable. I swallow it quickly, fghting the tears of shame and guilt. I need strength and clarity in these last hours. We will be together and clean in the end. With a tiny amount of hoarded antibacterial wash, I scrub my face and hands, rubbing my feverish body into a semblance of cleanliness. I lie down on the bathroom foor and doze, dreaming of the days of long showers and hot baths. There's no water, nor power. Not since the sickness. We are all alone. Rows, streets, suburbs, cities of homes; flled with the suffering. All of us, together and alone. A weak feverish cry from my daughter arouses me. I set to sponging them clean, untangling matted hair, cooling their heads. I manage to stand and stumble to our linen closet, selecting crisp sheets for our king sized bed. Watching those endless nurses and doctor shows on telly had taught me one thing, the skill of stripping and making a bed which contains a comatose body. I grinned despite the situation and kissed my husbands clammy forehead. The smell of clean sheets fortify me as I sponge his wasted body. I draw more water into a water bottle and sniff at it ineffectually. I sip it warily and feel the silver fngers of coolness spread throughout my body. Patiently I drip tiny drops onto the cracked lips of my children and my husband, willing them to take small sips and relieve their burning throats. I make a nest of pillows and prop my children between us; leaving face washers to cool their brows. Lifting them up onto the bed seems easier now; but I am not fooled by my temporary strength. I wrap my arms round each child and nuzzle my husband's balding head. "We are together now. Come what may." I allow my head to fall back onto the headboard and doze; listening to the weak coughs and struggling gasps of air from my family and wait for death. O5:46 hrs Marcus Speh 05:46 hrs - Newfoundland, Canada. Sedna came to the smoking rom before her shift, dresed in brown tones so that it was hard to se where her neck ended and her blouse began. She was terifyingly smart. Smartest woman I know, Pakak thought. He had often wondered what it would be like to make love to a realy smart woman. Would she talk the whole time? Would she stop him from making grunting noises? Would she say the one thing that nobody else knew about him that could double his stamina and his enjoyment when pounding away. Pakak was twenty-eight and thought his pizle was as god a way as any to get to know other people, women mostly, but he often wondered if being stuck in a man hole would be drasticaly diferent apart from the political implications of course. He wore a very ugly tie today and enjoyed her atention and the disbelief that moved acros Sedna's face like a moth. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons BIRDS On the fourth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: four calling birds. "There they are," said my true love, guiding me to the window and pointing at the four silhouettes perched on the stone wall at the end of our garden. "Blackbirds. They're nesting nearby, I'm sure of it. I've been putting out bread for them. I've almost adopted them." I narrowed my eyes and stared. "But blackbirds are unlucky," I replied, with a note of panic sounding in my voice. "We can't have blackbirds in our garden. Imagine the horrors that might befall us." "No, you're thinking of crows and ravens. They're the omens of death and divine providence, not blackbirds." My true love kissed me goodbye, reminding me to put out some breadcrumbs later in the day. I stood staring at the blackbirds. I couldn't see their eyes clearly, but I'm sure they were staring back at me in an ominous, deathly and divinely providential way. According to the sixth century writings of Pope Gregory I, the beautiful song of the blackbird makes it a symbol of temptation -- especially sexual temptation. In the ffth century, the Devil appeared before St Benedict of Nursia in the shape of a blackbird, fying around his head so closely that the creature was almost within Benedict's grasp. Following this encounter, Benedict was troubled by a "violent temptation of the fesh" for a girl he had once seen. In order to save himself, he tore off all his clothes and jumped into a nearby bush of thorns and nettles, lacer ating his whole body. This painful act is said to have freed him from sexual temptation for the rest of his life. The morning mists were clearing, and it looked like it was going to turn into a fne, bright day. With free time on my hands, it seemed like a good moment to do some gardening. As the blackbirds looked on, I picked up my pruning shears and began cutting the rose bush right back to the hard, cruel thorns. Just in case. 06:46 hrs Marcus Speh 06:46 hrs - La Plata, Argentina. When the winter holidays began, mother stod by the window in the living rom for long periods of time, a hot cup in her hand, siping in long intervals. From this window you could se the stret, which dady would come down now any minute. Eventualy he apeared, a tal man in a dark overcoat, disfigured by layers of vests, shirts and sweaters, pushing a shiny, silvery cart filed with things he'd picked up along the way that he'd give us as presents. When she had sen him, mother let out a long sigh of relief and went to the kitchen to prepare a tea for him with honey. It was a mixture of Ceylon and Asam and dady had a story for every leaf of the brew. The stories were linked to princes and counts, terible treasures and rambunctious riots, and they involved our father, his suden los of courage, how he outwited magicians and sailed home against il winds. Whatever anybody had ever said about him, when he began to speak, balancing his tea and our mother on his knes, became mere sawdust on the flor of our lives and we only heard his voice and admired his bearded deds, grateful that we had him in our lives for one day a year. Variations on a Theme by Coldplay Martin Heavisides I sweep the streets I used to own I used to own in dreams at least In dreams at least as real as life As real as life I used to own I used to own a bar of gold A bar of gold plate over steel Plate over steel the city web The city web of streets I sweep Of streets I sweep there are no end There are no end of sites to build Of sites to build in shape of tombs In shape of tombs a half mile high A half mile high the vines creep up The vines creep up athirst for sun A thirst for sun wreathe garden tombs Wreathe garden tombs where creatures graze Where creatures graze that are not us That are not us who used to own o7:46 hrs Marcus Speh 07:46 hrs - Nuk, Grenland. The people queued up to get their parcels or post them as they had always done. Nobody thought of bending the line into a coil so that the people on the stret, who stod in icy air, could warm up, to. When the grumpy writer in a lamb fur jacket reaching down to his knes with Nike Air bots that somehow semed to young for him and with a grey hat that was adorned with a white snowflake, had the thought of fixing the imbalance betwen the people outside and inside, the line had moved so that he couldn't do anything about it anymore and in any case there never was agrement among the queuers. To get over his anger at his countrymen he only had to think about them once the ice would have melted and how most of the island would then be under water. Pancakes are Spooky Cameron Pierce These pancakes are spooky. Dad must have made them. Whenever he makes pancakes, they somehow turn out spooky, as if he is cooking them in a graveyard instead of a frying pan. It's Christmas morning and the three of us are sitting at the kitchen table. This is our frst Christmas since Mom left us. We are doing our best to ignore her absence. "Can you pass the syrup?" Karen asks me. "Do you want the real maple syrup or the shitty fake stuff," I say. "Shut up and pass me the syrup." "Which one." "The fake stuff," she says. "Pass the syrup to your sister," Dad says. I pass the bottle of Aunt Jemima to her. I have always liked Aunt Jemima syrup bottles because they are shaped like a woman. The pancakes on my plate are howling now, like ghosts. I drown the pancakes in organic pure maple syrup and hope it will drown the pancakes' howling. The pancakes cough and sputter, but they continue to howl. They do not have mouths. They are howling through their pores. Dad looks at me and says, "Eat your pancakes. It's Christmas." "I'm not hungry," I say. I do not want to tell Dad that the real reason I'm not eating is because the pancakes are spooky. He just won't understand, and after the turmoil of the past year, with Mom leaving and taking Ryan with her, I am afraid to tell him that he makes spooky pancakes. Someday I will tell him, but not on Christmas. Not this year. "Eat your pancakes or I'll slit your throat," Dad says. Or I'll slit your throat. That is always Dad's alternative, his only joke. I pick up my knife and fork and cut the pancakes into little pieces. The pancakes scream like dying cats as I cut them. I drop my knife. Dad's pancakes have never felt so much pain. "What's wrong?" Dad says. "It's the organic syrup," Karen says. "He doesn't like it. He just wants to be cool and eat organic things." "We'll see how organic he is when I slit his throat," Dad says. "That's not the problem," I say. "It's the music. There's no Christmas music on. You always play Christmas music, Dad." "I slit Christmas music's throat," he says. Sadly, it's his only joke. "Just kidding," he says. He excuses himself from the table and goes into the living room and turns on the stereo and the theme song of Frosty the Snowman plays really loud over the surround sound speakers. Dad returns to the kitchen table. He sits down and asks me to pass him the organic pure maple syrup. I pass him the syrup and say, "Merry Christmas." "It's all we can hope for," he says. I dig my fork into the soggy mess on my plate. The pancakes are still howling, but it's hard to hear them over the Christmas music. And as I eat the spooky pancakes, I think about the alternative, like what if Mom and Ryan were still here. Would Dad's pancakes be any less spooky if they were still around? Would we be any more of a family? And the only answer is a feeling of Halloween in my belly as the ghosts of pancakes foat around, waiting to be digested. And I think I hear them say, "Trick or treat." 08:46 hrs Marcus Speh (First published as ,,The Fool" in: Blue Print Review) 08:46 hrs - Praia, Cape Verde. The fol packed a sand bar for lunch and a drinks of herb salt. But whence he went to play along the rainbow warior, whom only he could se, who'd admire the mud cakes he baked? The half way house where he lived half-witedly, lomed. He thought the term refered to: half way to an incredulous blesing bestowed by a holy child. Another century had begun already. Sign of the dragon. How he longed to novel a great lizard, edge over its scaly wings, warmed by fire breath, beowulfen, fre view of the lordish land below. Caled himself Hightower Givemeaflower. Litle did he know that when he came back everyone would be waiting for him. When he saw them he scorched his longing and broke out in vicarious song. They apreciated his pithy pastry. That surprised him. He loved a girl named Ruina Hyena by him. Atop of his world, spining on the outside of control, pointing with clownish fingers at this miracle and that, sat the threadbare fol and broke his bread with a beaver. The Storm Mike Whitney Christmas � 1989 Ravenna, Ohio 2:13 P.M. My sister's boy, seven-year-old Bobby, started screaming when the wind ratcheted up. The ten of us gathered in the cellar as the funnel cloud headed straight for our house. The last thing I saw as I headed down the stairs was Gramps' old Chrysler Imperial rotating slowly in the driveway, inches off the ground. The train sound made by the wind increased and as I slammed the door behind me, I saw the shiny black sedan lift like a helicopter and disappear. The noise downstairs was almost as loud and we heard the roof go with an explosion of ripping metal and snapping wood. Floorboards, joists and sub fooring above us were ripped up revealing a clear sky that fickered and darkened, then turned gray with dust. We smelled natural gas from where the kitchen had been. Silence settled over the basement as the wind moved off and shock deepened. Bobby sniffed and sobbed quietly then he too went silent. The stairs were intact, and as I climbed them to see the damage, a sense of dread like I'd never known rose in my stomach. I heard a distant choir singing We Wish You A Merry Christmas. It was Bobby's new cassette player sitting on the unscathed coffee table in an otherwise empty space where our living room had been. Our street was empty; the neat little houses and trees that had lined the block were gone, including our house, down to the foundation. I smiled and felt my eyes watering. It was a miracle we were alive. As my family members, wife and children came out to look, I motioned them to me and we stared at each other, silent. We hugged each other and thanked God for letting us live. That was a long time ago, but today, as our family is again gathered to celebrate, the street, our house looks much the same. And even though we aren't much at singing together, before we open the gifts, we always join hands and softly lift our voices together in a heartfelt rendition of We Wish You A Merry Christmas. Good tidings we bring to you and your kin; Good tidings for Christmas and a Happy New Year. 09:46 hrs Marcus Speh 09:46 hrs - London, UK. Feter Lane coblestones upturned. Paper garbage. I pick it up, surprising myself. I'm on my way to work: my bos Mr Cobsworth Mather wil already be there, he'l be loking through my papers for traces of corporate sin. Me absolve, Pater! Everyday cruelty melts like a marshmalow on a stick, swet but burnt, to. The paper on the ground: a hotel bil over 80 Pounds fifty Pence including a position "Entertainment". We know what this realy means. A card from "Have fun with Beverly Glam Escort � 66-99-77", and that's not a phone number those are her measures. I wonder if Beverly has a talent for fortune teling, with those bobs. Last piece: a ticket stub from the Royal Opera, two days old. A single ticket, droped perhaps after the performance by a disapointed man whose date didn't show up. I'm glad I loked at the rubish. It puts things in perspective. Mather can kis my rosy as. Shoes Susan Tepper Georgia is a wide swirling endless state to navigate on a Harley. For the week before Chritsmas the weather has gone totally insane. Yesterday it got close to eighty. I'm tired of sitting in back clutching his sweaty leather jacket with its cracks and ruts. I don't think it's even real leather. It has no nice leather smell. I told him when we stopped at some dump for lunch that his jacket is a fake. He did not react well. He said if you make another crap remark on this trip I'm going to punch you in the nose. What! Who talks like that? They say I'll cut you, rip you, stick a shiv-- I mean I know he's older but this is ridiculous. This is like riding in back of somebody's father. He says I'm your Daddy. He got it off that commercial but I think the guy in the commercial says Who's your Daddy. That TV guy is sorta cute for an old guy. In the beginning I thought the twenty/thirty-something age difference was kind of weird but cool. Now it's starting to chew on me. Take food. All day he pops Freetos and Cheez-Doodles. I need a tofu burger I told him earlier. Tofu? He never heard of it. He has a smell like my mom's spice rack that hasn't been sponged for ages. It's my cologne he said when I mentioned he smells of cloves. Old Spice he called it. After lunch, which totally sucked, just greasy things in crinkle bags, I climb behind him on the bike. It's a warm day again but he wears that jacket anyway. I know he wants to look cool. Young. For hours on end I stare at the back of his head. His hair cut in a zig-zag like the roads we take to try and fnd his dog called Shoes. He fres up the bike then takes out his phone to text Zermelga. His wife is Mona but I call her Zermelga. He says she's a bitch on wheels. Uh-oh, he says now, turning sideways on the bike. He's squinting at me. Can't stay out all night he says. Mona has her offce Christmas party, wants me there. It's always something. Zermelga has whipped up a squirrel pie or some other delicacy and expects him home at six sharp. We gotta make tracks, he says. OK, Daddy, I say. It melts him every time. He loves his head lolling next to mine and me murmuring Daddy Daddy. Now I say you owe me some money. You cut our holiday short. What do you say to a couple hundred? You're a heartless bitch, he says. It's faith money. He growls and fshes around inside the rotten jacket, pulls out a greasy wad. I have to text Mona, he says. Here, count it out. OK. But what about Shoes? 1 Samuel 17 Jesse Bradley "You're not strong enough to load a crossbow, James." "Bullshit, look at these guns." I fex, my biceps barely pitching a canopy. "Those guns got nothin but blanks. Why do you do this every year to yourself?" Ever since I caught mommy kissing Santa Claus when I was nine, I wanted to reclaim her honor. I thought if I was good all year, I could ask for things that would help take him out the next year. The AirSoft rife came as a ten-speed, the slingshot, a pair of Hulk hands. This year, I joined up with the FCA chapter at school; being tight with football and Jesus is like fnding a magic lamp, except John the Baptist comes out and grants you one wish and that one wish has to be made in America, the product not the wish itself. "James, there's no Santa Claus, and there's no crossbow under the tree. Look." "Ben, there's a Santa Claus, and he's gonna to give me a crossbow this year. I'm gonna wound him, kill one of his reindeer, feed it to him. I'll eat the pieces he salts with his tears." Ben punches me in the arm. "What the fuck!" "I hope that's your crossbow loading arm, you dumb shit." *** I realized Santa's not dumb enough to give you weapons you might use against him when he left me sweaters, jeans, a black leather wallet last Christmas. Four stockings flled with candy canes and stale Christmas tree cookies slap against my back as I climb the oak tree facing my roof. Hanging out with the FCA taught me you kill legends with faith. I settle myself on a branch, twirl the frst stocking until the shrapnel eats its way through, spilling everywhere. The second stocking smacks the gutter. My mom looks through the window, doesn't see me through the branches. The third stocking hits the roof, shatters. I sit and wait, imagine myself twirling the stocking, slivers of candy cane puncturing his lungs, the glitter of the stale Christmas tree cookies choking him; I made sure it matched the same lipstick my mother left on his mouth. