Flash Fiction for the Cocktail hour

Don’t Breathe

The bedroom in the cabin was darker than any place she’d ever slept. It was moonless, with no electric light nearby — total blackness that made her eyes felt closed when they were open. The forrest around them was deathly silent, although she imagined animals breathing. It had been two hours now, waiting for sleep.

“Slow down,” she said.

“What?”

“You’re breathing too fast.”

“What do you mean?”

“You breathe too fast and it throws off the rhythm of my breath. I can’t sleep.”

She felt him push the pillow at the side of her face, covering her lips and nose.

Suburban Noir lines

What is a Drabble? A short piece of fiction, usually about 100 words. I had fun making this exactly 100 words.

12 Days of Xmas: Twelve Drummers Drumming

Roasting turkey sizzled and spit inside the oven, filling the house with its aroma. Joanna stood at the head of the dining room table and looked at the silver flatware glimmering in the candlelight, the glow of the cream-colored china with thin gold bands around the edges. The entire family would be here for Christmas, just the way she liked it. Her heart beat faster, swelling until it seemed to fill the room.

At the opposite end of the table, the only chair with arms was ready for her husband to take his place at the head. Her eldest daughter and husband would be seated to his left. Across from them were three places for Joanna’s son and his wife and her widowed father. Like the other chairs, the places closer to her end of the table had tiny white cards with a single fold, the names written in calligraphy for her sister and brother-in-law, and her three grandchildren to her right. Twelve people for Christmas dinner. Twelve chairs and twelve plates and twelve place cards.

Christmas was the culmination of the year and there was something reassuring about spending a night in the dead of winter, a few days before the year disappeared taking all its good times and sorrows with it.

She pulled out her chair and seated herself. It was early to light the candles, with the turkey still in the oven, butter melting into the covered bowl of potatoes, ready for mashing. The pies were done and the other side dishes simmered on the stove. The candles would be melted down slightly, but she wanted it this way. The wine glasses were filled with red wine that looked like blood in the dimly lit room.

The sound of drums that she’d heard the past three was starting. It was far away, deep inside her heart, at the back of her head, somewhere above the rooftop. A moment later, the lights went out and only the glistening flames of the two, thick tapers illuminated the table and empty chairs.

Now, her husband had taken his place at the head. She nodded once and smiled nervously at him.

The drumming grew louder, the sound of tympani struck with expert precision, the vibration filling every room in the house. From where she sat, she could see the tree in the living room — also dark, but for the colored lights. The ornaments seemed to tremble in response to the drumbeat.

She missed them all so desperately during the year. Her eldest daughter and husband and children living in Melbourne. Her son, a soldier. Her father…her sister. The drumming grew louder. Some would complain it was too much, it took over your thoughts, the sound echoing inside your head, but she liked the comforting strength of it. Without them, Christmas might as well pass unnoticed. The burgeoning store shelves, the constant repetition of music to encourage thoughts of peace and love and family and friends grated with their forced good cheer enjoyed by others. The gifts and decorations, the stockings and sweets.

The candles burned lower and the drumming continued, the beat increasing slightly.

Slowly, just outside the circle of light cast by the candles, they began to appear. Her husband had been first, dead only four months, his spirit was fresh. He was joined by her son, blown to pieces in Afghanistan. Her sister, wasted by cancer into nothing but bones and skin. Her beloved daughter and family living out their lives on the other side of the world.

The ghosts were present, eyes staring into the candlelight. The drumming continued inside of her heart.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

11th Day of Xmas: Eleven Pipers Piping

It was the largest package under the tree — a rectangular box about three feet long and nine inches wide. It was set on its narrow side. A red glass ball, tugging a low branch with its weight, rested on the package like an extra bow.

Jessica had kept her eye on it all week, lifting it gently when her mother wasn’t looking. Her parents were notorious for wrapping boxes weighted with innocuous objects, putting notes inside that announced the real gift. As Jessica and her sisters pushed into their early teens, the dummy boxes became more prevalent. She was certain this was one of those. It was wrapped with silver paper that was so heavy she saw a suggestion of her reflection. Yet, the gift felt heavier than a mock gift should. She couldn’t figure out what they might have wrapped to mislead her.

