2021 February Flash Fiction Challenge: Day 11

Write a piece of flash fiction each day of February with the February Flash Fiction Challenge, led by editor Moriah Richard. Each day, receive a prompt, example story, and write your own. Today's prompt is to write about a holiday.
Author:
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I’m sure we can all agree that holidays post-COVID are a little strange. Whether you want to write about the new-normal, the holidays-that-were, or a brand-new celebration, today’s prompt is to write about a holiday!

Flash Fiction Challenge

Remember: These prompts are just starting points; you have the freedom to go wherever your flash of inspiration takes you.

(Note: If you happen to run into any issues posting, please just send me an e-mail at mrichard@aimmedia.com with the subject line: Flash Fiction Challenge Commenting Issue.)

Here’s my attempt at writing a holiday story:

Good Boys

It was Christmas Eve, and someone was banging on the door.

I had been playing with Karl’s old marbles by the fire, and the knocking startled me so badly that one of them bounced too hard and went straight into the fire. I quickly grabbed the poker and drew it back to the edge of the fireplace before looking for Karl.

He appeared in the doorway from the kitchen, a book clutched in one hand. Six years my senior, he was broad-shouldered and hot-headed and already considered himself a man. His mouth, normally stretched wide by a wicked grin, was flat and tense.

“Who is it?” I asked.

“How would I know?” Karl snapped back. “Put that poker down before you hurt yourself.”

I did. With our father away to town, probably overnight due to the recent snowfall, Karl was the ruler of our small universe. I craned my neck to look out the window, but all I could see was the deep dark of nightfall and the few swirls of snow catching the light.

Bang bang bang!

“Stay quiet,” Karl warned.

I nodded, quickly pocketing my marbles. As Karl strode to the door, he rolled his shoulders, trying to ease the tension out of them.

“Who is it?” Karl said.

It was quiet. We stood, bodies tense. I thought about my father’s towering form, the hard set of his jaw and the soft way he spoke of our mother after too much whisky. He was like a god, ruling over all this land and our home without challenge.

But now we were alone.

Bang bang bang!

Karl reared away from the door, but then, red-faced and snarling, lurched forward to yank the door open.

I first thought it a bear, he was so hairy and hunched and huge. Karl tried to block the doorway, shielding me from the stranger, knuckles white around the doorhandle.

“What do you want?”

His whole body shook in one rolling tremor. Then he rasped, “Shelter for an old man?”

Karl turned to look at me. I stood, feeling small and vulnerable as a rabbit in a snare. He looked at me, his expression pinched tight, and then turned back to the man.

“Of course,” he said.

A cold wind blasted through the front door, and the fire behind me flared bright-hot as the man ducked inside. He was almost inhumanly tall, and what I had mistaken for hair was layers and layers of animal furs. His face was wild, scarred and dirty with a bushy, unkempt beard tangled around his chin. Because of the way the fire and candles threw shadows around the room, his eyes looked black as pitch. He looked like something that crawled out of a fairy tale or a nightmare.

“Thank you, boys,” he rasped. His mouth hardly moved when he spoke, but his voice carried. “It was mighty cold out there.”

“We don’t usually get visitors,” Karl said.

He stomped his feet and chuckled. “No, imagine not.”

After a beat, Karl cleared his throat. “I have got soup on the stove. If you’re hungry.”

The man grunted and stumbled over to the settee. I watched with my heart in my throat as he lowered onto it. The frame groaned. It was Mother’s, one that she brought into her marriage. It was old, but it held.

“Do you do anything besides gawk?” he growled.

My eyes immediately fell to the floorboards. “Sorry, sir.”

“No need for that. I was teasing.”

I shuffled my feet before crouching back on the floor. I wasn’t sure if it was okay for me to take out the marbles, but I did not know else to do with myself. I watched the stranger out of the corner of my eye, noting the scars roping across his broad hands, the snow melting off his boots to reveal caked-on mud.

“Have you traveled far?” I heard myself ask.

The stranger nodded. “Farther than you can imagine.”

“Have you seen the ocean?”

“Aye.”

“Have you seen the mountains?”

“Aye.”

Karl strode back into the room, bowls balanced in his arms. “Enough questions.”

“He’s alright,” the stranger said.

I reached out for my bowl and rested against the warm stone of the fireplace to eat. It wasn’t as good as Father’s, but Karl was shaping up to be a cook in his own right. I watched the stranger scarf his meal down. Seeing him hungry made me sad in some intangible way, the kind of sad I got when I saw a baby bird fall from its nest.

“We have no spare bed for you,” Karl said after our bowls were scraped clean. “But I can bring out some blankets and you can stay here by the fire.”

“Nice of you,” the stranger grunted.

Karl left the room. I watched the man lick his fingers. He tried to comb through his beard with dirty fingers.

“Do you have a name?” I asked.

“I do.”

“Do you have a family?”

His eyes glinted as he looked at me. I had to struggle not to look away.

“I do not,” he said.

“Lucky you found us tonight, then,” I said.

“And why is that?”

“It’s Christmas Eve.”

“So it is.” He pawed at his beard some more before he leaned forward. “Günter, would you like to know what I have in my pockets?”

A shock ran through me. Had Karl said my name? I suddenly couldn’t recall. I glanced at the door, but Karl did not appear to save me. I swallowed passed the sudden dryness of my throat.

“Yes,” I croaked.

He crooked a finger at me. I shuffled toward him, a little afraid and a little thrilled. Still, Karl did not return.

The stranger reached into the layers of fur, rummaging. When he brought his fingers back into the light, they were clenched around several gleaming coins and a few healthy nuts still in their shells.

I looked up into his haggard face in wonder.

“I know your name, Günter,” he said lowly. “Do you know mine?”

“Belsnickel,” I breathed.

He grinned, and his teeth were yellowed and crooked. “Good boy.”

I held out my hands for the treats and rolled them around in my hands. The Belsnickel, here! I could hardly keep myself from shouting out. And he had bestowed me with gifts and called me good. I remember Father saying once that the Belsnickel had taken to his brother with a willow switch, and the bruises had lasted for days.

“I want to hide these from Karl,” I admitted. It was rare to get anything for myself.

“I understand,” he said. “Go ahead.”

I scampered to the other side of the room and wiggled a stone from the side of the fireplace. I wedged the coins and as many nuts as I could fit without crushing them and pocketed the rest.

“Where is he?”

I whirled to where Karl was standing in the door. His arms were laden with blankets and he was staring at the settee.

The Belsnickel was gone. Where he’d been sitting was a neat stack of glittering coins, a handful of nuts, and a whole cake. My mouth watered just looking at it.

“He was the Belsnickel!” I said.

Karl stared at me blankly. “Günter.”

“He was! He knew my name and he gave me some coins!”

Karl shook his head and went to look out the window. Whatever he saw must have satisfied him, because he locked the door. “As long as he’s gone, I guess.”

“We should have some cake!”

Karl finally grinned. He took the platter into the kitchen and I cheered when he put a slice on a plate for me.

“Merry Christmas, Günter,” he said.

I grinned around a mouthful of fresh, fluffy cake. “Merry Christmas, Karl.”

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