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons RINGS On the ffth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: fve gold rings. I woke up to fnd a note on the pillow beside me: "There are fve gold rings hidden around the house. Find them, read the words, and the secret of my heart shall be yours forever." My true love never failed to be anything less than completely, foolishly and overwhelmingly romantic. Silly, sentimental gestures such as this kept our relationship alive and showed just how devoted we were to each other. The frst ring wasn't diffcult to fnd. As I stood in the bathroom staring at my refection in the mirror and rubbing soap on my face, there it was on the second fnger of my left hand. My true love had obviously slipped it on while we slept, and in my bleary state I hadn't noticed until it was literally staring me in the face. I took the ring off and examined it carefully. Engraved on the inside was the single word -- `LOVE'. Well, of course. Walking into the living-room, my eyes scanned every item for clues, while the cat prowled through my legs and mewed in an effort to grab my attention. The bookshelves, it had to be the bookshelves. I ran my fnger along the top shelf, head on one side, reading the titles of the various novels. Dragging out all the books that belonged to my true love, I started ficking through them. I struck lucky with the seventh one. Some of the pages had been hollowed out, and hidden within the cavity lay a single gold ring, as plain and simple a piece of jewellery as the frst. It carried the word `MUCH'. The discovery of the third ring demonstrated just how familiar with my bad habits my true love had become. I wandered into the kitchen, still yawning, and switched on the kettle. My gaze fell upon those disgusting herbal teabags, which had obviously been placed in a prominent position in the hope that I would feel guilty enough to try one. Apparently, they're "good for me". Not at this hour, they're not. I need the seismic jolt of extra strong, non-decaffeinated, full-roast coffee beans pulsing through my veins frst thing in the morning -- not a delicate infusion of cinnamon and rosehip. Retrieving a teaspoon buried deep in the coffee jar, gold ring number three came into view perched atop the heap of brown granules. I quite forgot about coffee at that point, narrowing my eyes to read the word `I' carved in the precious metal. The cat was still pestering me. It was my true love's pet, not mine. I tolerated it and fed it only when forced to do so, since the smell of cat food makes me retch. I turned my head away from the unholy stench as I ripped the lid from the tin of Horsemeat & Sardine Chunks and scraped some of it into the cat's metal bowl, placing a plastic cover on the tin before the contents of my stomach responded by paying a return visit. "There you go, cat. See what you make me go through just so you can get fed?" The moggy looked up at me gratefully -- well, in so far as cats ever look grateful for anything -- and there, hanging from its collar, was the fourth ring. Before the poor animal had even managed to grab one mouthful of food, it was scooped up in my arms and complaining loudly as I hastily removed the collar. Ring retrieved, I dropped the cat unceremoniously back onto the foor. `LOVE', `MUCH', `I' -- and now `YOU'. It didn't take a genius to work out the word that the ffth and fnal ring would reveal. Yes, "I love you SO much" too, I thought. I just had to fnd it to complete the sentence. After three hours, I was exhausted and had run out of ideas. Our small fat had been turned upside down. Cupboards emptied, beds stripped, bathroom cabinets rummaged through, desk drawers pulled out. Even the dirty washing had been thrown into the machine just so I could sort it through and check that the ring wasn't hiding in there. But still nothing. I was contemplating the almost unspeakable horror of putting on a pair of rubber gloves and excavating the kitchen bin when the doorbell rang. "Recorded delivery for you, sir. Can you sign here?" Slamming the door as the postman was just starting to exchange pleasantries about the weather, I tore open the small padded envelope. Inside, one small ring box. Inside the box, one gold ring. I don't mind admitting that I am the world's biggest romantic fool. Lining up the rings on the table, however, my beatifc smile slowly faded. Where was the two-letter word I had been expecting? Where was `SO'? Where was it? There was only one grammatically correct sentence I could make using the words engraved on the fve gold rings. "I DON'T LOVE YOU MUCH." CAUTION: Watch for Forklift Traffic Jason Jordan Denny has worked at the factory for forty-seven years. He started when he was eighteen, and he's now sixty-fve, and today is his last day. There will be no party, because tomorrow is Christmas. At eighteen Denny was all there, but at sixty-fve he is not. He has epilepsy, and though he takes medication, he is not like he used to be. He smokes, too, and is showing symptoms of Alzheimer's. Due to his failing health, he can't do that much at the plant. He becomes easily confused and disoriented when learning a process that is foreign to him. So, rather than work the line with the other employees, who utilize crimping machines to assemble brake hoses, Denny is relegated to the pre-crimper, a machine that attaches sockets to parts. He doesn't mind the work, or standing in one spot all day. Several years ago, before he was bad off, Denny used to run the air tester. Every fnished part has to pass the air test in order to move on to inspection. The machine shoots compressed air through the hoses to check for leaks or constriction. This ensures that no bad hoses leave the plant. The air tester, which Denny thinks of as a carousel for parts is still here, but up until today, someone else was running it. No one's running it today because it's being disassembled. The company bought a new one, which will be assembled and installed during the vacation that begins on Christmas and ends on New Year's. For now, the parts the line produces will be stacked in crates and tested after the break on the new air tester. While the two men dismantle the machine, Denny glances over his shoulder at them. "Sorry we can't get you more, Denny," John, Denny's supervisor, says to him at the precrimper. John's offering him a small black box. Inside: a gold watch with the inscription "47." Denny, realizing he's supposed to take the box, sets down the part he's pre-crimping, a threepronged part known as a "spider," and accepts the gift. He fips open the lid. "Oh," Denny says upon seeing the watch. He uses this word more than any other. In fact, some workers haven't heard him say anything else. "I already have one," he tells John and bears his wrist, strapped with an old silver timepiece. "I know Denny, but this is a gift from the company to show their appreciation for all your years of service. Look," he says, taking the box and lifting the watch to show Denny its back, "they even engraved 47 on it for the number of years you've worked here." "Oh," Denny says, reclaiming the watch. He slips it in the box and stuffs it in his jean pocket. He grabs the spider and resumes pre-crimping. John, who understands Denny's ailments and has worked with him for nine years, walks away, not expecting a thank you, or any acknowledgement for that matter, except Denny's usual one-syllable reply. Things said to Denny during his fnal day: "Good luck, Denny." "I wish I was you!" "Visit us sometime." "Congrats, Den!" "Plenty of time for fshin now, Denny." "What're you gonna do with all that time on your hands?" "Enjoy your retirement." Later, after the crew has fnished hundreds of brake hoses--537, to be exact--they clean the line. Come 4:45 p.m., Denny sweeps. At fve till, John hits the main lights and the employees stand around the timeclock, waiting for it to strike fve. They fle out into the cold December air. It's snowing, but the snow isn't sticking yet. The workers pile into their cars and drive away, and when Denny is in his and ready to go, he thinks he's made a mistake. Denny exits his car and walks through the sizeable lot to the factory's main entrance. He tugs on the door, but it's locked. He peers in through the door's window--his breath quickly fogging it-- and sees only stacks of boxes and pallets in the dim security lights. He also sees the yellow sign on the entry hall wall, which says CAUTION: Watch for Forklift Traffc. He returns to his car and retrieves a pen and sheet of paper. He places the sheet on top of the trash can under the entrance's awning and writes a note. The note reads: Dear John, I don't want the watch. I want the air tester. Return the watch and get the money back. I hope that will cover what the air tester will get for scrap. Please call me. Sincerely, Denny He puts the watch box on the note and walks back to his vehicle. John doesn't receive the note or the watch. The frst person who stumbles onto the watch pawns it. The note s/he crumbles and tosses into the garbage can without reading it, knowing it's easier to steal when you don't know who you're stealing from. Denny is not disheartened when John doesn't contact him about the air tester, because he forgets about the watch, note, and air tester on Christmas morning. His wife, children, and grandchildren shower him with presents--many he likes better than the watch and air tester. response. "Oh," he says after he opens each gift, his surprise genuine, warranting just such a juneau the city in alaska Richard Chiem Ralph Nader is watching Sarah Palin moving her lips on the television screen and he is wondering what love is. He slides the leather loveseat closer to where the window is, so he can feel a slight evening breeze, and enjoy some of the salted crackers he has piled inside a glass bowl in his lap. He takes off his shoes and socks and sits down and feels good. He says out loud, My name is Ralph Nader and I don't know what love is. As the words leave him, he realizes that they are true, and this makes him sad, his mouth dry. His heart winces. He starts to cry uncontrollable in his hands and he watches his one candle burning irrevocable on his coffee table. The melted wax resembles a frozen lake, which reminds Ralph Nader of long nights in Alaska. His lips are dry too. The life outside his house is still and without buoyancy. The leaves are brown and black, spread along the pavement, and a blue bird bounces from rock to granite block. Things don't foat anymore Ralph Nader says. The moon is an eggshell blue and Ralph Nader turns down the green volume bar on his wide plasma screen, and Sarah Palin is staring right at him, like she is in love making eye contact. There is a quiet buzzing coming from outside his window, and Ralph Nader just sits there. He feels warmth in his legs and arms. He wishes that he could travel back in time, back to when Sarah's parents are having her, when they are giving birth to her in the hospital room, where Ralph Nader would have brought along chocolates and roses, to greet her beautiful body into the new world. Hello Sarah, Ralph Nader says, I love you. I will wait for you forever. The refrigerator has stopped its deep humming and Ralph Nader decides to turn it in for the night. Before he starts to brush his teeth, he feeds his dog Huckleberry, with treats he bought from the supermarket earlier in the day. The name Huckleberry is pronounced in an authentic western drawl, much like how Val Kilmer says the word in the 1993 flm Tombstone. Roger Ebert calls Tombstone one of the top ten best flms of the year. Are you hungry little one, Ralph asks Huckleberry and the dog barks once. One bark means yes, and two barks means no. Huckleberry has always barked once when asked, should I run again? The room is dark except for a slit of moonlight, blue in the corner of the window. Everything feels cold and cool and the way that things should be. In bed, Ralph Nader wears an extra large Tshirt that reads in all caps ITS NOT EASY BEING GREEN, a gift from his friend regarding the results of the presidential election of the year two thousand, and Ralph likes the way it smells. Sugar cookie Ralph thinks. The shirt smells like sugar cookies. Ralph's right hand slips underneath his elastic waistband and he starts to imagine that Sarah Palin is speaking dirty words to him and she holds a very sexy posture. And because Ralph Nader does not know for certain how Sarah Palin looks like underneath all her clothes, her naked body is a bunch of little pieces stuck together of women that he has known naked. His head feels light again and before he comes, he screams out the word Energy very loudly and waits a few minutes before he moves again. He turns over and grabs a pen. There is a blue bird at his window that says Chirp chirp and the thing dances along the threshold. On his hand, Ralph Nader writes, Ralph Nader, pro-time travel, and he closes his eyes and falls asleep. He dreams of egg whites in the morning Age of Reason Andrew Bowen Sarah's mother sifted through the blouses draped over her arm. Santa Baby played throughout JC Penny's. Sarah tugged at sequins on a shirt as she rocked on her heels. "When are we gonna see Santa?" back." "Shoot," her mother said. "I forgot the leggings. Go on in the dressing room. I'll be right Sarah looked down the hall of the dressing rooms. "But--" She reached for her mother, but she had already left. Sarah nibbled her lip and crept down the hall. The holiday music faded as she progressed through the row of yellow doors. She began to push open the second to last door when heard a grunt and stopped. "Mmm, on Vixen..." Sarah gasped and covered her mouth. A tiny bell jingled and a smile, glowing with blush, unzipped as she opened the door. Her eyes and those of the woman on her knees swelled open. Santa Claus smacked her cheeks with his penis and came on her face. She pulled back and grabbed her shirt. "What the hell?" he said. She pointed at Sarah. His fake beard was crooked, exposing a clean-shaven left cheek and upper lip. "Oh shit." Sarah inhaled and prepared to scream. Santa pulled up his red trousers, rushed forward and covered Sarah's mouth as she shrieked. "Shh, shh, you have to be quiet." Sarah bit his hand. "Fuck!" "You're not Santa!" "I'm outta here," the woman said as she wiped her face and ran out. "Ah don't go..." Sarah followed the woman. "I'm telling my mommy." Santa grabbed her arm. "Wait, don't do that. Come here." He covered her mouth and brought her into the stall. "Listen. If I take my hand away, you promise not to scream?" She scowled and nodded. "That-a girl." He took his hand away and smiled. The glint in his golden left K-9 caught her eye. "What are you, eight, nine..." Sarah folded her arms. "Eight-and-a-half." "Nice, so listen." He knelt and reached into his pocket. "I've got a pretty little girl at home just like you." Santa held a wallet photo of his daughter. Sarah looked at the photo, then to him. "If you tell anyone what you saw, I'll lose my job and won't be able to get her any presents. So," he peeled a fve from his wallet and offered it to Sarah. "Can you keep a secret?" Her glare wore down his smile. He sighed and paired the fve with another. "Hmm?" Sarah took the bills and stuffed them into her skirt pocket. "You're an ugly Santa." "Thanks." She sneered. "Why was that lady looking at your privates?" "She's uh--a doctor. It hurt so..." "What about that stuff on her face?" He stared; his cheeks became sore under the strain of a fake smile. "It sneezed." Sarah winced. "Boys' privates can sneeze?" "Sarah, which stall are you in?" Santa looked under the door. "That your mom?" "Mm hmm." "Okay, remember our deal." He lay on the foor near the gap that separated one stall from the other, winked, and rolled into the next stall. Sarah's mother scolded an employee on her cell phone as she drove them home. Miracle on 34th Street played on the SUV's DVD player. The prosecution attempted to prove that the man on the stand was insane for believing himself to be Santa Claus. "Money talks, Joan, I need results." her mother said. Sarah took the two wrinkled fve dollar bills from her pocket. Abraham Lincoln's face looked more tired than usual. She rubbed the bills between her fngers and looked up as the judge on the movie was handed a dollar to prove the point of belief. Her mother ended the call and raked her right hand through her hair. Sarah waited for another call to come in. In its absence, she spoke. "Santa isn't real, is he?" The judge struck his gavel. Her mother looked at her through the rear view mirror. "Of course he is. Why?" Sarah looked down at the money and remembered her promise. "Megan at school told me." "Megan's family is Jewish sweetie. They don't celebrate Christmas." Sarah crinkled her brow. "So, Santa doesn't like Jews?" okay?" "Uh..." Her mother put both hands on the wheel. "How about we let your father explain it, A red light stopped them. Sarah looked out window at a couple arguing on their townhouse stoop. The woman slapped the man and stomped into the house. Her mother took a sip of coffee as the light turned green. "Has Daddy's privates ever sneezed on you?" Her father gently shut the bedroom door. Sarah's whimpers were muffed. His body loosened as he adjusted the Windsor knot of his tie. "Well?" her mother asked and checked her makeup in the foyer mirror. "Considering her whole concept of reality is in ruin, not bad. How's the burn?" "Shirt caught most of the coffee. Skin's just a little pink." She snapped the lipstick shut. "So, we still believe in Santa, right?" He sat in the living room recliner and rested his forehead against his palm. "No..." He shrugged. "You know me and those eyes. It was over before it started." "And the penis thing?" "Nada." "You're still a lawyer, right?" Sarah reached for the light switch and looked around the room at the glossy posters of princesses and fairies. She wiped her eyes and remembered her father's lesson. "Nope, no Easter bunny either." "What about unicorns--the tooth fairy?" Her father tucked her red hair behind her ears. "All make-believe--stories to help us feel good and safe when we're young." Her fear of the dark oozed from her skin in a cold sweat. She clenched and turned out the light. Sweat moistened her palms. The pressure of what she once thought to be the hungry stares of long-fanged monsters pressed against her chest. She closed her eyes, squeezed her hands into fsts, and said, "It's not real. It's all...make-believe." The pressure, like frost melting at dawn, slowly fell away. She turned on the lights. Sarah looked at each poster and porcelain Disney character. The luster, magic, and potential energy of imagination dulled. Monsters no longer growled or breathed down her neck. Fairies halted their star dust dance. Teddy bears and rosy-cheeked dolls were no longer sensible tea party guests. The weight of revelation pulled down the veil of blissful ignorance. She wanted them alive, but they stared back at her--through her--with static grins. She shut the bedroom door behind her. Her parents turned in their embrace. Sarah, with a long, green velvet dress, sheathed in an open white sweater, stood with her arms at her side. "Hi honey," her mother said and approached her. "You okay?" Sarah rubbed a tear from her puffy, bloodshot eyes. "Mm hmm." She took short, hard steps toward them. The glaze of white light on her black fats sank beneath the shadow of the foyer as she passed between her parents and reached for the door. "Hold on," her mother said and walked toward the hall closet. Sarah stopped but didn't turn. Her mother pulled out a set of glitter-encrusted wings and a white gown. "Can't forget your costume for the play." Sarah hesitated. The salt of old tears overtook the spray-on scents of her parents. "I don't wanna be in the play." "You agreed to play Gabriel." She held out the costume to Sarah and waited. "I know you've had a rough day, but let's just get through tonight, okay? It'll be fun." Sarah grimaced. "It looks like a fairy and Daddy said fairies aren't real." "It's an angel--one of God's helpers." "Like Santa's elves?" Her mother looked at Sarah's father. "Little help here?" "Uh..." head. Her mother cocked her left eyebrow. Sarah pointed her toes inward. A storm rumbled in his "Angels..." He slouched. "They're real, sweetie." "See? Now take it and let's go." "But--" "Now!" Sarah looked around the costume as her mother pushed it against her chest and struggled to maintain contact with her father. His focus lingered and fell away as he turned. "I'll get the covered dishes." She blinked away a tear and took the costume. "Now," her mother said and reached for her purse. "Let's get your money for offering." Sarah looked at the ball of cash from the mall Santa in her hand. "Already got some." "Oh, well then wait here while I help your father with the food." Her heels clicked against the hardwood foors as she walked toward the kitchen. Sarah rubbed the edge of one of the wings with her thumb, taking a few specks of glitter along, and studied the bare spot of wire framing. She rubbed her fngers together. The glitter drifted dull as iron to the foor. Her parents walked out of the kitchen and approached the foyer. "All right," her mother said. "Everyone ready--" A gust of cold air snapped at the parents' cheeks. They shuddered as Sarah slammed the door. "Love this time of year." Her mother looked in the mirror and tamed a few rebellious blonde hairs the wind had stirred. "Come on." The crisp, frigid wind wrapped around Sarah as she descended the red brick steps. She hugged the Gabriel costume against her chest as the chill sank its fangs into her skin. Her teeth rattled. Nylon wings and red hair whipped around her as she bowed into the snowy wind and forced her way toward the black SUV. The New Year Ashley Farmer Beyond Christmas tree lots, at the edge of what little light we had left in our country, we found the new year frozen to the beach. Beyond it what was nothing looked completely still. A train whistled. It got dark, as they say. Midnight we discovered one friend, then another, rumoring between black pines, pressed together beneath moon regret, strolling against snow. In the back of my sleep, an engine. No territories crossed, but something warm inside me moving. The Music Man Icy Sedgwick The chill of an autumn morning holds the city in its thrall. Dead leaves drift from the sleeping trees to carpet the pavements in crisp fragments of bronze and gold. The sun burns cold in a piercing blue sky. Offces and shops bulge with scarf-clad workers, warming their shivering hands on steaming mugs of tea. They fght for space around small stoves and freplaces. Hope Lane curves through the overcrowded alleys near the workhouse. Footsteps ring out on the cobbles as a stream of notes curls down the narrow street. The blacksmith's apprentice presses his face against a grimy window. He forgets the dull ache in his arm, and runs outside. The old and infrm shuffe to the doorsteps of their tiny homes. Gaunt women carry skinny babies. The accordion's picture of the impending season muffes their sadness. The old man limps down the street, swathed in a cheerful red coat and hat. His deft fngers manipulate the keys, oblivious to the frosty air. The scent of cinnamon and roast chestnuts wafts in his wake; the apprentice dreams of candy canes and sugar plums. He pauses outside the forge. The new song begins and he plays with gusto, conjuring the spirit of King Wenceslas. The babies gurgle and the apprentice sways to the music. Fingers fumble in moth-eaten pockets for their last few coins. They fash in the air, and a black monkey in a scarlet waistcoat collects them with nimble paws. Money buys happiness when the music man comes by. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons GEESE On the sixth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: six geese a-laying. "I don't think you love me enough," said my true love sternly, while leading the new acquisitions in an orderly line through the house and out into the garden, "so I've bought you six geese." "And what the hell am I supposed to do with them?" I asked, as I gazed down at the parade making its way past my feet. "Well, if you love me -- if you really, really love me -- then you'll be able to get these geese to lay golden eggs." "But that's just the stuff of fairytales," I replied, bemused. "It's not real." My true love fxed me with a cold, withering stare. It was a look I'd seen too many times before -- like when I was ordered to bring back the pot of gold from the end of the rainbow, purchase a unicorn as a birthday gift, or provide undeniable proof that fairies did indeed live at the bottom of the garden. This was no joke. I could not afford to fail, because failure would mean losing the love of my life. An aerosol can of gold spray paint was my salvation. The next batch of fresh goose eggs that I retrieved from the garden, instead of fnding their way into the kitchen, were taken into the garage and sprayed a wondrous shade of rich, lustrous gold. Once the acrid smell of freshly applied paint had dissolved, the deception was complete. My true love was ecstatic and wept with emotion on seeing the six golden eggs lined up proudly on the mantlepiece. After kissing me on the forehead and thanking me for proving my eternal devotion, my true love retreated to the moonlit garden. A few minutes passed before I heard the anguished screeching of one goose, then another, then four more, as their throats were cut through with a carving knife. Something Sweet for Someone Good to Hold on To Roxane Gay Candy had always been a sweet girl. In high school, boys would line up to lick her arm or the back of her knee or the inside of her ankle. They would say, "Candy, you are as sweet as sweet can be," and she would smile brightly. She would say thank you because she was also polite. When she was a little girl, Candy's mama, Lurene, loved to tell Candy she was the best gift God had ever given her. Candy was born the night before Christmas and Lurene liked to say it was because God knew she needed a little something sweet to hold on to before yet another holiday dinner with her in-laws and her own kin. Lurene died young like all the women in her family but on her deathbed, she kissed Candy on the forehead and said, "Whatever happens to you in life, always be something sweet for someone good to hold on to." Candy cried sugary tears that fell on her mother's dry, cracked lips and her Lurene whispered, "See, you've started already." Christmas was Candy's favorite holiday even though she had little reason to feel any fondness for the day. Once her mama died, her daddy took to catting around and wasn't much for remembering his daughter or her birthday or her love of Christmas. That didn't bother Candy, though, because she stayed sweet even though she had little reason to do that either. She liked to walk around her neighborhood in the days leading up to Christmas, looking into nicely decorated living rooms. She knew the Glenn family down the street made ornaments out of homemade clay and the Jacksons next door decorated their tree only in red, silver and gold. She always found a tiny tree just for herself and she decorated it in her room, hid it in her closet where it would be safe. On Christmas morning, she would sit in front of her tiny tree and she would think of her mama, and when she started to feel a deep sadness rising up in her, she remembered her promise to Lurene to stay sweet so she smiled instead. The Sugar Shack was a classy strip joint just off Highway 44 on the edge of town. Unlike the other strip joints in the area, the owner of The Sugar Shack, Gary Joe Thompson kept a clean place with a well-lit locker room for the strippers to change in between dances and such and he only hired girls who had graduated high school. A stripper needed to be able to talk to a man, he always said. The day after she graduated high school, Candy showed up at The Sugar Shack and asked for a job. She had long learned that there weren't a whole lot of options for a girl like her with a no good family and not a lot of money. Even though she knew it would be real hard to stay sweet taking her clothes off for strange men, she also knew she didn't have much choice. She wasn't good at balancing trays or standing on her feet all day. In the fve years since starting at The Sugar Shack, Candy had become the most popular dancer for two hundred miles. At work, she was Kandi Kane. She worked four nights a week and only danced to holiday music whether it was July, October or December. At frst, Gary Joe wasn't at all happy about the music Kandi wanted to strip to but on her frst night, she did a sweet and sexy little dance to O Holy Night. By the end of her routine, she had men falling on their knees praying. Big Pete, one of the most godless men in town, left the club in tears and walked right on over to First Baptist. He had been one of the most passionate members of the congregation ever since and came to watch Kandi dance every Saturday night so he would always have something to be thankful for in the service on Sunday morning. When she took to the stage men and sometimes women would crowd at the tip rail holding their sweaty, dirty money between their teeth or their fngers, staring at her with glassy, eager eyes. They would shout Kandi, Kandi, Kandi, and she would extend one of her fnely toned legs through a small slit in the curtains separating the backstage area from the club. She would wiggle her foot from side to side while the chanting grew louder and louder. She would force herself to smile, and as she emerged from behind the curtains, she threw her hands in the air, offering the gathered crowd the gift of her body. The foor of the stage was black and shiny and in the middle was a red and white pole. She was so popular Gary Joe had the pole installed just for her. On the day the new pole was put in he said, "You're something real special, little girl so I got you a special pole." Then he grabbed his crotch. Candy smiled. When she turned away, she rolled her eyes. When she did her frst routine on the new pole, wearing a skintight red latex dress and spun herself around the pole so fast it made her dizzy, the crowd cheered so loudly, she could swear she felt the walls of the place trembling. She wasn't much for dating. By the time she left the club after a long shift, Candy wanted nothing more than to go home to the small tract house where she lived alone. She washed herself clean of the oily fngerprints and the heavy makeup and whiskey and cigarette smoke. She wore soft, loose clothing and watched old movies or wrote long letters to her mother. She knew she didn't have much stripping left in her so she saved almost all her money. On Wednesdays she had her father over for dinner. Sometimes he brought the woman he was currently seeing. It was rare Candy met the same woman more than twice. Candy loved to cook so she prepared fancy meals like the ones she saw being prepared on TV. She liked how the TV chefs talked to her while they were cooking. Sometimes, she pretended she was in their colorful, well-appointed kitchens with them. To have a cooking show of her own was her fondest, fondest dream. Ricky Dean was mean and ugly but most people forgave him for his meanness because they knew anyone that ugly didn't have much to be friendly about. He was tall and strong and a hard worker but that didn't seem to matter much to women. It broke Ricky's heart to know he had all this good inside of him and no damn way to let any of it out. He went to The Sugar Shack twice a week, Wednesdays and Saturdays. He would go every night but he didn't want to be that guy, didn't want to seem too desperate. He liked being there, though, liked how the place, even beneath the cigarette smoke and the men and the drinking, still smelled like women. He liked how the girls moved through the place like cats, their eyes always moving, their movements always quick and real careful. Sometimes, in the back room when he was getting a lap dance, some of the girls would let him touch them because he paid extra and tipped real well. Ricky Dean would close his eyes and rest his hands on their hips or the fat of their bellies and he'd think about the taste of their skin. Kandi was his favorite dancer but he never looked at her too hard, never went in the back with her. He didn't want to get too close to something he wanted so much. It was just after Halloween and Candy couldn't believe how many Christmas decorations she was seeing in the Walmart and around town. For the frst time in her life, she didn't give a good goddamn about Christmas. She was tired of Christmas, Christmas music, and caring. If she thought about it too hard, Candy knew she was simply lonely. She hadn't slept with a man in some time save for a drunken mistake with Big Pete one night when he drove her home from the club after her car wouldn't start. All through her shift she had been drinking vodka tonics because she was bored and when Big Pete kissed her hand and tasted her sweet skin he blurted out, "I love you." She had never heard a man say that to her, really say that to her, when it was just the two of them and she wasn't on stage, so she started feeling sweet toward Big Pete and invited him into her home where she poured each of them a glass of wine. Before long the whole bottle was gone and they were listening to Willie Nelson and Neil Diamond and old time music that reminded Candy of big romantic things. Big Pete said, "I love you," again and with the fogginess in her head and the heaviness in her arms, Candy couldn't help but feel real tender to Big Pete who was a big old meaty slab of a man, something she secretly liked. She let him lay her down on her living room foor and she let him lay his body down on top of hers and even though she couldn't wrap her arms all the way around him she sure did try. He didn't bring her much pleasure that night because he was so nervous he couldn't get his stroke right but Big Pete did bring Candy a whole lot of comfort. She fell asleep lying on top of his meaty body. Every time he breathed she rose up and the sensation of it made her happy. The next morning, Big Pete stumbled out of her house saying he was sorry and needing to get on to church. He tried to get back between Candy's thighs but she never accepted an offer for a ride home from him again. Candy stared at her refection in the crowded mirror and forced a smile. She ran her tongue over her teeth and tried to ignore the chatter of women all around her. Blue, one of the newest dancers, walked in and shouted, "It's a crowded house tonight," and all the girls cheered. Men were better tippers when the club was crowded, like they were trying to show off how much money they were willing to spend on their hopes and dreams. When it was time for her frst dance, Candy slapped her self and tried to shake her bad mood out of her body. She stepped through the heavy curtain and ignored the irritation she felt as she looked out into the sea of wide eyes and gaping mouths. In the corner of the club she spotted Mean Mean Ricky Dean as the girls liked to call him. He never paid her any mind, which she thought was curious. She knew what the other girls said about him, how they felt sorry for him but Candy didn't feel a lick of pity for someone as mean mean as Ricky Dean. She grabbed the pole with one arm and slowly stretched her body out until she felt the strain in her shoulder. She closed her eyes and tried to sink into the velvet of Nat King Cole's voice. When she heard, "Santa's on his way," she held on to the pole with both hands and leaned back until her hair brushed the stage. As she shook her chest, the men around her started to whistle. The song ended and the faster paced "All I Want For Christmas," started playing. Kandi pulled herself upright, did a quick about turn, and shimmied out of the bright red corset she was wearing. The catcalls started and Kandi forced a bounce into her step. She returned to the pole and simulated fellatio while offering a sexy wink to a group of college boys on the left side of the stage. When the dance was over, Kandi grabbed her clothes and returned to the warmth and shelter of the dressing room. Gary Joe did his hourly walk through and urged the girls to get on the foor because hot damn, there was money to be made tonight. Kandi shrugged into a short silk robe and a more comfortable pair of heels than the stilettos she had worn on stage. As she walked through the club, she could feel hands grabbing at her ass and voices asking for things she had no intention of giving. She saw Mean Mean Ricky Dean sitting in his corner, sulking in his ugliness and something about it made her so angry she could feel a fash of it throbbing beneath her temple. She went to the bar and ordered a vodka tonic, told the bartender to make it stiff. After she downed the frst dink, she waved her fnger, requesting another, and then took her drink and made a straight line for Ricky's booth. As she sat down and slid toward Ricky his jaw dropped. Instead of saying anything, he looked down at the warm beer he was nursing. Kandi took a long sip of her drink and sucked an ice cube into her mouth. Then she said, "I'm not scared of you Ricky Dean." Ricky took a swig of his drink and set it down hard. "Why would you be scared of me?" There was a hard edge to his voice that he didn't mean to be there. Kandi shrugged. "I've heard things about you." Ricky nodded. He said, "Maybe I've heard things about you too." Kandi chewed on the ice cube in her mouth. Her teeth were sensitive and it made her wince. "Somehow I doubt that," she fnally said. Kandi could feel Gary Joe staring at her so she fnished her drink and left the glass on the table inside a ring of moisture. As she pulled herself out of the booth she said, "I'm going to fgure you out Ricky Dean." She stalked off, making her way to the college boys she winked at while she was on stage. Ricky Dean picked up Kandi's empty glass. He pressed his lips against the imprint of her red lipstick. He inhaled slow and deep. On Saturday, Ricky Dean shooed away the girls he regularly took lap dances from, said he was just there to watch, didn't want to be bothered. In the dressing room, they complained he was being meaner than usual, vowed to never dance for him again, knew they were lying to themselves. Candy fnished pulling on a fur lined bikini and a waist length matching cape. She was going to dance to "Baby, It's Cold Outside," and liked to take a theme as far as she could. Gary Joe had lowered the temperature in the club even though it was cold outside. When he said customers complained Candy grinned. She said, "I'll get those boys heated up, don't you worry." She shimmied onto stage and stared out into the dark audience. She could practically hear the men shivering as she danced. She loved how that made her feel. Ricky Dean waved Kandi over to his table as soon as she hit the foor after her set. She sat next to him, closer than the last time. She sat so close Ricky Dean could feel the warmth of her body and smell the sweetness of her skin. He ordered her a drink, which she accepted. She studied him closely. Ricky Dean turned away. "Don't look at me," he said. Candy grabbed Ricky Dean by the chin, turned his face toward her. She looked at him real hard. Ricky Dean squirmed, tried to force back the tears he felt welling in the corners of his eyes. He wasn't used to people looking at him hard. Most of the time, they looked away, avoided eye contact, or showed their disgust in cruel, petty ways. It almost hurt how Candy was looking at him. When she was satisfed, Candy released her grip. She crossed one leg over the other and said, "You ain't got nothing you need to hide." Ricky Dean didn't know what to say. He leaned back and started to cry. Candy shifted awkwardly, took a long sip of her drink. Then she rested a soft hand on Ricky Dean's thigh, patting her hand every few seconds. They sat like that for a long while. A couple weeks later, the girls noticed Ricky Dean had started dressing better. He smelled good, got an expensive haircut, shaved his unkempt beard. He was still mean as hell but somehow, less frightening. They tried to get him to buy drinks or dances. He refused as politely as he knew how, often with a fve-dollar tip for their troubles. He only had eyes for Kandi and wasn't afraid to show it. He brought her all manner of Christmas music, to help her plan new routines he said. He brought her small gifts wrapped in Christmas stockings and left her candy canes to snack on in the dressing room. One evening, she wore an outft that was essentially a dress made of white Christmas lights and she danced to "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas." As she contorted her body in impossible positions she looked like a hot streak of light. When she fnished, Ricky Dean stood up and clapped loudly, didn't care who saw. When they sat together, he tried not to be grabby or inappropriate, waited patiently for her to come to him. Each time they talked, she came to a better understanding how a man could get so mean. The other girls started to tease Kandi. Whenever they saw her they'd sing, "Kandi's got a boyfriend, Kandi's got a boyfriend," and she'd say, "When are y'all going to grow up?" She never said, "No, I don't," though because she cared about what pride means to a man. On Christmas Eve, it was unseasonably cold and the club was unseasonably full of men avoiding their obligations. The main room was brighter than usual with red and green and white Christmas lights draped across the ceiling in long, loose rows. Candy was feeling tired, knew in her bones she only had so many dances left in her. She did her frst dance of the night to "Silver Bells" and wore a 70s dress made of silver lam� in the shape of a bell then performed a sassy little number to "Go Tell It On the Mountain," cupping her amble bosom for effect every few seconds. For "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," she mimicked riding a plastic reindeer lawn ornament onto the stage and ended the night with "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year," wearing nothing but a Santa Claus hat, a skimpy red thong. When she took her fnal bow of the night, the crowd went wild and a group of men, in the frenzy of the holiday spirit swarmed the stage, climbing up, reaching for her. Candy immediately looked out toward where Ricky Dean usually sat but he was nowhere to be found. She frowned, longed to see his face. She inched back toward the safety of the curtain slowly, covering her now naked body with her thin arms. She smiled politely, shouted for Gary Joe, but he was out back by the dumpsters getting a blowjob from one of the new girls who hadn't yet soured on the taste of his dick. Candy felt a strange pair of fngers grabbing at her thigh and another hand on her elbow. Acid pooled at the back of her throat. She kept her cool though, smiled harder. She was good at smiling hard when she wanted to do anything but. "Gentlemen," she said, "We're all friends here. There's no need for things to get out of hand." Someone from the rear of the club shouted, "We want more," but Kandi shook her head. She said, "I'm all done for tonight, but if you let me freshen up, I'll give each and everyone of y'all a real special lap dance." The men started retreating but they also started shouting, "Dance, dance, dance." Suddenly, Ricky Dean jumped on stage. He towered over Candy and stood in front of her protectively, handing her his coat which she quickly slid into, enjoying the way it warmed her instantly. Holding one of his arms across her chest, Ricky Dean cleared his throat. Candy looked up at him and held on to his arm. She hadn't realized how tall he was. He pointed out into the crowd and bellowed, "The lady said she's done for the night," and there was something in his voice that let every man in The Sugar Shack that night know that Kandi and Candy were spoken for. Later that night, Ricky Dean waited for Candy near the back entrance of the club. She smiled when she saw him. He shuffed awkwardly, looked down at his feet. She placed one perfectly manicured fnger in the dimple of his chin and raised his head. She said, "What did I tell you about looking away from me?" Ricky Dean nodded. "I thought I might walk you to your care, seeing how things went down tonight." Candy, still wearing Ricky Dean's coat, pulled it tighter around her body. She said, "Can I cook you something to eat?" Ricky Dean blushed. He said, "I can eat." After a real nice dinner, Ricky Dean made ready to go, didn't want to overstay his welcome even though the last thing he wanted to do was leave Candy and her warm, little house. When he was around her, he didn't feel any mean in him at all. Before he intended to leave though, he washed the dishes while Candy sat on the counter and talked to him about wanting her own cooking show. He told her she would be real good at something like that and she said, "You really think so?" This time when their eyes met, Ricky Dean didn't look away. When the last dish was washed, dried and put away, Ricky Dean wiped his hands on his jeans. As he made his way out of the kitchen and toward the front door, he said, "I want to thank you for being real kind to me when you had no reason to." Candy took Ricky Dean by the hand. She ran her fngers over his knuckles, kissed each one softly, then held his hand to her chest. She said, "I'd like it if you stayed tonight and tomorrow night and a whole bunch of other nights. I want you to keep me warm." Ricky Dean stiffened. "I don't need your damn pity," he said. Candy reached up and grabbed Ricky by his collar, pulling him down to her height. She glared. "You listen good, Ricky Dean. I've never pitied you a day in my life." In Candy's bedroom, Ricky Dean undressed carefully, folded his clothes and left them in a neat pile on the foor. He watched as Candy undressed and even though he had seen her naked hundreds of times, there was something different about seeing her do it for him and him alone. She was the most beautiful thing and it made him feel even uglier. He said, "I look worse next to you." "I'm only gonna say this once," Candy said. "You are perfect next to me." She crawled into bed and stretched herself out. She felt good and safe and happy. She patted the empty space in the bed next to her much like she had patted Ricky Dean's leg the night he cried in the dark corner of The Sugar Shack. Shyly, he got into the bed, tried to cover his face with his arm. She pulled his arm away and whispered, "I'm