Still, it had to be the lessons. It had to be. She giggled, shocked at her eagerness for Christmas. It was a feeling she hadn’t experienced for several years. It was funny how the magic rubbed off once you were too old to visit Santa, too old to be wowed by the surprise of a bike with an enormous bow on the handlebars, sitting beside the tree on Christmas mornings. Something you’d never seen coming, even though you desperately wanted it. The wanting was too much and the expectation too large. And then, it was there. It gave you the feeling there might be a Santa Claus, even though your very grown-up side blushed at the thought.

This box would be the same as that bike had been. It was five years ago now — the the last time she was truly thrilled on Christmas morning. This year would be different. She wasn’t too old for excitement after all.

She’d devoted every day of summer vacation to babysitting the mildly bratty kids two doors down. With her earnings, she’d bought a guitar. She was ready. Once she had lessons, several years of lessons, high quality lessons from a professional, she’d be on the way to her dream — filling stadiums with her music and her voice.

She wandered into the kitchen where her mother’s hands were sunk up to her wrists, mashing together bloody red ground beef, raw eggs, and bread crumbs for meatloaf.

Her mother lifted her hands out of the bowl. “Turn on the faucet, will you. Warm. I need to get this grease off my hands and don’t want it all over the faucet.”

Jessica had performed this task for the meatloaf a hundred times, and each time, her mother explained it was to avoid getting beef fat on the faucet.

“I can’t wait for Xmas,” Jessica said.

Her mother put her hands under the stream of water. “That’s nice to hear. Not too old and cynical for a little Christmas magic?”

Jessica shook her head. She squirted liquid soap into her mother’s outstretched hand.

“I think you’ll be surprised,” her mother said. “I’m excited too.” She smiled.

Jessica felt a thrill, like a piece of satin ribbon pulled through the center of her heart. She shivered.

On Christmas morning, the long silver box was the last gift to be opened. Her father handed it to her with a silly sweep of his arm as if he were presenting a gift to royalty. He bowed. Jessica and her sisters laughed.

She removed the tape and unfolded the paper slowly. Her heart beat hard and she had that odd feeling of warmth that came over her when an audience watched her perform. She opened the box. It contained a leather case. She pulled it out and flipped up the latches. Inside, nestled in blue velvet, was a silver flute. Her heart seemed to stop, turning into a hard clump of dirt.

“We’re so proud of everything you’ve accomplished in orchestra this year!” her mother said. “Now you can go even further…with your own instrument. Make it conform to you.” Her mother’s eyes were glassy with tears. In a soft, shaking voice, she said, “Maybe you can try out for the community orchestra.”

Jessica tried to smile. “I…”

Her father hugged her. “We know how you love music, and the notes that come out of the flute when you’re playing are exquisite.”

Why hadn’t she told them? She kept putting it off, unsure of why she was so hesitant. She was giving up the flute. It was a musical instrument for children — like pan and his flute or the pied piper. It was an instrument for learning to read music. That was all. She couldn’t sing and play the flute. Fans didn’t flock to stadiums to hear flute music!

She turned her head so her parents couldn’t see her face. The tree needles looked dried out, destined for landfill. The ornaments were old, some tarnished, others simply tacky things they’d picked out when she and her sisters were small. The paper and empty boxes looked like so much trash, glittering a few moments earlier, and now headed toward the recycling bin.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

10th Day of Xmas: Ten Lords A Leaping

The pleasure of walking down the main hallway of his new home, toward the back wall made entirely of glass looking out on a lush garden, was dulled by the thought of the phone call Ken had to make to his sister. His fingers were like ice, numb from the knuckle to the tip even though the house was a pleasant seventy degrees.