not going to tell you again to stop hiding when you're with me." She held his face and kissed his forehead and his nose and his lips. When he kissed her back she shivered, opened her mouth, moaned softly. She had always known that Ricky Dean was a tender man. He grew confdent, pulled Candy toward him, kissed every inch of her body, savored the taste of her sweet skin, loved her right. Just before he drifted asleep, Ricky Dean asked, "Why did you pick me? You could have anyone." Candy held Mean, Mean Ricky Dean in her loving arms. She ran her hands along his broad shoulders and through his nice head of hair. She kissed hin, told him he was beautiful and good. She said, "My mama once told me to be something sweet for someone good to hold on to." Ricky Dean's heart pounded like it was the frst time it had ever felt anything. He said, "I'm going to be real good at being that someone good for you to hold on to." Candy smiled in the darkness of her bedroom and so did Ricky Dean. God Was Born Today Lauren Tamraz "If we stay up past midnight, will Santa skip all of our houses?" Pauline said it out into the wind and swung her arm around the lightpole, twirling two times clockwise, landing in the direction from which we had just come. She faced north on Hollywood Boulevard. "I don't think Santa will come to your house because you're a Jew, not because we're out too late." Cyrus wrapped himself around her and spun her off the pole into an awkward Frankenstein-arms-out move. They about-faced in the direction of the car and we all kept walking, pulling coats against the desert night. "Cyrus!" She laughed his name out and repeated it several times, as he kept her dancing down the block. "He won't come to your house, either, then because you're an Arab." "Persian," I corrected, and she cracked up. I wished I had kept my mouth shut and just kept watching them self-destruct. James grabbed my fngers and whispered into my ear. His eyelashes touched my cheek. "Ignore her. She's like this every Christmas." Every Christmas. I knew they had spent a lot of them together, but I wasn't sure how many Pauline had spent drunk. I had only met them two months earlier, when everyone in New York was starting to wear sweaters and I had decided not to return to school. Instead I had gotten a job at a bookstore. It wasn't my frst choice, or even my second, but the tarot reader next door had turned me away and I saw the sign in the window. The guy behind the counter had big muscles and an Irish face, boxer's nose. Usually I liked skinny guys, guys who played guitars, not sports. But James had given me a job, and he'd been persistent, talking softly while we stocked the holiday display tables. Twenty minutes later, my head was out the window and James was driving us through Topanga Canyon. Pauline kept fipping the radio dial. I would have regretted all the drinks, except being in the Canyon was one of the only times I ever felt like myself lately. The turns were wild and it wasn't manipulated and manicured like the faces and lawns of the rest of LA. I reached my hand to the left of the driver's seat and pinched James' arm that rested against the door. He glanced into the rearview mirror and smiled. Cyrus and Lela had fallen asleep next to me, Cyrus sitting bitch in the middle. Pauline shrieked and turned the volume all the way up on Wham!'s "Last Christmas", even though it was coming in fuzzy. I imagined snow on the mountains outside the blurring window. We piled out into the beach parking lot a few minutes later, Lela and Cyrus renewed from their naps. They were trying to keep up with Pauline who was racing toward the water and already throwing her clothes off. "God was born today!" She screamed it into the air again and again. We heard her hit the waves, loud guttural cries more like sobs than laughter coming from her. James opened the trunk and pulled out a blanket. The sky over the Pacifc was medium grey, like dirty paint water after I had done a day's worth of watercolors. It darkened to indigo, less muddied over the Canyon to the east. I had never spent a Christmas away from my family. It made it feel less real, like we were playing it was Christmas and the actual holiday would happen in a few days. It didn't seem that this was the hour when I would fall asleep with high hopes and wake up with a stocking laden with treasures of razors and Chapstick made exotic in their seductive wrappings by my mother. The sand was cold, but much warmer than the air, holding small heat from the day. The sun had barely brightened the afternoon. Everyone here swore grey days were uncommon, but the colors of the sky never seemed to turn any warmer in California than they had in New York this last week of the calendar year. I unbuckled my shoes and the sand stuck to my dirty feet, replacing the night's sweat. It was like making the powdered donuts at the bakery back home. That was my job on the mornings I opened. The bakery didn't close, ever, not even for Christmas. Someone else would make them in a few hours, before the sun rose on the east coast. The blanket smelled like James, and I wondered if it had come off his bed. It was soft and flled with down, had dog hair woven into it. I met his pitbull, Cassius, the week before when we stopped at his house to pick up his sister. His mother had been in a wheelchair, his father silent. I heard her brogue when she asked him to bring in the mail. She told Mairead, the younger sister, to take off her eye make-up. "Who ya looking to bring home, girl?" She folded her hands in her big lap, shot a look at James. He bent down and kissed her. The hard face softened and so did her voice. "...Attracted plenty of attention in my day in County Clare, is all. Want something better for you two." This hung in the room and I wasn't sure if I expected his father to slap her or die away. When I turned, he had already left the doorway and James' eyes had followed. Cassius bounded down the stairs behind Mairead and we took them both with us, dropping her off to meet her friends on Robertson and letting him off the leash up on the Santa Ynez, even though I worried about mountain lions. They had been all over the papers lately, coyotes too. Baby killers and pet-eaters was how the headlines read. Cassius looked tough, but was like a baby, wanting to be close to a person's heat. "So what are you doing tomorrow?" Our bodies were wrapped in the blanket, lying parallel to the tide line. Cyrus, Lela and Pauline were still within earshot, all three of them splashing and shouting. Their wet bodies did not sparkle in the grey night without any clear moon. I thought of pagans celebrating a solstice on some other beach, how they might look the same way: ink limbs against sooty, infnite space. He traced my lips with salty fngers after I asked, pulled hairs from the corner of my mouth and smoothed them back. "Waking up here with you?" He said it like a question, though I wondered if he meant it. Cyrus had mentioned once that James always spent Christmas watching Pauline ever since her sister, Mara, had died. Mara had been James' girlfriend for a while, but was sick long before he'd tried to save her. She killed herself and James found her in a fur coat, nothing else, surrounded by wrapped gifts for all of them. They didn't want to open them at frst, then decided to do it together on New Year's Eve. They couldn't stand the thought of a fresh year starting with an unanswered question. She'd picked out snow globes for each of them, different scenes inside with the same grainy, white fakes hugging the air bubble over the Getty Center, Mann's Chinese Theater and the Hollywood sign. James' globe held the Griffth Observatory. I had seen it in his glove box when I looked for tissues one day while he was dropping off library books. I had already heard the story. Cyrus didn't say how Mara had killed herself and I didn't ask. "Can we?" Lela ran up from the shoreline. I could tell it was her because her long hair hung down her back, her tiny breasts so much smaller than Pauline's, but prettier too, I thought. I reached out to her and she pulled me from the cocoon before James answered. I liked how Lela invited me to have dinner even when it was just us and how she asked me about my life in New York. Pauline only came out with us when James was there. Otherwise, she and Cyrus or some of the other kids from the shop would be out on the Boulevard until a few hours before their shifts started, then they would go home and crash before heading out again for the night. Once I had been scheduled to open with Pauline on a Sunday morning. I was surprised that she arrived on time. Then she fell asleep in the reading area of the children's section. When I woke her up before unlocking the door for business, she called me a cunt. James held onto my other hand and stood with me. Lela said we should go in the water, that it was warmer. She turned back toward the sea and he pulled my chin so I could see his face, crooked nose and light eyes dilated with night. "Stay with me," he pleaded, his arms bringing the blanket back around me. "You're the only thing to ever make this night better." "Is that supposed to make a girl feel special?" He looked immediately regretful of his words and I had only been teasing. "Come in the water with me." I pulled him down and rubbed my face against his rough cheek. He smelled like Cassius, hopeful and warm. He looked out into the water, and I began to take off my clothes. "If we go in," he whispered, "we go in all the way, and sleep here tonight. I want you to stay. We won't go home." I realized for the frst time that he meant home was not New York. I was here. In the water, I held hands with Pauline as she cried and told me about Mara. Cyrus and Lela dried her off and then Cyrus drove the three of them home when Pauline began to fall asleep. James held on to me in the water, pulled my back to his chest and faced me to the west. The sky looked empty. He lifted both of my arms and pressed my fngertips out into the air. I saw then that the sky was not empty if I stared and did not blink. When my eyes flled, lights or stars or something punched a pattern through the ash landscape and the ocean made a line to follow. I thought about waking up, about other mornings with their promises needing to be wrapped in something to make them prettier. Midnight at the Cab Stand Randy Lowens Wisps of white breath follow him into the taxi where the defroster's jet stream is boring a hole through patchy frost on the windshield. Blistered, hoary skin itches at his knuckles. He pulls his toboggan down further, over his ears, and blows currents of warm breath across his hands. A plastic bag dances across the empty street. Christmas lights, those cursed pre-Thanksgiving Christmas lights, wink from lampposts and storefronts. Even here, in the most progressive city of the South, those beastly retailers must be sated. Even here. Rodney adores his new hometown. He's proud to be an escapee from Babylon, an emigrant from Alabama expatriated to the hippest hollow in the hills, a beacon for progressives and oddballs of all stripes: interracial couples, unclosested gays, back-to-the-land Eden seekers, and old fashioned dropouts from the quest for cash and status. Old fashioned dropouts like himself. At least, he used to be one. Was a time, he'd worked only enough to pay for rent and weed. He'd flled his days with yoga, cartoons, and free folk shows at the coffee shops, at every opportunity denouncing the baleful infuence of Mammon upon the masses. But that's all over now. For two weeks, he's had a new plan. He's volunteering for overtime at his cab driving job and saving his spare change. Making plans to return to school and fnish his degree. Ace those last few courses, then get a job, maybe at the library. Low pay, but benefts, and anyway it'd be a start. Save up and buy a house, a small one maybe, but a house to own instead of a place to rent. And somewhere along the way, convince Robbi and the kids to come back home... The radio crackles beside his knee. "Car 7. Car 7, come in." Car 7 emits a fnal breath upon his hands before taking up a pack of Bugler and beginning to roll a cigarette. (He's given up Marlboros as part of the new austerity.) "Car 7, damn it, come in. I know you're out there. You holler for overtime, well, you gotta WORK the overtime..." Sigh. "This is Car 7. Go ahead, Charlie." A moment of silence. "Why didn't you answer me, Hot Rod? I'm getting tired of your games." "Sorry, man. Just stepped out to check the air in the tires. Thought one was low, but they're okay. I'm taking good care of the equipment for you. So anyway, whuzzup?" Another pause. "Pickup on Center Street. Two doors out from the utility place. Get your butt down there, pronto, and make a fare." "Yes sir, boss man." He reaches and mutes the volume before the owner/dispatcher can respond. Idling through windswept streets. Trees stand naked, lonely, mourning their lost leaves, dreaming of springtimes past, no longer hopeful, the coming year too far even to imagine. Things are tough all over. Newspaper stands shout the news of recession, recession, don't nobody say depression or it might come true. In the distance, semis scream and moan as they pull the Appalachian inclines. The Hummers and Suburbans of the ubiquitous khaki-clad tourists stand watch outside motel rooms, while the battered and bumper-stickered pickups of local good ole boys and girls line the residential streets nearby. Twas ever thus, even here in Zion. Even here. # "It's no use, Rod. Forget it. Me and Rickey are getting married. Nothing you say will change that." "I'm gonna go back to school, fnish my degree, get a better job and buy a house..." "I said, 'Forget it.' Been there, done that, heard it all before..." Rodney pauses with his dialing fnger in mid-air. Gently places the receiver back in the cradle. She's right. There's no point in calling. Their fghts are scripted, well rehearsed. Each angry lover quotes his lines, and no one is the wiser in the end. Besides, he's been working over and saving for two weeks, and what's he got to show? Tomorrow is payday, and he has ffteen dollars in his wallet. Fifteen dollars. Hooray for the new austerity. Back in the cab, and another mile down the road. The fare at Center Street stands him up, so he returns downtown and parks at a cab stand on Main Street outside the coffee shops and craft stores. How cool the dulcimers in the window looked when frst he moved here. How exotic, how unique. How empty it all seems at this time of night, this time of year. How tired and lonely the old man on the park bench appears to be. Christ, it must be after midnight, and twenty degrees out there... Rodney rolls the window down and whistles. Motions for the man to come over. The fellow approaches the driver's window, then starts to climb in back, before fnally settling in the front passenger seat. Rodney smiles, but the man only hugs the door and stares at the bench he just abandoned. He reeks of stale sweat and Listerine. The sweat must be ancient--it's been cold a long time--and the mouthwash odor seems less a gargle scent than yesterday's libation oozing from his pores. Rodney cranks the heater and points a vent in his direction. "Cold out there. You need a ride somewhere, Old Timer? You live nearby?" The man looks up the street and down again, as though only now aware of his surroundings, or uncertain of the location of his home. At length he shrugs and resumes staring at the bench. Again, "You need a ride somewhere?" "No moe-knee." A gummy, toothless lisp. "That's okay. I'm off duty now. Where you wanna go?" After a moment, "I asked where you wanna go, Old Timer?" The man turns and stares, dull gray eyes beneath greasy red hair, as though weighing the sincerity of the question. Looks at his lap. Picks a piece of lint off his dirty plaid jacket. "I gah no-wheah to go. Sweep all ovah." After a moment, "Stay in jaiw a wot." Rodney mulls this over. "How long it been since you ate a bite, fellah?" "How wong since I ate?" "Yeah." Studious examination of the parapets on the skyline. "Wong tie, I weckon." Fifteen dollars on the day before payday. Two weeks on the new savings plan. Only thirty fve years old; still plenty young to fnish school and start a career. If his wife and daughters don't return, why, seconds marriages are often better than the frst... Rodney drops the gearshift into R and backs into the street. Down a notch further into D, and the pair are cruising Main Street, away from town, toward the bright lights of the gas stations, big box stores, and fast food joints that litter the interstate exit. "Wheah we gone?" "McDonald's. Mickey D's, by god. I got all of ffteen dollars, and for fve, you gonna eat like a king. Hell, for ten, well, so am I. I done had sardines and bologna till I can't stand it. Then tomorrow--tomorrow is Friday, you know, my payday--well, come tomorrow I'm going to start saving my money. I'm going back to school, see, going to fnish my degree and change jobs and buy a house and fnd a new ole lady and..." The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons SWANS On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: seven swans a-swimming. Swans have been a source of rapt fascination for me since I was a child, and it was a life's dream come true to own one -- let alone seven. I stood hand in hand with my true love, gaz ing at the swans gliding majestically across the lake's still waters. "And they're really mine? All seven swans?" I asked in disbelief. "Yours. Yes, that's right." "Wonderful," I replied. "I don't how I can ever thank you enough. Aren't they just such beautiful creatures? They move so gracefully through the water, don't you think?" "Well, it all looks graceful," said my true love. "But what I admire more is that they're paddling away like mad things underneath. Their legs are going nineteen to the dozen. It's all terribly ungainly -- even ugly." I chose to blot out the sound of cold water being poured on my words of admir ation, and carried on regardless. "And their eyes too. Surrounded by those black markings, they seem so deep and mysterious and -- and -- " "Evil," interrupted my true love, as if this particular four-letter word was the one I'd been searching for. "They're evil." Still captivated by the scene before me, I chose not to give in to such provocation. "Swans have such romantic symbolism. If two swans come together, they can form a heart shape with their necks. Isn't that simply perfect?" I continued. My true love, however, would hear none of it. "It's not so romantic when one of the aggressive blighters thinks you're trying to attack it and ends up breaking your fngers in its beak, is it?" The challenge had been made. I prepared myself for a confrontation. "You don't really like swans, do you?" "No, but I do adore disagreeing with you," replied my true love, softly. Letter From Florida Rick Hale ...and when I'm fnally dead, you might be eating cereal with him up there in Maine. His hand might shake, and raisins might land on the foor. He might look at you through those big glasses and the words "Well, your Uncle Dewey died" might fap and tremble their way out of his mouth like a fock of geese heading north. He might stand up and limp to the kitchen, wipe his tears on paper towel. You might stare dumbfounded into your milk, trying to divine comforting sayings in the million specks of Reese's Puffs there. (They shake in time with his stagger.) He might stand in the kitchen for a long time, thick retired-mechanic fngers clenched in peppered hair. You might fnd yourself without one single word of consolation for your dad, and I truly hope that never happens--truly. The porcelain throne beckons. Don't expect me for the holidays. -Dewey EVERYONE GETS EVERYTHING HE WANTS FOR XMAS Rick Hale Brooklyn bookheads get to learn how to remove their skeletons from their bodies from time and everybody gets to watch. Men of business get to whiz down the street on Segways sucking pacifers. They get to wear suits with functional buttons. All the business wives get to turn into lesbians. Every nipple gets to stiffen and persevere. Every golf green gets to turn into pudding and every burnt meatloaf into mud. Fishermen get to reel in whole lakes with their hooks, yanking the wobbling liquid out of its crater like Jell-O. The fsh get to be eaten. The fsh love us so much they get to become us. Everybody gets famous. Everybody gets to get paranoid. All the paranormal investigators get crushed by dark attics that are crushed by collapsing brickwork that is crushed by airplanes piloted by human-clad ghosts. The ocean gets to become oil. Everything in it gets to die and everything out of it gets some paper towel and a bazooka full of blame. All the oil that doesn't want to burn up and go gassy gets to go swimming and kills all the fsh because it loves them so much. All the oil that can't swim makes millions of muffers laugh and fart until it burns off to meet the clouds and watch all the fsh foat up to the ocean's black ceiling and say hi. Every child gets to have a tab of acid and then the faces of all the parents get to appear in the clouds, billowing and vigilant and aloof and gray. My parents get to send me to Catholic school every year so I can tell you all what heaven will be like. You all get to laugh and laugh and laugh Mama Elanore's Turkey Aubrey Hirsch At frst, Angie thought the food was burned. If Mother was here, she thought, this wouldn't have happened. Angie cooked the turkey just as she'd seen her mother do it since she was small. When she pulled it from the oven it looked perfect: like a Christmas miracle. She'd been so proud. Her sisters ooh-ed and aah-ed as she brought it to the table. It had turned golden in the oven; the fat under its skin melted into a moist flm that