He stood in front of the glass wall and pulled the phone out of his pocket. He glanced to his left. The Christmas tree was magnificent. There was no other word for it. He and Sue and four-month-old Ryan had driven to the foothills and cut it down themselves. It felt like a real, old fashioned Christmas — cutting your own tree with your own hands.

His sister answered on the third ring. She sounded out of breath. “Ken.”

“Is this a bad time?” he said.

“No, not at all.”

“You sound out of breath.”

“Do I?”

He felt off balance. It wasn’t the right start to the conversation, and now he had to make a jarring transition to the reason for the call. “So,” he said. “I wanted to tell you that Sue and I are going to celebrate Christmas at our place this year, with Ryan.”

Beth was silent.

“Hello?”

“Now that you have that big fancy house, you think you’re the lord of the manor or something? Too good to be with family in my shabby tract house?”

“That’s not it at all. Not at all.” He’d known she would be like this.

“Well I know it’s not the baby, because he wants to grow up spending Christmas with his cousins.”

“How do you know what he wants?” It was the wrong thing to say.

“That’s what all kids want. And you’ll break Allison’s heart. I can’t imagine what this will do to mom. After the two of them are making the trip to be here, so the whole family can be together for the holidays. You think you can simply announce you aren’t planning to show up?”

“We want our own traditions.”

“That’s selfish.”

“It’s not. It’s normal.”

“The family should be together.”

“I want my family to be together,” he said.

We’re your family!”

Her voice drove itself into his brain like a siren. He moved the phone a few inches from his ear. His head ached. Behind the screech of her voice, he heard tears. Once those came pouring out, so would the guilt tripping.

“Beth, you’ve had Christmas the way you want it for twenty years. We can celebrate with you and the rest of the family on another day, but on Christmas Day, it’s the three of us.”

“I cannot believe how astonishingly self-centered you are. You’re abandoning the people who love you, stomping on all our celebrations, and ripping out your mother’s heart.”

“Don’t dramatize.”

“I’m not.”

“I didn’t think you’d understand. And we won’t resolve this, so I’m hanging up now. Let me know if you want to plan another get together.”

“The get together is planned, Lord Kenneth.”

“Good-bye, Beth.” He ended the call.

In the living room, Sue was feeding Ryan. Without taking her eyes off the baby, she said, “Did you call your sister?”

“No. I’m thinking it’s too late. Christmas is only a few days away. We should have told her sooner.”

“We? I’ve been asking you to call her for three months.”

“Ryan won’t remember this year. I’ll tell her after the holidays, for next year.”

“We agreed.”

Ryan pulled away from her breast and started whimpering, feeling his mother’s tension, and the slight sharpening of her tone.

“Shh. Shh. It’s okay,” she said.

“I know we agreed. But next year.”

He walked around to the back of the tree and turned on the lights. They twinkled at him, making him dizzy they were so close to his eyes. When he looked at Sue he saw that she wasn’t so much angry as hurt. Once again, he’d leapt over her feelings to make his sisters and mother happy. He would do better, next year.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

9th Day of Xmas: Nine Ladies Dancing

As the heavy velvet curtains drew apart, Amelia sighed deep inside. The sigh was nothing those seated nearby could hear or feel, but something that sounded like the roar of the ocean in her own ears. She closed her eyes. Visions of sugarplums dancing in her head was no exaggeration.

The prima ballerina, and the supporting ladies dancing in her shadow, seemed to float above the stage.

Amelia knew it was an illusion. The appearance of floating required hard, hard work. A ballerina’s feet showed the scars all her life — calluses and red, raw toes, thick bones, tough muscles that most people didn’t even know existed. Yet, the ballerina floated. She spun and leapt and moved her body like water, dancing her heart out.

Someday that would be Amelia. Every Tuesday she attended ballet classes. Her mother promised that when she was chosen to be one of the lead children in the nutcracker, she would be given classes twice a week. Amelia spent all her time dancing her own heart out. She practiced her positions while she brushed her teeth and waited in line to enter the classroom after recess. She performed pliés while her mother backed the Suburban out of the garage and, to the annoyance of her brother, during TV shows at night. She stretched her legs and worked on the splits whenever she had a free moment.

It was no one’s fault. The sugarplums turned pulpy with decay. She would never float across that stage.

It was an accident. Even the police said so. The road was slick with torrential rain. The woman in the other car was driving at a safe speed for the conditions, but still her car hydroplaned into the Suburban. The Suburban was supposed to be a tough car, a tank, some people called it. But it wasn’t enough for Amelia, strapped into the passenger seat. Her leg broke in so many places they had to replace parts with a steal bar.

Competing with visions of sugarplums, when she closed her eyes, she saw her foot, amputated so many years ago. The toes bent and the callouses thick, the raw skin that proved she had what it took to become a prima ballerina. But that foot was disposed of wherever they sent such things. In its place, she had unblemished synthetic toes, and smooth, boneless feet.

She opened her eyes. Through a thick veil of tears, she watched the dance of the sugarplum fairy.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

8th Day of Xmas: Eight Maids A Milking

A cluster of mistletoe the size of a basketball hung from the ceiling in the entryway. It was attached by fishline which was invisible except when the sun shone through the window beside the front door. The branches were held together with a red velvet bow.

Chantal glared at her brother. “Were you, like, born in 1950?”

Jason laughed. “Just sayin’.”

“What, exactly, are you saying?”

“He won’t buy the cow if you give away the milk for free.”

She picked up her suitcase and pushed past him. “Get out of my face.”

“It’s what the parental units think. So your Xmas visit is not going to be all that pleasant, if Garth plans to sleep in your room.”

“Of course he does. We live together. You think we have separate bedrooms? And I’m not a cow and that concept is insulting and degrading. Women control their bodies, not men. It’s 2015.”

“I know what year it is.” Jason grinned and yanked her ponytail. “Not saying you’re a cow, just making an illusion.”

She smirked. There was no point in correcting his moronic word use. He managed to turn most things inside out so she sounded like the idiot. It wasn’t worth arguing. She just wanted him to keep his archaic views to himself.

“You think it’s funny?” he said.

“Yes. Many things are funny. And Garth and I have a normal relationship. We don’t think of our sex life in those terms at all. Besides, it’s not any of your business. You’re a neanderthal.” She walked down the hallway, turned the corner, and started up the stairs.

Jason’s heavy shoes thudded on the hardwood floors as he followed her. “He’s milking you, get it?”

She hurried up the stairs and into her old bedroom, now redecorated as a guest room. Garth was due to arrive any minute. He’d dropped her off before running to the mall for one last stocking stuffer. She wished they’d planned it differently. If they’d walked in the door at the same time, Jason wouldn’t have had the nerve. But her parents, her father especially, wouldn’t be silenced by the intimidating presence of Garth’s six-foot-three frame.

If this was how things were going to be, she wished she hadn’t bothered to come home for the holiday. She knew how her parents viewed her relationship with Garth, and she should have known that Jason bought into whatever they said. That’s what happened when you were still living at home at the age of twenty-eight. He was only two years older, but he acted like he was born in the early 1900s.

She hung up a dress and two shirts. She put her jeans and other things in the empty top drawer. She closed the bedroom door, sat on the bed, and sent a few text messages to her friends. She checked Facebook. She got up and went into the adjoining bathroom. A text popped up from Garth: Standing at your front door.

The bell rang. She finished peeing, flushed, and washed her hands. She shoved the phone in her back pocket, knowing she was too late. Jason would be hovering in the living room, popping a steady supply of hard candies into his mouth like he did every Xmas. As she opened the bedroom door, she heard their voices. She hurried down the stairs.

Jason grinned at her. “Here’s the lovely maiden.”

Garth’s kiss missed, grazing her ear as she turned to give Jason a sour look.

“Want anything to eat?” Jason said. “Candy? Xmas cookies? My mom can make you a sandwich.”