refected the light from their mother's faux-crystal chandelier. It almost seemed to glow. But still, a taste like burnt charcoal lingered in her mouth after the butter-rosemary favor of the turkey faded. She asked her sisters, "Does this taste burnt to you guys? Be honest." Her sisters looked around at one another and nodded, one by one. "Yes. It does." Kelly's husband shook his head. "Tastes fne to me. Beautiful bird. Tastes just like Mama Elanore's, God rest her soul." Angie pushed the rest of her turkey to the side of her plate and started in on the yams. She lifted the frst puffy yellow forkful to her mouth and savored the sweet, creamy taste. But then, there it was again, the fre favor. Angie looked around at her sisters to see if they could taste it, but they were still wearing their practiced funeral smiles from the cremation the weekend before. "The yams taste burnt, too," she said. Her sisters nodded again. Ginny's boyfriend shrugged, "I don't taste it." Then Carla's husband, "Me neither." But the girls agreed. The taste was there. It was like charcoal or the fakes of burning wood that got stuck to the marshmallows when they made s'mores. Course after course the girls pushed their plates away. The husbands and boyfriends devoured helpings of green bean casserole and slices of pear tart. Angie couldn't eat a thing. Even her coffee tasted like smoke. She thought about that passage from the Bible, the one about Hell: the damned seek to satiate their hunger, but the food turns to ash in their mouths. Perhaps she hadn't taken good enough care of her mother. None of them had, she supposed. She thought about the unanswered phone calls, the unreturned messages. Maybe Elanore was angry that they'd gone ahead with Christmas dinner as planned. "The groceries are all there," she'd said to Kelly on the phone. "It'll be a nice tribute." She walked to the kitchen and dumped her coffee in the sink. She had to get rid of this terrible taste. She downed a glass of water. It was as if the fre was in her belly, crawling up her throat and burning everything she put in her mouth. She sat back down at the table, her white napkin in front of her like an empty plate. The men were fnishing their frst pieces of tart and spooning whipped cream onto their seconds. She watched them eat with vigor while her sisters glanced around at their mother's art, their mother's wallpaper, their mother's old shag carpeting. She wondered if she'd ever taste anything but smoke again. She let her own eyes settle on the napkin in front of her. A dusting of gray fakes was sprinkled on its surface. As she watched, more fakes fell. Angie fngered her locket, the one that held her mother's ashes. Her fngers came up gray, like when she fnally broke down and scratched her forehead on Ash Wednesday. It was leaking. She looked around the table, studying her sisters' necklines. Their matching silver lockets dangled at their throats, leaking gray ashes onto their plates. The fre in Angie's belly went out, replaced with a stone like a magic trick. She coughed, tasting ash. She thought of the bird in the oven, her mother in the oven. The bird in her belly, her mother in her belly. She wondered how many ashes were in her locket and how long it would be until they leaked out. All she'd have then, once the leftovers were consumed and the house was sold, would be the memory of that ashy taste, an inexplicable love of campfres, the occasional craving for a cigarette, an affnity for car exhaust, and, of course, the turkey recipe. She'd always have that. Those holiday memories. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons MAIDS On the eighth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: eight maids a-milking. With eight milk-maids, of course, came eight cows. And with eight cows came a lot of milk. My true love had worried for a while that I was lacking in strength, and decided to prescribe fresh, unpasteurised milk -- straight from the cow -- to build healthier bones. I pointed out that I was in my thirties, and therefore the time of life where milk could provide a `lotta bottle' and be a vital source of calcium for a growing child was probably long gone. But my true love was adamant, and before leaving me for a foreign trip devised a strict rota requiring one milk-maid to appear at my bedside frst thing each morning with a huge glass of milk -- barely minutes after it had left the cow. I was ordered to consume every last drop. "Just think," said my true love, with a maternal tone, "you'll be getting calcium, protein, ribofavin, phosphorous and vitamins A, D and B12." I had to admit it sounded impressive. My true love was only concerned for my physical wellbeing, after all. Yet far from improving my health, it turned out that the unpasteurised milk contained Salmonella and Campylobacter. Very quickly, I began to suffer gastro-intestinal pains, abdominal cramps and diarrhoea. I hesitate to provide details, but it was not pleasant. Not pleasant at all. My true love returned a fortnight later, clearly shocked to see such a pale, weak and sickly frame propped up against a mountain of pillows. I hadn't seen myself in a mirror for days, but the look of horror on my true love's face told me all I needed to know. Through dry, cracked lips, I began a feeble attempt at reassurance, but was immediately interrupted. "So, I suppose you picked up something nasty from sleeping with a milk-maid, then?" Something About The Rest from The Orange Suitcase Joseph Riippi (previously appeared in The Emprise Review, Vol 16) 1 I lean back from the roof and wipe rain from my face--fngers smell like wet pine and cigarettes. My grandfather used to say he built this house with his bare hands. He laid these shingles and hung this gutter. Beyond the wooden peak and weathervane the sky is a dripping scrim. Are you watching me? I pull the green string of Christmas lights and hook the fnal length around a bent nail and wipe my face again. He pounded this nail decades ago. He carried railroad ties on his shoulders. He crushed rocks between his fngers. He threw logs for fun. Now I stand at the top of the ladder and peel white paint from the gutter. Dry fakes fall away like fake snow, original wood revealing itself. I climb down and wipe my hands on the sides of the borrowed jacket. Sniff my fngers and breathe on my palms. You look exactly like your grandfather's older brother, my grandmother had said when I put on the coat. I watched her hurry to the bookcase, watched her come back with a photograph of a great uncle. He left the farm in Finland to go and fght the Russians, she said. That was the last time your grandfather saw him, you know, when your grandfather was still a little boy. She'd taken the photograph away and left me to walk into the rain and wonder how the story ended. I fip a switch in the metal box on the side of the house and look up. Less than half the lights work; the last refects off a knot of electrical tape, one of the ancient splices holding the long strand together. 2 I walk into the kitchen where my grandmother sits with a cigarette and a yellow romance novel. She smiles when I open the door and then looks back at her book. These books get dirtier and dirtier, she says, pretending surprise. I wipe my face with the sleeve of the coat that makes me look like a dead soldier, kick my feet on the mat. The lights only work halfway again, I announce. Should I just drive into town for some new ones? She pretends not to hear me and ficks ash on a dinner plate. How often does she pretend? Maybe the aids are just for show. Maybe she smoked even when my grandfather was alive and this isn't so new. Maybe she's nothing at all like the grandmother I remember. I stand in the doorway and kick my feet again, watch her not watching me. 3 She pretended not to see me take her car keys. She pretended not to notice me take a cigarette from the pack hidden in the junk drawer. An hour later she pretended not to hear me rip down the lights and replace them with a brand new set. The rain fell fat and slow, like very wet snow. I wrap the clean white wire around the rusty nail and pretend I am setting a bomb to kill Russians; the sky is growing dark and no one sees me peel off the price tag and crumple it in my jacket pocket. No one sees me pick a scab on my thumb. No one sees me do anything anymore. No one will notice, I tell myself, not until January when my father comes to take them down, and I'll be gone by then. I walk back inside. My shoes are soaking wet and squirt on the linoleum foor. Merry Christmas! I yell, to be sure she hears. Lights are up! She brings me a towel and a bowl of meatballs and mashed potatoes. I take off the coat; it is heavy and I feel more like myself without it. She smiles and sits next to me and pats my head, pretends not to notice the empty coat and puddle forming around it. She kisses my hair and sniffs it like a dog would a stranger. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons LADIES On the ninth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: nine ladies dancing. I carefully followed the map that my true love had provided, but when I arrived at my destination I was convinced that I'd taken a wrong turning. I had been told that I would be spending the day with nine dancing ladies, so I fondly imagined that the location would be somewhere a little more lively, a little more glamorous, than a drab church hall in a part of the city completely unfamiliar to me. According to the noticeboard attached to the railings, the next social event on the church hall's calendar was a talk about fower arranging. It seemed unlikely that I was about to be treated to a display of pole-dancing. From inside the hall, I could hear the sound of a slightly out of tune piano playing Begin the Beguine, with just enough dissonance between the notes to set my teeth on edge. Pushing open the door to investigate, I was confronted by what appeared to be a tea dance for -- well, to put it politely -- ladies of a certain age. I decided that this was definitely the wrong place, and hastily retraced my steps back towards the exit. "Young man, where are you going? We've been expecting you!" Startled, I spun round. "Oh, I see you can move rather well already. That's a good start, isn't it, ladies?" Looking around me, I realised that the last time I'd shared a room with so many thick spectacles, pearl necklaces and blue rinses was at my grandmother's funeral. The most imposing of this nine-strong group stepped forward to address me. "As I say, we've been expecting you. Myself and the other ladies of St Hilda's Church Hall have been asked to instruct you in the art of dancing. Proper dancing." I laughed out loud, but seeing nine pairs of eyes staring at me disapprovingly over the rims of nine pairs of spectacles soon convinced me that this was no joke. "We shall start with a simple waltz," called out the pianist, as one of the ladies took my hand and led me to the centre of the hall. And so for the next few hours, I was gently but frmly coached in the Waltz, the Tango and the Slow Foxtrot. I quickly went from feeling like a visitor in some bygone age to being immensely comfortable in my new company. Thirtysomething going on sixtysomething. By the time afternoon tea was served -- fnger sandwiches, pastries and scones with jam and cream -- I was chatting away to the ladies about their past, commiserating about the pitiful state pension and fnding out about the forthcoming diary of social engagements at the church hall. I was deep in conversation with Beryl about the rudeness of today's bus drivers when the insistent beeping of my mobile phone jolted me back into reality. It was a text message from my true love. "In thirty years, when we're their age, we'll go dancing, eat scones and talk about the good old days. I wanted you to have some practice." Secret Katrina Gray The three cheerful Styrofoam-ball snowmen made it hard for Laura to see all but a few of the faces in her department around the long mahogany conference table. Edna's assistant, Sally, had the foor, and though not everyone could see Sally, they listened to her high-pitched chirp. "Now, y'all, it's Secret Santa time." Sally rubbed her hands together and squealed at the thought of all the fun. "And we've upped the maximum--and I mean MAXIMUM--to $30. If you can only do ten, do ten. But no going over thirty. We wanna keep this light." She shook a ceramic bowl back-and-forth to shuffe the strips of paper. Before passing the bowl to the intern, Corey, she said, "NO PEEKING!" Laura's face fushed. She was new and did not know to budget for this. She had already given 1/17th of Edna's Christmas gift--an even 17th, despite most of the Laura's colleagues earning six times her salary, despite Laura suggesting that the iPad was too expensive--so the contribution made these past weeks a little tight, and this Secret Santa was another offce ritual suddenly sprung on her. Thirty dollars! Thanks to Edna's iPad, the water bill would be late and something else would have to give. Corey was put-together for a guy who worked for free. He had the late-model Prius, the one Laura had read about. Corey lived in his parents' pool house, and his dad footed one-hundredpercent of William and Mary for four years, and now Pepperdine for law. Corey liked to fash the black Amex; Corey never brown-bagged his lunch. Corey bought rounds at happy hour, but Laura could never go. If she didn't get a head start on traffc she was late, and the daycare charged her a dollar per minute after 5:30. "Lame," Corey had said, when Jimmy told him why Laura wouldn't come along. In the elevator Corey had called her "score mom" and "MILF." He had been jokingly serious, and because Laura was new, it felt good to be in on the joke and he'd made her feel pretty. Corey grabbed the bowl and covered his eyes with his tanned hand, dividing fngers to mock-peek, which got a laugh. He unfolded the strip of paper and looked confused. He passed the bowl to Shelley, who passed to Ricky, on to Barbara, and so forth. They all unfolded names and smiled. It was Laura's turn. She dug in--there were maybe ten left--and she handed the bowl to Mike, who two-handed the dish, misjudging its weight. She unfolded her strip. It was Corey. Thirty dollars for Corey was lunch. A thirty-dollar gift card to Abercrombie and Fitch would buy a pair of socks. It would not even buy him a happy hour. She tried to think of something fun and whimsical--something Corey--but came up short. Sally had said less than thirty was okay, but everyone else would go over; Laura was sure of it. And as Laura lowered the price, the gift options seemed more and more dismal. When the bowl got back to Sally, she looked excited to share more news. "Now, I know," she said, "that everyone's wondering when the party will be, right?" A few people nodded. Some shrugged. Corey pumped his fst in the air, said, "Hell, yeah!" More laughs. "Well, the big day is SOON! Edna and I decided on December sixteenth!" The sixteenth: in less than a week. One day before payday. A week when Laura had forty-seven dollars left in her bank account, and she hadn't bought groceries or gas. Her cards were maxed, used up to pay the bills while she was out of work. Used to pay for the plumbing before that, the fussy air conditioning, the trip to the ER and Janie's eleven stitches. She budgeted the open space of her cards like a part of her income. She had twenty-two dollars left to charge on one, and twenty-seven on the other. If she combined them, maybe that would make a decent gift for Corey, but how embarrassing for her at the checkout counter. And really, she was hoping to spend any extra on Janie's Christmas. She was two, still young enough to be happy with anything she got, but if it came down to a gift for Corey or a gift for Janie.... On the sixteenth, everyone gathered around the conference table again, each with a colorful package. All except Corey's, which was a plastic grocery sack tied with a knot at the top. Sally said, "Corey, you need a girlfriend to do your wrapping!" She giggled. Laura played with the ribbon on the gift in her lap, twirling it around her fnger. It had been a tough week. This party was after-hours, which meant a babysitter, which meant this gettogether was costing her another twenty-fve. But the sitter wouldn't cash the check until Laura got paid tomorrow. She thought of this, of money, as she poured herself another cup of cider. She always thought of money. With Corey's gift, Laura decided to go kind of practical instead of whimsical, because she couldn't justify spending her last thirty dollars on a laugh. She got him the best bottle of wine she could afford. Something he would consume. There would be no question about it going to waste, and Corey would know she had taste, that she knew a thing or two beyond fling, beyond children. That not too long ago, she never missed a happy hour, never woke up before sunrise, always said things like, "Her shoes don't match her bag," and, "I need a boob job," and, "I love you, I love you, I love you, Robert." Things like, "I don't want kids, ever." Jimmy, who trained her, who trained Corey too, knew this about Laura. He was one of the company lawyers, the one with the Jaguar and the summerhouse. He had taken her out to lunch early in her training, when she still didn't know if she had the job. "Tell me a bit about yourself, Miss Laura," he said, his teeth sliding an olive off a little plastic sword. And she told him the basics. Things she never talked about. On some level, she wanted him to take pity on her and let her have the job--a job for which she was overqualifed, but a job nonetheless. She talked about Janie, about money, about the loneliness of single life, about how life is funny and can really change a person. "Hell," said Jimmy. "I'd be a fool not to hire someone desperate enough to stay." Laura hoped no one else heard the wine swish around as she placed the long box on the table. Hers was the largest gift by far, and she felt proud. Everyone chatted; everyone nibbled at hors d' oeuvres and sipped hot cider. Cheers and cackles every time a Secret Santa was revealed. Jimmy got Sally a stuffed cougar, and Sally swatted its front paw at Corey and said, "Rawr!" Sally got Ricky a custom martini glass that said, in painted block letters, WORLD'S SECOND-BEST LAWYER. Ricky got Barbara a Buddha lamp that was somehow broken when she opened the box, and got laughs when she accused Ricky of re-gifting. "I wanna see what's in that long box," said Charles, who elbowed Matthew. "Something better than cider, I'd say." Laura laughed, and slid the box to Corey, who smiled at her with all his straight white teeth. "How about that," said Corey. "Corey gets the big one!" He lifted the top of the box and found a bottle of cabernet resting on top of a nest of shredded green and red paper. "Oh-ho-ho!" said Corey. "Merry Christmas to me! Corey likey." Laura felt relieved. "Might as well tell you, girl," said Corey, "That I got your name too." "Oh," said Laura. "Isn't that funny." It wasn't funny, but she didn't know what else to say. Corey made her nervous. And then she wondered what was in the grocery bag. The bag was light and Corey tossed it into the air and served it like a volleyball. It landed right in front of her, and Corey got cheers for his perfect aim. He high-fved Jimmy and pointed to the bag for Laura to go ahead and open it. Laura untied the knot. She scrambled through some wadded-up newspaper and found an envelope with her name on the front. Laura, in Corey's best cursive, emphasized by two underscores. She knew it was some sort of gift card when she picked it up. Laura opened the envelope, which Corey hadn't bothered to seal, and she pulled out a card with an angel on the front and a message inside that started with: READ THIS FIRST. And then: Act like this is only for thirty bucks, okay? This is to make up for all those missed happy hours. Single moms REPREZENT. Merry Merry, Ho-ho-ho, Core. Laura looked at the card. It was one of those Visa gift cards, and was loaded with fvehundred dollars. "Well?" said Sally. "Don't leave us hanging." Laura looked at Corey, who was chewing on a toothpick, not looking at her. "It's a gift card," said Laura. "Leave it to ole Corey to take the easy way out!" joked Jimmy. "That's Corey for you," said Matthew. "I like gift cards," said Sally. "Aw, guys," said Corey. "Don't you think I can be just a little sensitive and thoughtful?" Everyone around the table laughed. "NO," they all said in unison. All but Laura, who was thinking of money again, thinking of how many months of groceries the Visa would buy, thinking of telling her mom she could come for Christmas after all, thinking of spoiling Janie. Thinking about how she didn't have to think about any of this anymore. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons LORDS On the tenth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: ten lords a-leaping. My true love was going through a nihilistic phase. It happens occasionally. So whilst I will confess that I was momentarily taken aback to fnd ten mannequins dressed in robes, fake ermine and long wigs piled in the back of a hire van parked outside our fat, I wasn't perhaps too surprised to also fnd a scrawled note taped to the steering wheel. "Am at Beachy Head. Meet me there. Have paid for van. Bring mannequins." At this point, any reference to Beachy Head would have made most people fear the worst, thanks to its unenviable reputation as this country's foremost suicide location and beauty spot. But as I turned my key in the ignition, put my foot on the accelerator and pointed the van in the direction of Eastbourne, I knew that the only things going off the cliffs would be a few demons. It's cathartic, apparently. It was dusk by the time I pulled the van into the tourist car park. I rolled down the window and called out to my true love, who was sitting on the grass verge awaiting my arrival. "I've got your mannequins for you." "And I've got the ten commandments," my true love shouted back with unrestrained glee, approaching the van and waving some large sheets of paper at me. With daylight fading fast, we shared the task of carrying the cheap plastic mannequins from the car park to the edge of Beachy Head. It required a few journeys back and forth, but eventually the parade of ten eerily featureless models was ready for fnal inspection. Catching my breath, I turned to my true love and fnally posed the question that anyone else would have raised many hours earlier. "So, humour me ... what the hell are we doing standing at Beachy Head with ten dummies dressed as escapees from the House of Lords?" "It's all about laws. Rules. Commandments," my true love answered confdently, as if this sort of behaviour was a perfectly acceptable part of everyday normality. "No, you've completely lost me, I'm afraid. And I'm cold. And I want to go home. Now." "Look. In the song, the ten lords a-leaping represent the ten commandments, right? The ultimate laws about how to live one's life. We're all hidebound by rules from day one, from the moment we can understand our mothers wagging a disapproving fnger at us and mouthing the word `no'. But now, I want out of it. I want out of it all." Slowly, my true love began walking down the line of slightly windswept law lords, pinning the pieces of paper to the front of their robes. On each sheet, a thick marker pen had been used to inscribe one of the ten commandments in almost obsessively neat block capitals -- from `THOU SHALT HAVE NO OTHER GODS BEFORE ME' through `HONOUR THY FATHER AND MOTHER' to the f nal `THOU SHALT NOT COVET ANY THING THAT IS THY NEIGHBOUR'S'. With all the mannequins dressed in their regal fnery and adorned with each of God's holy laws, I unwisely chose this moment to query some of the fner details. "Er, that last one -- shouldn't it mention something about not coveting thy neighbour's wife, manservant, maidservant, ox or ass?" My true love glared at me. "I'm using the abridged version, OK?" "Fine. Just checking." The sun was fnally disappearing below the horizon as we carried the plastic fgures the last few feet to the brink of the cliff. One by one, we threw each mannequin high into the air -- shrieking with a mixture of hatred and manic delight as they were sent to their death -- and listened for the sound of them crashing onto the rocks some fve hundred and thirty feet below. All the rules were being well and truly broken. Crazy? Cathartic? Yes, absolutely. But a peculiar kind of sense? Definitely. Much as I sometimes hate to admit it, my true love and I are made for each other. Reindeer Local 79: An Oral Memoir Jon Alan Carroll Me, Donner, Blitzen and a few of the boys are knocking back a coupla brews and playing some five-card stud. That little twit Rudolph walks up to the table, asks if he can buy in. No, Rudolph, I say, the game's for journeymen only. You can't play, ya dork. Jesus Christ, half these younger guys can't tell their butts from third base. Santa's alright, I guess. You see him walking around, cherry nose, suit that's red, hat on head, the whole bit. You know the drill. They say he's a good guy, but believe you me, Santa's one tough negotiator. The elves, they got themselves a nonunion shop, and he works `em till they drop. Don't get me wrong. It ain't so bad, 364 days off a year, full dental, but it's just a job to me. So Santa walks up and starts popping off about inclement weather conditions, poor visibility, the whole nine yards. Little Rudolph's eyes light up like Angelina Jolie just walked naked into the corner beer bar and he says, Oh, Santa, Santa, I'll pull your sleigh tonight. I try talking some sense to the kid, but, no, not Rudolph. Little goody-goody's always gotta suck up to Management. So I light another stogie and give it to Santa with both barrels. I say, What about the goddamn union rules, huh, fatboy? You gonna flush seniority down the toilet, huh, Santa? Santa just smiles and says, Ho-ho-ho, call my lawyer. Uh-huh, so I get on the horn and the union sends over some guys in suits, OSHA guys. Turns out that little Rudolph's nose does not, like the OSHA guys said, supply sufficient illumination for an aircraft of that class. So tough luck, Santa, ya union-buster. Yeah, yeah, I know all about the little tykes and visions of sugarplums and all that crap, but, shit, rules are rules. We crack open another 12-pack and deal another hand. Life's pretty good when you stick up for yourself. The cigar tastes damn good. Look Hard Claire King I wanted to give you something special. I know if I went out there, and looked hard enough, I'd fnd it. I'd bring it home and add, some shiny paper, a ribbon. You would kiss me, but not for long. You'd be too excited by the gift, shaking it gently, turning it over and fnally, teasing away the wrapping until my thoughts were revealed. I would watch your face then, hoping to see delight, joy, compassion, any of the above. Just not a ficker of disappointment, the small furrows of confusion. I'm sorry. I couldn't face it, pushing through the crowds of words in my condition. There are so many words at this time of year. It's no place for a woman, fecund with truth. It weighs heavy in my belly, under this bright star. I need to fnd somewhere to deliver it. Will you help me? Is there a place here? If you don't like it, you can change it. The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons PIPERS On the eleventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: eleven pipers piping. I had always supported my true love's creative endeavours, no matter how foolhardy they seemed. I watched -- with my fngers covering my eyes, naturally -- as my true love discovered a passion for bungee jumping; fre-eating proved to be only a temporary diversion after it played havoc with the smoke alarms in our fat; and stock car racing seemed like so much bois terous fun, until my true love decided to try out some new driving moves in the supermarket car park whilst at the wheel of our modest two-door hatchback. Meanwhile, I had taken up watercolour painting and Buddhist meditation, despite having absolutely no artistic talent for the former and distinctly lacking in concentration when it came to the latter. As my true love researched yet another dangerous pastime, I couldn't help wondering if people were right when they said we had nothing in common. "Have you ever thought of ..." -- my question trailed off as I desperately tried to think of a suitably sedate hobby -- "... gardening? Have you ever considered taking up gardening? Imagine what we could do with our uninspiring lawn if we borrowed a few gardening books from the library, and maybe picked up some ideas from that Alan Titchmarsh programme on BBC2. What do you think?" My true love didn't even look up from the introductory membership pack for the local Deep Sea Diving & Shipwreck Exploration Society, but the mumbled response sounded less than enthusiastic. I didn't pursue it because, if I'm honest, I loathe gardening. "Wine-tasting?" Without uttering a word, my true love pointed a fnger at the disgustingly cheap bottle of Bulgarian lighter fuid, masquerading as white wine, that stood half-consumed on the coffee table. It's true, we weren't exactly connoisseurs of the fnest vintages. "What about learning a musical instrument?" Finally, I had a response. My true love looked over at me, thoughtfully. "I could teach you to play the guitar," I said, unable to disguise the eager tone in my voice. "Hmm, maybe. I'll think about it -- but right now I really must call up to book a place on that weekend course in SAS survival techniques." To be fair, over the next few days my true love did at least attempt to make an effort. I patiently demonstrated a few rudimentary guitar chords, and after a week of lessons the nervous strumming was beginning to sound a little more like Hey Jude. But not much. My true love's lack of enthusiasm was palpable. The following Sunday morning, my peaceful slumber was rudely shattered by a sudden unearthly screeching, droning and wailing coming from the garden. Either the neighbourhood's entire cat population was being murdered in cold blood, or a choir of troubled banshees were indulging in some vocal gymnastics. Staggering to the window and parting the curtains, I was confronted by the sight of ten bagpipe players. Standing in the centre of the group, and puffing away for dear life, was the eleventh piper and newest recruit -- my true love. Dumbfounded, all I could do was watch -- wincing with pain as the caterwauling shook the fllings in my teeth -- until the noise ceased. "Isn't this great?" shouted my true love, spying me in the window and blowing me a kiss. "You were so right about learning a musical instrument! The local pipers' band have said I can join, and in return I've offered them regular rehearsal space in our garden." So my true love and I fnally have a shared pastime -- music. Our duets are rather limited, since there aren't many pieces for acoustic guitar and bagpipes except Mull of Kintyre, which is becoming a little repetitive now that we've practiced it seventy-fve times. And yes, it's true that I've taken to wearing earplugs during the pipe band's practice sessions. But once my true love's playing technique has improved, it will be wonderful to be gently woken each morning by the sound of a piper's Highland lament coming from the kitchen. Really, it will. My true love doesn't believe in doing anything by halves. The Real Story of Frosty The Snowman James Valvis 1. Frosty the Snowman was a fairytale they say. But they lied. He stood by a fence with a corn cob pipe dangling from the place where he had no lips. So the pipe was useless. And his button nose was no better. It was attractive, but it made smelling things diffcult. And his two coal eyes! Useless, utterly useless. He was as blind as a bat. Nevertheless, every once in a while, he would dance around. Nobody was more surprised by this than Frosty. It had always been his dream to be a ballet dancer, but he didn't see how. He was after all a ghetto kid and he didn't have any legs besides. All he had to stand on was a big fat snow base--and even that was lopsided. When Frosty was honest with himself, he admitted he didn't so much dance as kind of bob in place. Without moving. It was the hat that made Frosty start thinking. Before the hat, he was just a pile of slush that some lonely street kids piled together. Now he could think and he had to spend the winter ruminating. He didn't like it. He would have preferred they never put the hat on his head. But he couldn't remove it. He had no arms. No movable parts whatsoever. Frosty hated kids now. Frosty's scarf was getting on his nerves. He thought, why bother? He was snow--so he was always cold. That's the way those kids made him. Now he had to be cold or who knows what would happen. Maybe it would be like the time they tried to light his pipe and his lips melted off. A scarf? Bah. Blasted kids. It was like a hangman's noose, this scarf. Frosty would remove it if he could. But he couldn't. He wanted to get to the North Pole and made plans about what he would do if he ever managed to get there. He would meet with more like him. A whole army like him. Then come next winter, they would march on the city. He would lead them through the streets of the town right to the traffc cop. And he wouldn't pause for nobody, neither. All winter long he grew increasingly nervous. He thought of other ways to get to the North Pole. He knew he had to get there. It was the North Pole or the sewer drain. Now he could feel himself dwindling in the sun. He decided it was now or never. He bobbed using all his strength. He bobbed again. Then he was moving! Moving to his right! Falling! He landed with a splat and hit his head on the fence. His head dislodged from his body and rolled away, though the hat remained frmly attached. After that, he lay on the ground in pieces, and for the rest of winter he made some more halfhearted efforts to dance and run away to the North Pole to start his army. None of which worked. 2. Jackie Myers and his small gang of eighth grade hoodlums were walking by the fence when they saw the snowman lying there. "Well, lookee here," Jackie said. "It's Frosty." "Yeah, hug, hug," said Ronny Coleman. "It's Frosty, hug, hug, hug." "I hate snowmen," Jackie said. He pulled off Frosty's eyes and button nose and put them in his pocket. Then he extracted the pipe and placed it into his own mouth. But when he tried to take off the hat, he found it was frozen on. "Dang hat won't come off," Jackie said. "Dang hat, hug, hug," Ronny said. Jackie kicked Frosty's head. It rolled, but the hat made it skip. Jackie kicked it again. Thumpity, thump, thump, the head rolled. Ronny and the others ran to catch up. The boys took turns kicking the head again and again. Thumpity, thump, thump. Thumpity, thump, thump. "Look at Frosty go!" the boys shouted. The Christmas Bird Nick Kocz Needles started falling off the tree from the moment we put it on the stand, raining down on the brightly wrapped presents and the little cr�che fgurines that had been in our family for going on three generations. "Brilliant, Chuck," Mother said, snorting. "You had to buy the cheapest tree in the lot." Father retorted that it wasn't the cheapest tree, but really, who could believe that there was a sorrier tree? So sporadic were the remaining needles that you could see right through to where a bird's nest was still wedged on one of its larger branches. Barely four feet tall, the tree was smaller than me. The ornaments we hooked onto it weighed down its branches, causing more needles to drop. "No siree." Father's hair was wet from the snow that had settled on him while bringing the tree inside and when he shook his head, the melted snow sprinkled off him. "This here's one stellar tree. Shelled out twenty big ones just so I'd have the privilege of cutting it down myself." We looked at each other, Mother and me, both of us thinking the same thing. He didn't even go to a real Christmas tree lot? "Yep," Father said, snapping his suspenders. "She's a beaut." The night after we put the tree up, we woke to the sound of a loud crash. The tree had fallen over. Looking back at it now, years later, it seems clear that the falling tree was some kind of omen, a harbinger of the bad things that followed, but at the time what I remember was all of us in our pajamas gathered in the living room and wondering how the hell a tree could fall down. Water from the bottom of the stand sloshed onto the gifts. Father brought up the wet-vac to clean up the soggy mess. The fne shards of broken glass ornaments dusted over everything. For three groggy people, we did an admirable job tidying up and in the morning it seemed that new needles had grown on the tree. No longer could we see the bird's nest. In the days that followed, the tree seemed lusher, sprouting new branches. Father said that it was natural--that as a tree acclimates to new environs, "she just bushes out." The tree was now taller than me, the plastic gold star at its top almost poking the ceiling. New presents began appearing around it. I walked into the living room to catch my parents eying each other suspiciously, picking up gifts that tumbled from the great piles and asking who might be responsible for it. Both were concerned that the other had gone hog-wild on gift-buying, but I was young enough to attribute the bounty to Santa Claus and whichever Christmas Spirit it was that made Rudolph's nose glow so bright. By Christmas Eve, the tree occupied the greater part of the living room. Mother flled the punch bowl with a half-gallon jug of store-bought eggnog and I started telling my parents about the sleds and telescopes I hoped were among the gifts. Towards midnight, we sang carols. It was the one night each year that they let me stay up late, but despite the energizing effects of repeated rounds of "Jingle Bells," I was getting drowsy. My parents were fortifying their eggnogs with shots of a brown liquor that they poured out of a bottle until fnally they were in very good cheer. That's what I remember happening when I dozed off--my parents giggling and making up lyrics to "O Come All Ye Faithful" that even I knew were naughty. Sometime later I woke on the couch to the sound of my parents thrashing about in the Christmas tree. A bird with blue feathers and a plumed tail trilled frightfully. The punch bowl was empty, upended onto the carpet. The bird few from the tree into the curtains, then reemerged seconds later to stare down at my parents from a light fxture. I had the impression that the bird was taunting my parents, so harshly did it tweet. My father punched at the light fxture, shattering the light bulb. An electric-blue fash lit the room, then everything went pitch-dark. "We're never going to catch him," Mother said. A moment later, the bird alighted on my head. Until then, I had never heard a bird's wispy breaths, or sensed its frantic heartbeats. It must have been as terrifed as I. What I feared most was that, hoping to annihilate the bird, my father would make a wild lunge at me. My parents would tell me later that the bird sprang out of the nest in the tree while I was sleeping. How it had got there, they couldn't say. My parents opened windows in hopes of chasing it outside, but after this failed, things turned nasty. Now the bird was on my head, its plumed tail feathers tickling my nose. "Hold still, son," Father said. "I think I hear him." "Be careful," Mother said. "I will." Loaded up on boozed eggnog, my father was in no condition to be careful. He barreled into me shoulder-frst, pummeling me into the wall. The bird dug its feet into my head, and the next thing I remember, my parents were standing over me, gasping. I spent three days in the hospital and returned home with bandages on my head and a cast on my right arm. The tree was gone and nothing was mentioned about the gifts that were piled around it, but almost every day thereafter we'd fnd pine needles in the strangest places--mixed into my box of Cheerios, or jammed into the television remote control chamber where the batteries were supposed to be. Sometimes I still fnd them, the needles, lodged behind my ear where the Christmas Bird scratched me worst. Behind the Music: A Christmas Wish Dave Housley All I want for Christmas is to be left alone. A little down time. No fans, no press, no lawyers or sponsors or paparazzi lurking in the hedges. No Holiday Specials or Super Bowl shows or beneft concerts. Just some time to regroup, maybe start writing songs again, get away from all this superstar bullshit and back to what got me here in the frst place: the music. All I want for Christmas is to be accepted as a solo artist. The band was great. I loved the band. I put my life into that band. Hell, just between you and me there are a lot of people who would tell you I was the band. All I want for Christmas is for the label to get behind my album. You'd think I was a brand new commodity, the third runner up on American Idol or something, the way they're treating me. I've been around. I know what it means to get behind the album and I know this isn't it. All I want for Christmas is for the band to get through this rough patch, for Luke to deal with the kid thing and James to come out of his money funk and Cordas to get out of rehab and still be able to play the goddam bass. All I really want is to get back out on tour, on the road, where we're comfortable. All I want for Christmas is one more hit. I know the frst one was kind of a fuke � we were like the last band to get picked for that soundtrack, and somebody told me that Cameron Crowe actually hated our tune, but his daughter made him put it on � but I know we have a second one in us. Don't tell the label I said this but we're not exactly teenagers anymore. We have gray hairs, man. We're old enough to think about our legacy. About security. I mean, how many great songs did Soul Asylum have? Soundgarden? One more and I think we'll be cool is all I'm saying. All I want for Christmas is to give back to our fans. I want that guy in his car to hear our song and relax a little bit, forget about his shitty job or his bills or whatever, just totally rock out for those three and a half minutes because that's the dude we're writing for, playing for, that's what it's all about, and that's really all I want. All I want for Christmas is a chance to do a third album. The songs on the frst one, we had been playing them for years. Of course they were tight. Of course there wasn't a wasted word, a phrase that didn't ring true. That thing was beta fucking tested in every dive bar and rock club within a week's drive. The second one was a mistake. Maybe we got caught up in it all, went back into the studio too early. Hey � it was the frst year any of us could write "musician" on our tax returns with a straight face. We wanted to stretch our wings. In hindsight, the dulcimer was not a good ft. And the one with the choir, the duet with Babyface, that was probably a mistake, too. All I'm saying is we're writing again and the new songs are good and we deserve a chance to put them down. All I want for Christmas is a tour. A real tour. With a bus and roadies and somebody from the label who'll hassle us about doing PR and being on time. That's when we'll know we made it. I mean, I know the album isn't exactly doing gangbusters, but they're playing it in the right places. The right kind of people are fnding out. I see these kids at the shows and they know the songs. They're singing along. We just need a tour, a real one, to get