Garth stepped away from her. “Cookies sound great. Cookies and milk.” He winked at Jason.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

7th Day of Xmas: Seven Swans A Swimming

A swan glided past the side of the lagoon, moving without seeming to paddle toward the small waterfall on the opposite side of the Swan Pavilion restaurant.

“It’s not very Christmassy, is it?” Mike said. He nodded toward the swans and the lagoon surrounded with tropical plants that made the warm air feel moist, filling it with the scent of flowers.

“No,” Claire said. “But Xmas is too hyped with expectation. Being non-Christmassy is nice.”

“It does get blown up,” he said. “But I like it when we celebrate together. Still, coming here was a good idea. Something different. I just can’t help thinking about snow and decorating the tree. Being with the whole family.” He stabbed up a piece of papaya with his fork and held it to her lips. She opened her mouth and took a small bite. “Do you want the rest?” he said.

She shook her head. She picked up the silver coffee pot and refilled Mike’s cup. She put the pot down. Her fingers were long and thin, more bone than flesh. Her rings slid around easily between her first and second knuckles. He loved her hands, so graceful and competent. Quiet, like Claire herself.

He put his hand over hers. “Look how tan I am compared to you.”

Two more swans glided past. The taller one turned and looked at him, as if it wanted to comment on Claire’s pale skin.

“You need to get out from under the beach umbrella today. Go swimming.”

“Maybe tomorrow.” She turned and looked at the lagoon.

He followed her gaze. A mother swan and two babies circled in the dark blue, almost black water near the outcropping of rocks at the side of the waterfall. The sound of splashing water filled the space between them. He looked at her plate. “Are you going to eat that bacon?”

She pushed her plate toward the center of the table. “You can have it.”

“Are you sure?”

A server turned up the volume on the background music. The strains of Silent Night overtook the splashing water. He took a bite of bacon. It was cold now, but still good. More difficult to chew, but the salty taste was satisfying. He lifted his champagne glass. “Even though we don’t have snow or family or a tree, I love being here with you. I don’t need Christmassy.” He tapped her glass.

She took a sip of champagne.

A swan with a glowering expression on its face came up close to the railing. It stared at them, eyeing the uneaten food on Claire’s plate.

Claire put down her champagne glass. “Merry Christmas, Michael. I love you. This is so hard.”

He swallowed. Something wasn’t right. He’d felt it since the moment their plane touched down on Maui. In fact, he’d felt it when she suggested they spend the holiday alone, somewhere far away. Someplace without memories or traditions.

“I wanted you to have a good Christmas. And I didn’t want to spoil your future Christmases.”

“Why would you spoil anything? I adore you,” he said.

“I won’t be here for any more Christmases.” She swallowed. “A tumor in my brain. I have two months. Maybe three.”

He looked out at the swans circling the lagoon. He couldn’t look into the dark blue, almost black of her eyes. Not yet.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

6th Day of Xmas: Six Geese A Laying

The email printout trembled in my hand. My mother’s Xmas dinner guest list contained twenty-three names. Twenty-three! Six of them were relatives. Another five or six sounded vaguely familiar. The rest? Total strangers.

Every year since I graduated from college and moved into an apartment in the city, I’ve asked my mother for a small, quiet Xmas gathering. Every year, I’m sent a list of too many people and too many strangers. She sounds like a clucking bird when we speak about it on the phone. “Christmas is all about sharing love,” she says. “The more the merrier.”

I remind her that I prefer small groups. “Something intimate, where we can have a genuine conversation instead of everyone vomiting small talk.”

“Sometimes I think your heart is like the Grinch’s,” she said, and not in a smiling, joking way. Her tone was brittle and angry.

I powered down the computer. I tore up the list and and dropped the shreds in the trash. It didn’t matter whether I knew their names ahead of time, they still had to be matched with new faces. Still required tedious chatter about nothing. Sometimes I’d thought about claiming a flu bug, but that wouldn’t do. She would accuse me of faking. She’d refer again to my tiny, selfish heart.

It would just be nice, for once, to have my wishes taken into consideration. My father’s been gone for fifteen years now, dead instantly of a heart attack when I was in high school. But Xmas was exactly the same when he was alive — too many people, too much heavy food that no one really likes, too many presents, and far too many overdone decorations. You couldn’t move for fear of knocking over a ceramic figurine or catching your sleeve in a garland. Why did it have to be an extravaganza? She treats it like she’s putting on a show for which she needs a large audience to admire her fancy appetizers, her wine and music selections, her pies and cookies, her scalloped potatoes and roast beef and roasted goose, the golden carrots glistening with butter. And most of all, her decorations. My stomach ached thinking about it. Maybe I did have a touch of flu.

Wishful thinking. I put the gifts into three large shopping bags. Most of them were generic — gifts for strangers. Anyone would like a wireless electronic device charger, no one would have to fake a smile when opening a gift card for See’s Candy. If the recipient is one of those rare candy-haters, the certificate could be re-gifted. It made my heart ache, thinking of the hours, days, I’d spent looking for suitable gifts.

The drive to my mother’s was slowed by stop-and-go traffic. It was after six-thirty when I pulled into the driveway, assaulted by lights lining the roof line, encasing every window, wrapped around trees and shrubs and the skeletons of reindeer. I had to admit, the reindeer were pretty.

When I stepped into the foyer, I smelled cooking meat and fowl.

I walked slowly into the living room, greeted my cousins, and began adding my gifts to the pile surrounding the tree. Everything was spectacular — the large fire, the enormous tree that reached to the rafters of the open-beam ceiling. It was easily twenty feet tall. It was a holiday setting appropriate for Architectural Digest.

I went into the kitchen and tried to maintain a smile while my mother made introductions. When the hi’s and nice-to-meet-you’s were finished and the guests had drifted off the the other rooms, she gave me a hug. “Merry Christmas, darling. It wouldn’t be a celebration without you.” She stepped back. “I’m glad you’ve had an attitude adjustment. You simply can’t keep out the holiday spirit, can you?”

“To be honest, it’s hard to feel the holiday spirit when you never even consider having a quiet Xmas,” I said, knowing the words were a mistake, but saying them anyway. “I feel like I don’t exist. You don’t even hear what I’m saying, or care what I’m thinking.”

She glared at me.  “You silly goose, of course I listen.”

I blinked back tears.

“Don’t start. Do not spoil my holiday. I mean it.” She turned and opened the oven. She ducked to peer at her bird, putting her face so far inside she was in danger of burning her nose on the rack. She stood and turned. She called to a woman standing in the doorway, “Oh, Amy. Let me introduce you to my daughter.” She smiled. “She’s the entire reason for this spectacular feast! She just loves Christmas.”

The aroma of my mother’s food was wonderful, the sound of her words like the caw of approaching ravens.

The show must go on.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

5th Day of Xmas: Five Golden Rings

Nothing compared with Christmas! Absolutely nothing. It was her favorite time of year. She lived for Christmas. Every year, all her gifts were purchased by the end of September, wrapped by November fifteenth.

The day after Thanksgiving, her apartment was transformed into a winter wonderland.

Tonight, everything looked and smelled like Christmas, but it did nothing to dissolve the hard pit in her stomach. Darrell hated the holiday. Thinking about it made her want to cry. He’d tried to get her to go out to dinner tonight, but then grudgingly admitted the sappy music and the garish, oppressive decorations would be the same in a restaurant as those in her apartment.

Annie tried to smile at her reflection in the gold-plated oval ornament her grandmother had given to her when she turned sixteen. You’re a woman now, her grandmother said. The back was engraved with Annie’s first name and her birthdate. I left off your surname, her grandmother said. That way, when you’re married, you won’t be looking at your maiden name.

She hung it back on the tree. She turned off the lamps, in awe of the the tree with its red and green and blue and yellow lights. It was a glowing rainbow.

The doorbell rang.

When she opened the door, Darrell stood on the welcome mat. His hands were shoved in his pockets. He smiled and stepped inside. He kissed her quickly.

She was glad he’d smiled. At least there was that.