this whole thing started. All I want for Christmas is one of these labels to come see us one night when we are really on. When Cordas isn't too drunk, when Luke and James are so tight you'd swear they're two guys with one head, when my voice is rough but sweet and the crowd just seems to get it and we're grooving like one big sweaty funky organism. Just once, the right guy in the audience, that's all I want. All I want for Christmas is a chance to slip our demo into somebody's hands. The right kind of somebody. And for them to really listen. All I want for Christmas is to stop playing Grateful Dead and Allman Brothers songs and get to a place where we can play our own stuff, where crowds will actually come to hear us play instead of screaming "Bertha" or "One Way Out" or "Estimated Prophet" all night like I'm some kind of hippie karaoke jukebox. All I want for Christmas is a gig. A real gig. Maybe in that place Dirty Nelly's with the little stage where the private school kids do shots and make out in the corners. Where people dance and sing along and our friends could some check us out live and I'm pretty sure at least half the crowd would know "Sugar Magnolia" or "I'm No Angel" or "Dixie Chicken." All I want for Christmas is for Cordas to get the goddam bass guitar that will let us form a real band. Well, not a real band. But will let us at least play in the basement, blow off some steam, knock back a few beers and see what it might be like to be in a band, even if we're just a web geek, a salesman, a graphic designer, and a kid in law school, even if we just do it a few times then decide its stupid. All I want for Christmas is some guitar lessons. Maybe like a gift certifcate to Chuck Levins or the Guitar Center, or for that hippie guy whose card is always stuck on the bulletin board at the coffee shop. Just to learn some basics, a few chords, maybe get good enough to play a few Dead songs. I really want for Christmas is a guitar. And maybe to be twenty-two again. A do-over. That's all I want. Mom's Gift John Minichillo Within miles of the Ohio border, I had to defend my mother to Hannah. "It's her house," I said. "Her rules." My father's really, but Mom was true to his memory. "We live together," she said. "I'm pregnant. It's dumb to keep us apart." Hannah hadn't met my mother and we hadn't told her about the baby. We'd been trying to get pregnant and also planned to marry. On our own time. "It's just a few days," I said. "I want to wake up with you," Hannah said. "It's Christmas." When Hannah and I met we were dating again after divorces. We'd had weddings with relatives fown in, speeches made, and this other person folded into the dough, now gone. Hannah and I lived together and our lives picked up where our frst marriages left off. "What would she do if I snuck out and crawled into bed with you?" "We want to start on a good foot," I said. "You don't have to agree with her. Just do this, please." We rolled into the industrial side of town at night, with the factories vacant. The President of the United States had paid a visit when pervasive unemployment made the news, and his visit was something to talk about with Mom on the phone. Would it make a difference, his coming? A demolished auto parts plant had been pushed up into heaps of rubble by wrecking balls and bulldozers, the two bars across the road lit up and with cars in the lot. We rode through downtown with the old Christmas decorations hung from streetlights and I remembered the sense of wonder I had once felt to see Main Street decked out in tinsel and colored lights. There was no snow though it was in the forecast, the thick vista of clouds holding back. At a stoplight the fronts of the old buildings were refected red, and I didn't recognize the names of the new stores. Was scrapbooking something the people here did now? Did it merit an entire store? Berman's Sporting Goods was gone. The bookstore gone. Idled at that stoplight in the center of town behind a LeBaron that sent up a plume of exhaust in the cold night air, I was nostalgic, and yes, I really wanted Hannah in bed with me that night. We passed the library that looked small and the Chinese buffet that hadn't changed in all those years except for the added accumulation of grime in the corners of the picture window and in the crevices of the glyphs on the marquee sign. At the next stoplight, I pulled over in front of a liquor store and left Hannah in the car with the engine running. "I'll be just a minute," I said. I'd quit drinking with Hannah as something we would do together during the pregnancy, but here I was in my hometown for the holidays. It would be a short lapse and she couldn't fault me. Besides, she might enjoy a single glass of wine with dinner or before bed. Mom was in her slippers and a housecoat when we let in a gust of cold air. Hannah and my mother looked each other over and embraced. I fumbled with our luggage and the brown paper grocery bag of rattling bottles. Mom closed and bolted the door, our coats and hats came off, and I set the bag of liquor and wine on an end table with a display of ceramic nativity fgurines. The old artifcial tree held the decorations from my childhood, the string of colored lights blinked a mute rhythm, a few wrapped boxes nestled around the base. On the TV was one of a dozen crime dramas trudging along, earnest actors in pursuit of a murderous pervert. A space heater in the middle of the room clicked and hummed as waves of heat rose from glowing metal coils. Hannah placed mom's wrapped present under the tree, a long sweater she'd made from forest-green organic alpaca wool mail-ordered from a farm in Montana. It was Mom's favorite color and Hannah started knitting it back when the nights were still warm. Hannah and I sat on the couch facing the TV while Mom pulled up an armless upholstered chair. She asked if we wanted tea or cocoa and I craved the Jameson's in the brown paper bag that was within arm's reach. I imagined twisting off the metal cap and anticipated the sound of the seal being broken. As if she'd read my thoughts, mom got up and rummaged through the bag. "What did you bring me?" she joked. There had never been any alcohol in the house other than my Dad's beer, which he kept around for when a friend stopped by, a twelve pack that would squat in the back of the fridge for months. Mom pulled out the bottles one-by-one and set them with labels facing forward like a proud mockery of the nativity, each bottle a colossus over the shepherds and angels: Jameson's, burgundy, cabernet, vodka, Bailey's, a sparkling white wine. I'd bought too much, I'd spent too much, but there was no turning back. I would sleep tonight on the hide-a-bed in the couch here in the living room and I could stay up with the TV and sip drinks. Tomorrow we would shop for last minute gifts, we'd brave the crowded grocery store, we'd spend hours with mom in the kitchen, and fnally, we would sit in the dining room with the china and would eat the frst of several multicourse meals. "How have you been, Mom?" I said as I stood up, and before she could answer the whiskey bottle top was twisted in my hands. Hannah slept in my sister's old room. There was a charcoal self-portrait of my sister she drew in high school. She was talented but wanted technique. She would go on to study accounting in college and would land a steady well-paying job. The room was a monument to her former self: the paperbacks she'd read, her Motown records, a bronze replica of a Degas ballerina, a framed poster of an elfn David Bowie. The bed was a single and Hannah and I would have been uncomfortable in it even if we were allowed to be together. My room had been turned into a sewing room, with scraps of fabric, a dressing dummy, and the centerpiece, Mom's archaic Singer in a cherry wood cabinet. My sister's room was cold but Hannah was deposited under a mound of quilts that included an electric blanket and she was soon warm. I was cheerful, I was playful, I wanted to touch her all over, the tightening lump of her newly swollen abdomen a fascination to me. She was suspicious, blaming my mood on the drinks. She could smell the whiskey on me and my hands were cold. Despite our conversation in the car, she was glad to be rid of me. We both knew without saying it that last year she'd been with another man at Christmas and it had been a happy time for them despite her marriage falling apart. Before I got up I recognized the soft patter of snowfakes hitting the window. I decided to keep it to myself, so Hannah would stay in bed, and so the blanket of white that greeted her in the morning would be a surprise. I looked out the second-story window as I left my sister's old room and the snow was falling fast. The brown grass and the pathos of small chain-link-enclosed yards would all be covered by morning. "I love you," I said, but I said it under my breath and Hannah pretended not to hear. In the living room the couch was opened and the bed unfolded for the night, the space heater turned down a notch. A light was on in the kitchen and one of the bottles missing from the end table. Mom sat at the kitchen table with the Bailey's and she cradled a coffee cup. I brought in the whiskey, poured myself a few fngers and sat at the table. "Do you know what you're doing?" she said. "Does anyone?" "This is good," she said, lifting her cup. "How strong is it?" "It'll sneak up on you." I had never seen her drink. It felt like she was testing the waters, to better know the pool I'd often swum. "When I was younger," she said, "me and my girlfriends used to sneak brandy when we went dancing. Drinks weren't allowed in the dance hall, but it was like a dare." I listened and tried to imagine her young. I'd seen the photos but there was a Technicolor glow to her then and the sense of another era. "Is that how you met Dad?" "Your father?" she laughed. "I was a girl then, but I did meet a man." "You've never said anything." "There was no need." "Did Dad know?" "On some level, I'm sure." "You loved this other guy?" She looked at me, then at her drink. "Did you see it snowing?" I said. "I'm glad you aren't stuck in some airport." She was referring to Christmas two years ago. My ex and I lived in a coastal state that seemed another world and we were halted in transit, put up by the airline in a hotel that could have been in any city on any night of the year. I wished she hadn't brought it up. "I really love her," I said. I meant Hannah. "And you will too. She's wonderful. She's amazing." "I can tell you're in love," she said. "So what gives?" alive." "I never got over him. The way he was. He wore a suit and was light on his feet. I felt "That's how I feel about Hannah," I said. "You'll see." "I'm starting to feel this," she said and she set down the cup. "Will I be sick tomorrow?" "Tell me." "I should butt out." "Say it." "I love you, Brian," she said. "I really do. But it's not in her eyes." "Mom, you go all your life and spring this romanticized boyfriend on me now that Dad is dead. I'm sorry if you're lonely. I'm sorry if you're unhappy. But Hannah and me, what we have is real. We're in love." "I should have kept quiet," Mom said and she got up from the table. She set the cup in the sink and looked out the kitchen window at the falling snow. I knew that what I'd promised Hannah didn't matter now. These next few days I would drink as much as I could. Mom leaned over me, kissed me on top of the head, and she said, "Don't stay up too late." Then she left me alone with the bottle. The Bailey's would ensure Mom fell into a deep sleep and more than anything I wanted to go crawl on top of Hannah. Then I thought about Mom's cup of Bailey's in the sink and how it would be a shame for it to go to waste. And I sat there. Afraid of myself and afraid to get up, with no telling how long I would stare out that window when I fnally did. The Days of Christmas Wendy Ann Greenhalgh On the frst day of Christmas my true love said to me, What do you want for Christmas then? On the second day of Christmas my true love said to me, Coz the shops are getting really crowded and you know how I hate it. On the third day of Christmas my true love said to me, Even a hint would be good. On the fourth day of Christmas my true love said to me, I'm not a bloody mind reader you know. On the ffth day of Christmas my true love said to me, Alright, I'll use my imagination then, shall I? On the sixth day of Christmas my true love said to me, Perfume? On the seventh day of Christmas my true love said to me, Underwear? On the eighth day of Christmas my true love said to me, Okay, I'm going out, I may be sometime. On the ninth day of Christmas my true love said to me, No, not going to tell you. On the tenth day of Christmas my true love said to me, Absolutely no hints. Not one. On the eleventh day of Christmas my true love said to me, Ok, it was the only thing you really needed ... On the twelfth day of Christmas my true love said to me, I love you. Christmas Poem David Fishkind I've never celebrated Christmas. I would commit suicide before doing something like that. Okay, so I lied--I've celebrated Christmas six times in my life. It's like, come on, everybody does stuff like that. It's nice, I'll admit. People being nice is nice. But that's just not my game. My game is listening to your father's keeper. He buys such interesting dogs on Christmas. He ties them up and hangs them by their feet, while we set the whole town on fre. On Poems Tyler Gobble On Religion Often times it's like lightning is fung up from the big holes in the ground. For most of my life, virgins had babies with awesomely handsome carpenter dudes and not me, so thank heavens for that one. I always got most excited when rocks were involved in someone's death. Rambo was like God to me, an 8 x 10 black and white photo pinned to my wall, an leather-sheathed knife hanging from my bed post. Nowadays, I just pray to God when I need better arms to hold the world or when I go blind from all the porn. Most times, I think I'm going to Hell. On Thursdays, a man in a suit tells me he cares about that reality, and I feel a little better. On States "Things explode here more often because Indiana is close and many things purposed to explode are legal there." � Ander Monson, Vanishing Point Sometimes, I like to use Indiana instead of people's names, because Indiana is nice and loving, but can also make me super bitter and possibly even gut-wrenched exploding yeah. Like last night, I was walking with three Indianas, all within arm's reach, none of us touching, and freworks started shooting up on the edge of campus. I said something about America. The Indianas all went "oooooooohhhhhhh" or "aaaaaaaaawwwwwwww." Then, birds burst from the bushes, barely missing our fragile heads. Often, I have a diffcult time deciding which is more important, the parts or the whole. The Indianas all went together as I walked the other way, towards the explosions. On Letting Other People Make An Impact On You For Tyler Let yourself be impressed sometime. Watch the cool guy shaking his groove thing and say, BUST THAT MOVE. Listen to your mom hum a Sandy Patty song and say, SING IT GIRL. It's hard to love if your heart is a lockbox of pride. That mural will never get fnished if there is a force feld around your paint brushes. When a real artist sculpts a bust with a crooked nose, keep your mouth shut. Let your friend tell you about her 3.8 GPA and don't mention your own. Pay attention: all your friends will die one day without being made into Pez dispensers, and that is a damn shame. On Texting Some people like to keep it simple. When I say, I love you and I wish you the best, they say, ditto or rbay (right back at you). I'm not that simple. My texts come through in pages. Hey. I saw a half-dead rabbit on the side of the road and thought of you. How are you doing? I look forward to seeing you very soon. I can imagine you on the other side, eyes crossed, lips curled, probably you have a book in your hand. You would rather see sup, but I can't do it. My parents learned how to text. My mother, proud, able to use T9/WORD now, rubbed the writing off her keypad already. My dad takes hours, between truck stops, to type hi tyler how are you i am in alabama pick up load in the morning see you this weekend love you. Texting is a new thing, but I don't think loving is. On Love I've got this new haircut, and people said they love it, but then they left, ducking into buildings and their heated homes. I'm in a spot between stoked to see your face and stoked to hide mine. A relationship is a list is a list, like here is what you do for me and how well you do it and how important each thing is, and each adjusts and rises and falls, and boo-yeah, that's friendship and love and stuff. People see "boyfriend" and "mistress" and "best bud" and "that guy I know but can't stand to be around but still invite him places, why, I don't know." I see faces, beautiful faces, and arms and hands that wrap around me and voices that say "you're okay" and "OOOOOH COMFORT." I feel a breath on the back of my neck and I can stay there for a while. Sometimes, I feel like people say "come over" or "I love you" so I won't go back to the hospital. I think I'm okay with that. I think I'm okay with looking at faces, touching hands, hearing voices and being cool. I think I'm okay with throwing myself at people. Mike Young said, "here's an idea: how about let's stop fucking harassing people to death over who and how they want to love." AND I THINK THAT IS PERFECT. THANKS, MIKE. Old As The Sun K. A. Mielke The factory shone through the blizzard like the beam of a lighthouse, all the colours of an infant's plaything. It teemed with short, hardworking men comforted by unhealthy addictions, and smoke puffed copiously from the twin chimneys. Erected beside it was an offce building. The structure was diffcult to spot in the snow, and is notably left out in tales of holiday wonder. The grunts, or 'Persons of Smaller Stature', as they preferred, were largely kept away from this building, for reasons largely undisclosed. To our right was the runway. The long strip of pavement stopped just before the pine trees started, preceding the mountains, and the world, and the sky. At the beginning of the lane was a small barn, where the reindeer were kept, and, if you looked close enough through the raging storm, you may have made out a beast with the base of a whale and the horn of a unicorn, shovelling the snow from the parking lot. His shovel navigated its way between the feet of polar bears and wolves, once every hour or so. But soon he would stop. It was the twenty-fourth of December. We were only moments away from Christmas. "Hurry it up down there!" Stubborn cried, descending the metal staircase, clipboard in hand. Every gnome in the warehouse sweat that much more with every thud of boot hitting iron. The assembly line whirred louder. Stubborn stood at the bottom of the stair. He rolled up the sleeves of his plaid jacket, itched his stubble. Old eyes delighted in watching his men work, nearly shedding a tear; they managed to break their record every Christmas Eve. He plodded to the assembly line. As he reached Reliable, he pushed his oblong glasses back up the bridge of his nose. He dug his fnger into his nostril, ficked away his prize, and tapped the clipboard with his pen. The armpits of Reliable's wife beater were stained with sweat. A half-burned cigar stuck from his mouth. "Reliable, Reliable, Reliable. 'S a nice name. Puts a lot of pressure on you, doesn't it?" Smoke billowed from his nose. "No, sir," he said. "No? The quota for the night is fve million toys, Reliable. That's a lot of toys. How many, may I inquire, Reliable, have you assisted in completing today?" Without glancing from his work, Reliable answered, "Seven million, one hundred thousand, seven hundred ffty-two, ffty-three, ffty-four, ffty-fve--" Stubborn clicked the pen, Reliable's cue to shut his mouth. He scribbled something down, then asked, "Is that every toy that has passed, then?" "More, sir." Ash drifted from the end of his cigar as he spoke. "Not missed a single toy, eh?" "No, sir." Stubborn shook his head. "Very well." He wondered why he bothered to ask. He continued down the assembly line, barking commands like "Move faster!" and "Get your beard outta the way!" and "Kris Kringle on a krusty krutch, pull up your pants, Indecent!" He stopped again when he reached Jittery. Jittery was one of the newer workers, shipped up north when he failed to sit still at his garden gnome placement. The veterans often called him neurotic, until Neurotic fled a complaint. He currently leaned over the assembly line, quaking faster than Tokyo as he shakily pieced dolls together. Stubborn shoved the pen into his back. Jittery squealed and straightened, erect as a fagpole. A golden-haired doll traveled down the line with a leg for a neck. Jittery's face was a poor attempt at being clean-shaven. Wads of tissue stuck from the wounds. "You, sir, are lucky we have ol' Reliable down there fxing all your mistakes!" Jittery nodded vigorously. He looked ready to explode. "S-sir, yes, sir! T-t-t-terribly s-sorry, sir!" "Sorry is right! You are a sorry excuse for a Christmas gnome!" "Sir, yes, s-sir! A sorry excuse! Don't b-belong here, sir!" "Ah, shut up and get back to work!" He brought the hammer of a clipboard down on the back of the epileptic gnome's head, kicked the leg of his stool. He then turned and went back up the metal stairs. He took one last look at the warehouse, slid his pen and glasses into his pocket and shouted, "Anal, make absolutely sure everything is perfect! This is the night! Vacation in one hour!" The heavy metal door slammed behind him, to the resounding cheer of fve hundred and twenty-four little people. Stubborn waddled down the hall to the elevators and, struggling to reach the higher button, whacked the down arrow with the edge of his clipboard. The twin doors opened, revealing a very large, very tense man hugging his knees. He contorted uncomfortably in the metal box. "Good evening, John." "I remember, friend, why I stopped taking the elevator." Stubborn stumbled as the giant's slow, booming voice shook the foor. John squeezed out of the elevator and got to his feet. The giant loomed over him, his back bent to avoid hitting the ceiling. "Sorry," he whispered, minding his voice. "Big day today. Working hard, I trust." Stubborn shuffed into the elevator and stood against the frame. "I'm always working hard, John. I'm just aching for this vacation. It's the only time I get see my family." "For a while I had forgotten the beautiful, illusive vacation. Not many realize how hard it is, stacking presents for six months. No time to sleep, at the rate your guys work." "I would imagine," Stubborn chuckled. "Great guys, down there. I work them too hard, but somebody's gotta do it. How's your back, by the way?" "Oh, my spina bifda's been acting up. You know how it gets in the winter." "It's always winter, John." "Yes," John said. "Yes it is." "What do kids do to deserve this, eh?" They laughed and cheerfully said goodbye; they would see one another in six month's time. As John made his way to the break room, Stubborn noticed his new suit had ripped down the middle of his back. It must have been tough, being such a large guy in such a cramped environment. Poor guy. Depression had been eating at him since his wife left. Stubborn really did hope to see him at work next year, instead of at the end of a noose. The elevator doors closed. He whistled tunelessly, tapping his foot as he stared at the elevator camera. The doors opened onto the twelfth foor. "Gena?" he said. Gena looked up from her keyboard and smiled. Her slimy green tail, laid in front of her desk, slapped the ground lazily, like a fsh that'd lost the fght. Long red hair spilled loose from her bun and onto her face in almost-holiday spirit. "Good evening, Mr. Stubborn, sir. All going well?" "Spick and spam, doll. Tell the big man I'll be right up." "Yes, sir." "Oh, and Gena?" "Yes, sir?" "Keep splashin', babe." His wink gave him an appearance similar to Popeye the Sailorman, but he hobbled down the hallway feeling suave all the same. Gena giggled. "Yes, sir." She picked up the phone and muttered a delicate, "Mister Claus?" before Stubborn knocked on the doorframe to his right, furthest down the hall. "Come in," growled the occupant. The offce was painted the stone grey of a bear-infested cavern. To the right a freplace roared, fames licking the hearth. Leather boots sat on the mantel, a long red sock beneath them, hanging from the edge. Outside the blizzard picked up, turning the window into something more like a blank sheet of printer paper. "I got something for ya, Ed." Stubborn reached into the chest pocket of his fannel jacket, pulling out a festively wrapped, cylindrical object, and tossing it up onto the desk. He waddled to the desk, placed his hands on the edge, and peered at his friend. Edmund looked up from his computer. He pushed his glasses back up his snout with a long, onyx fnger and carefully picked up the present. "Awe," he growled, sincerely. "You shouldn't have. Really. I didn't get you anything." He slid a nail along the wrapping paper. The paper drifted to the foor, leaving Edmund holding a fat brown cigar. "How did you know?" "I've just got this ability. It's your turn, next year." "Hah. Gotcha. How's work?" "Oh, you know. Busiest time of the year, as they say. Decided I'd stop by to see you before I gave the report." "You're very sweet," the dragon laughed. "You know me. How about you, bud? You've still got a decent stack of papers." "I am bored out of my mind." "Accounting would do that." "Yep. I should've continued with my music. I could've been a star, man." "You were pretty good." Stubborn checked his hairy wrist, shook his head. "Well, I've gotta go. See you next year?" "Naturally." "Later, buddy." Stubborn waddled back to the elevator. It opened, revealing Bob the janitor and his wheeled bucket. The elevator foor was soaked. Bob nodded to Stubborn. "Bob. Merry Christmas, fshcake." Gena waved to him with a smile. "How're you holding up -can you press fve? Thanks. Not had an 'accident' yet, today? I know how the rush can make the heat worse." "No, Stubborn. I haven't melted for a whole six months." Bob scratched his carrot. "That's gotta be my personal best, to be honest." "Good for you," Stubborn said, looking to his feet. He and Bob never did get on so well; every year it was the same awkward, silent elevator ride, lasting only moments, and still seeming to drag on forever. Silence smothered this particularly crippled handful of seconds. Finally, the bell dinged, releasing the men of their torture. "This is me," Stubborn mumbled. "See you next year." The gnome stepped into the red and green hallway. Bob glanced downward as the elevator doors shut, and sighed. Wet footprints trailed Stubborn, the golden bell atop his hat jingling as he waddled to the largest door he'd ever see. The handles of it were unrealistically high, and so there were two smaller doors built into it; one for those of average height, and one made specifcally for the Persons of Smaller Stature's end-of-the-year report. Stubborn swallowed a lake of saliva as he stared the door up and down. Stubborn readjusted his drooping red hat, brushed off whatever dust may have lingered on his clothing, wiped his clammy hands on his jeans, and knocked, hard, on the wood. There was a mumble of acknowledgement. The tiny door opened onto a comfortable, burgundy-coloured room. There was a large freplace across from the door, with framed pictures and old, grey wool socks on the mantle. There was a treadmill and a weightlifting set and a desk, where Santa Claus sat and ate his supper. He was eating breaded chicken, with broccoli and mashed potatoes, and he stared at the computer screen. He was dressed in red jogging pants and a white sleeveless shirt. He was freshly shaven. "Can you believe this!?" he shouted from his chair, mouth full of chewed food. "NORAD's claiming I've already started. They never even ask for a call! I hate those guys!" A lump of what was probably mostly mashed potato landed on his desk. "Mr. Claus, sir?" Santa Claus held up a hand and wiped his mouth with a napkin with the other. He swallowed and turned off his monitor. "Terribly sorry, Stubborn. Just trying to get down something healthy before the big night. Cookies make me sick if I haven't had a proper meal frst. Tried it one year. Ended up in a family's toilet." He patted his thin abdomen. "You'd better hurry up, sir, if you don't mind me saying, sir." "Oh, yes, of course. How much time do I have?" "Not much, sir. Twenty minutes." "Hm," he said, and was silent. He picked up his long brown list and forked a head of broccoli into his mouth. Stubborn had been in Santa's offce twenty times in the passed ten years, since his promotion; twice a year. He felt dangerously close to the man, as if he was his own father, and he treated Santa as respectfully as if he had beaten him as a child, though it was the furthest thing from the truth. He was promoted because Irresponsible had fnally shown his true colours and nearly ruined Christmas. The pain and disappointment of so many children had forced Santa to waterboard him until he resigned, because he didn't have the heart to fre the poor soul. He lasted three seconds. Santa furrowed his brows and moved back to the top of the list. His eyes trailed downward until he hit that spot again, and he began to cry. "Sir?" He sobbed and sniffed in reply, head in hands, long hair spilled onto his face, into his mouth. Stubborn waddled over to the desk, stood beside his boss. "Sir?" He tossed the clipboard away and placed a hand on his knee. "Sir?" The sobbing gradually weakened, until, fnally, Santa Claus sat upright and stared at the list. "I've lost another one, Stubborn. Every year..." "I'm sorry, sir. I didn't realize--" "It hits me so hard. Every. Single. Time. I can't handle it." "What's his name, sir?" Santa wiped the tears from his eyes and blew his nose with the used napkin. He sounded like a trumpet. "Sarah. Her friends told her I don't exist. How rude is that? Honestly. What a thing to say about somebody you've never met, and what a horrible way to fnd out! I should have at least been the one to tell her!" "I'm sorry, sir." "So you've said, old friend." He sat in his leather chair in silence, staring at the desk. He smiled, then, and threw his arms in the air. "No matter! More important matters exist. Pass the list." Stubborn retrieved the clipboard and handed it to his boss. "You see, sir, everything has gone according to plan. Check marks on every page." "Excellent. I trust my reindeer are ready?" "I made sure at ten, sir." "Okay! Let's get Christmas started!" Santa Claus ripped his red, furry jacket from the coat rack and hung it on his arm. He slid his hat onto his head as Stubborn pulled up his boots. They rushed from his offce. Stubborn could not keep up with Santa's long strides. He watched him speed walk to the elevator, sliding an arm through his coat, and as he watched, he called, "See you next year, boss?" But Santa Claus said nothing, only continued down that festive hallway, a tall, kind, beautiful man, as old as the sun and as young as the children he delivered to. Santa turned and stood in the metal box, and he smiled, and he waved. The doors closed. Stubborn left work soon after, at his own pace. He waddled to the parking lot and climbed atop his polar bear, dancing over the snapping jaws of his coworkers vehicles. He could hear the jingling of Santa's sleigh, preparing for takeoff. He didn't bother to stay to wish him luck. He had a wife to get home to. He slapped the reins against his Honda's back. Santa Claus reached the sky and hollered his classic, "Ho, ho, ho!" A smile slid across Stubborn's face. "Me-erry Chri-istmas!" Fat snowfakes drifted to the ground, like a billion plastic toy paratroopers. Soon, the storm was over. Timmy The Bipolar Elf Natasha Cabot The snow bashed into the windows and the wind screamed at the top of its lungs. The sky was black, like smoker's lungs. The noise in the workshop was high, chipper. Peals of laughter rang through the room. Timmy was in the corner, working on a train. The wheels wouldn't go on straight. He could feel tears welling up in his eyes - each attempt a futile one. The right eye overfowed and a stream ran down his rosy cheek. The points of his ears sagged as he realized he was a failure. Timmy's moods ran a zig-zag course, serpentining between delight and depression. Today was a bad day, a very bad day. Christmas always did this to him. Making toys for spoiled, overweight children who would just end up breaking them. What's the point? What's the point of any of this? Timmy asked himself. He had no family to spend the holidays with, his parents were gone. He was alone, like always. Surrounding him were bubbly, happy elves with no cares in the world. No, they were completely happy to make toys for an old, fat white man and his smelly fying deer. What the hell am I doing here? I hate all of these people. They all suck. My life is meaningless. Please God, just let me die. Timmy knew death would never come � elves never died. They eventually froze and became garden gnomes. Oh he'd be alive and aware but he'd never be able to move. This is all I have to look forward to. Being in some housefrau's garden being pooped upon by large birds and peed upon by wild and domesticated animals. God, why? Why? Bertie, another elf, walked pastf Timmy--staring at him. "Turn that frown upside down, my friend! It's Christmas! The snow is falling and everyone is happy!!" Timmy looked back at Bertie and imagined plunging a sharp screwdriver into the base of his skull. Knowing it wouldn't kill him but cause him a lot of pain seemed to lift Timmy's mood slightly. "Shut up, Bertie. Just shut up. I don't want to turn my frown upside down I just want to be left alone so I can do my job, okay? So go to hell," Timmy barked. Bertie's lip quivered and then he started to weep. "That's no way to talk to a fellow elf, Timmy. Why are you so mean? You're always so moody. Get help." "Yeah, Bertie I will. I'll stomp my way outside and talk things over with Rudolph because he too is treated like shit. Oh, I forgot. He was treated like shit. Now that his nose shines up like a Hiroshima bomb EVERYONE loves him. Get the hell away from me." Timmy threw one of the train tires onto the foor. "I hate you all!" he screamed. The other elves looked at him and slowly shook their heads. "Timmy," Gezelda � the head elf � said. "May I see you in my offce?" The room fell silent and Timmy made his way into his boss's offce, the bells on his shoes tinkling mournfully. "Sit down, Timmy, and tell me what's wrong. You've been moody all week. All the other elves are walking on unicorn egg shells trying not to anger you. What's wrong, my friend?" she asked. "Nothing is wrong. I just want to be left alone. I hate this time of year. I hate my job. I hate my life. I don't see how all of you can be so stupidly content making toys year-round for annoying kids for some fat man who only pays us in glitter and stockings. Really? Stockings? Have you gone shopping in the North Pole? Do you know how expensive things are? Very. The man isn't living in reality and neither are any of you. Throughout the year we do this, this making of toys bullshit. I've had it. God, I can't believe I was born into this life. I wish my parents never pulled me out of the basket of sunshine. I should have stayed there and melted," he wailed. "Timmy, we are elves. We don't have any cares in the world. Why do you make it so complicated?" Gezelda asked. "Life is complicated. I'm complicated. Sorry I'm not easy enough for you. I just want more out of my life than what I'm getting. I want to be someone. Not a drone. Not unappreciated. And I just want all of you to leave me alone. You all are so goddamned perky and I hate it. Life's tough, you know? And you all just sit there with grins plastered on your pink faces and enjoy every damned minute of it. You all make me sick." "Timmy. I think you need to go outside and walk whatever it is you are feeling off. Then you can come back and fnish the trains. Now go on and watch out for the snow bunnies. They are asleep and you know how the get when they are awakened suddenly." "Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know. We mustn't wake them up. God forbid they have a bad day." Timmy went outside and walked past the slumbering snow bunnies. He kicked puffs of snow at them. They still slept. He walked past the reindeer and threw a snowball at Blitzen, who growled angrily. Timmy ran off and sat down by the candy cane road sign. He pulled a pack of cigarettes out of his left pocket and a bottle of whiskey out of his right. The menthol tasted good and the whiskey tasted even better. "I can't believe this is my life," he sobbed for the 30 th time today. Inside the workshop, the elves started singing Christmas songs while tears ran down Timmy's face. "This is all there is," he told himself. He extinguished the cigarette onto his arm. He wanted to feel something. The burn formed into a happy face and he cried harder. "Merry Christmas," he muttered. "Merry fucking Christmas." The Twelve Days of Christmas Vaughan Simons DRUMS On the twelfth day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: twelve drummers drumming. Completely out of the blue, my true love announced, "I've been having an affair." "With whom?" "He's the drummer in a rock group. You won't have heard of him." "But maybe I've heard of the band," I said, although I couldn't help thinking to myself that the group's chosen name possibly wasn't the most important item of information I needed to know at that precise moment. "No, they're -- they're not very famous," my true love replied, nervously. "Are you sure? I mean, I know I'm a bit out of touch with music, but I might have heard them playing on one of those late night radio shows that -" "Look, will you just shut up about the band, for pity's sake? Here I am, try ing to gently break it to you that I've been having an affair ..." "With a rock drummer. Yes, you said." "... and you're really not making it any easier." "Sorry. I was just hoping that he might be famous so I could sell my story to the papers." It was a cheap shot on my part, and my true love wisely decided to continue the confession and ignore it. "But it's over now. That's what I wanted to tell you. In fact, they're all over." Those last three words hung in the air for a moment, while we both realised their signifcance. I took hold of my composure by the scruff of its neck before speaking. "Did you say `all'?" "Er, yes. That's the other thing that I've been meaning to tell you." I didn't reply this time, because curiosity had taken over. I was genuinely fascinated to hear what the explanation was going to be. "You see," my true love continued, "I've got this obsession with drummers. Rock drummers. Leather-clad, hard-drinking, heavy-smoking, flthy-mouthed rock drummers. And over the past few years, I've had fings with a few ..." My true love produced an old shoe-box and handed it to me. Opening it, I gazed upon a set of small clockwork toy soldiers, each with a tiny drum and even tinier drumsticks. Speaking out loud, I slowly and deliberately counted how many soldiers were contained in the box, winding up the key in the back of each one as I did so. When I had fnished, the room was flled with the clattering of toy drums. "Twelve?" I gasped. "Really?" My true love nodded, and then passed me a hammer. "But I promise, I absolutely promise you, that I'm not interested in rock drummers anymore. I know it's a lot to ask, but if you can fnd it in your heart to forgive me, I want you -- I need you -- to line up all the drummers in a row and smash them into hundreds of small pieces. That will put an end to it, forever." I turned each of the toy soldiers over in my hands, examining them carefully. They were exceptionally detailed, and while I could understand my true love's reasoning, it seemed a shame to completely destroy such beautifully crafted items. No, I had a better idea. A few hours later, I called my true love back into the room to watch the toy soldiers on parade. However, instead of the clattering heard before, this procession was almost silent save for the delicate whirring of the clockwork machinery. With the utmost precision, I had cut away the twelve pairs of drumsticks clutched tightly in the drummers' hands. They were now all action, but no noise. Completely useless, in fact. I couldn't help but smile at a job well done. Emasculated -- that's the word I was looking for. Yes, emasculated. Every few days, I feel that it's my duty to stage a ceremonial march-past by our legion of toy soldiers. It's just a little reminder. Twelve drummers not drumming. My true love understands. Room Mel Bosworth So much must ft inside a polka dotted room when its shell is cramped with winter. Like Sadie stretching her legs and fexing her naked dreams by the radiator. "You'll be great at the recital." There's Curtis beneath the wool, pretending to sleep. "You're blushing." And don't forget our shy friend padding along the table; we've named her Betty. "Come here, B." I'm huddled beside the lamp, pressing everyone close between these words. "If no one minds, I'll fnd a way." Tomorrow I'll beg for extra hours, but tonight I'll kiss my friends with my eyes and the warmth from the bulb will keep the ladybug dancing. 10:46 hrs Marcus Speh (First published as ,,10:46 Vatican City, Santa Sede" in: Divine Dirt Quarterly) 10:46 hrs - Vatican City, Santa Sede. The Holy Father receives his first cheque card as part of a campaign to modernise the Vatican. He insists on leaving his quarters in the early evening alone, under cover, to fetch money al by himself. When he stands on the piaza in front of the Chiesa San Pietro trying to remember his PIN, the mnemonic he's worked out with the help of Aquinas' scripture Suma Contra Gentiles, fails him. The Pope loks around for aid. A woman behind him makes smal impatient noises. To overcome a dep sense of inferiority that begins to take hold of him now, he imagines her in the Easter crowd lying at his fet. He holds up his card and, turning around, loks at her: I can not remember the code, he says. I can't help you there, she says, milder than he had expected. But I must get my Christmas shoping done, she ads. Okay, says he and moves out of the way. She swivels towards him: a litle discretionary distance, please? He doesn't understand at first, but his hand, in the coat, grips the pager in case she'd atack him. He fels like an unused, perhaps an unusable, condom. This strikes him as very, very od. From acros the cash point, the Horned One eyes him without mercy. This E Book was produced by Frank Hinton and metazen.ca Special Thanks to : Jessica Hinton, Josh Grady, Christopher Allen, Caitlin Laura Galway, Len Kuntz, Sheldon Lee Compton, Riley Michael Parker, Bebe Zeva, Jereme Dean, Gena Mowish, Julie Innis, Marcus Birkenkrahe, Blake Butler, HTML GIANT, We Who Are About To Die, PANK magazine and xtx (whoever the fuck you are). A very special thanks to all of the authors of the stories in this e-book and a double special thanks to all those that donated to the charity associated with this project. Cover and photos: Bebe Zeva Photos: Thank you to Carlye birkenkrahe for donating her photography to the following pieces by marcus speh (01:46 hrs) (02:46 hrs) (03:46 hrs) (06:46 hrs) (07:46 hrs) metazen 2010 www.metazen.ca all rights reserved.