She took his coat and he settled on the couch.

“I’m glad you got off early,” she said.

“No one works after lunchtime, so it wasn’t a big deal.”

She nodded while she slipped the hanger into his coat sleeves. “Do you want some mulled cider?”

He shuddered — deliberately and extravagantly.

“It’s good. You should try it.”

“I can smell it. That’s enough.” He glanced at her. “Sorry. I didn’t mean…you know how I feel about all this.”

“I know. I’ll open a bottle of wine.” She went into the kitchen and took the chilled bottle out of the refrigerator. She clutched the neck and stared at the cold liquid as if it would give her some sort of insight. Could she really be with a man who hated Christmas? She loved him so much, and they were compatible in so many ways, almost every way — except this. They were practically soul mates. But he hated Christmas. The best holiday of the year, the most beautiful, exquisite time of year. She put the bottle on the counter and removed the foil and cork.

When she returned to the living room with the glasses, Darrell was sitting in the rocking chair. She handed him a glass. He stood up.

“To…” she said.

He clicked her glass. “To us. To love.”

She smiled.

They sipped their wine. Darrell put his glass on the coffee table. “Sit down, I have something for you.”

She settled on the couch and took another sip of wine. Darrell went into the hallway. The closet door opened. He returned with a small square box wrapped in shimmery gold paper with a gold and silver bow. It couldn’t be. She held her breath.

He sat beside her. With his left hand, he turned her head head away from the tree so she was facing him. He kissed her lips gently, keeping them pressed together for a moment longer than usual. He handed her the package.

She slid her finger in the spot where the paper overlapped and made a clean slice through the tape. She removed the paper and took the lid off the box. Inside was a sapphire blue velveteen box. She opened it. The ring was gold with five diamonds — a large one in the center and two clustered on either side. Her mouth formed an O, but no sound came out.

“I love you, Annie. I know you know that, but I can’t imagine my life without you. Will you be my wife?” He put his right arm around her waist. He took the box from her and put the ring on her finger.

As the ring slid into place, her hand shook.

“It’s Christmas,” she said softly. “How perfect.”

“I know how you love it. That’s why I wanted to do this tonight.”

She squeezed her hands into fists. “Does that mean you like Christmas now?”

“I hate Christmas. I hate the songs and the food. I despise the forced good times, the decorations, the traffic, the selling. I hate every single thing. I hate that I’m supposed to be happy and merry and all that crap.” He stopped and took a deep breath. “Sorry. I got carried away. I don’t want to spoil our engagement.”

“If you love me, you’ll love Christmas.”

“Don’t be ridiculous.”

“It’s important to me. It’s so…”

“It’s two weeks out of the year. Maybe a month. We don’t have to agree on everything. We’re still two individual people.”

“How can you not love it?”

“I love you, that’s all that’s important.”

Was it? She spread her fingers and looked at the ring. Could she love a man who hated Christmas? Maybe it didn’t matter right now. She was so happy. The ring sparkled and caught the colored lights on the tree.

He would change his mind!

She smiled and kissed him. A man couldn’t be married to her and hate Christmas. Once they were husband and wife, he’d learn to love it.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order

4th Day of Xmas: Four Calling Birds

This year, the company holiday party was being held in a five-star hotel on the San Francisco peninsula. It was a full-on formal affair. The only price for admittance was a can or package of food for the homeless. MaxLightCorp prided itself on its community sensitivity, and despite spending five figures on the party, they wanted employees’ hearts in the right place.

It was inevitable that the food contributions became a competition.

Greg held Miri’s elbow as she climbed out of the car. There was no graceful way to exit a sports car while wearing four-inch heels and a long dress. Greg held the holiday sack in one hand, leaning slightly from the weight of ten cans of tuna, another ten of soup, fifteen boxes of pasta, and containers of raisins, shelled peanuts, and a package of crackers.

They walked quickly to the elevator. A man slumped in the corner near the stairwell, wearing a coat and pants that blended with the concrete wall — even the skin of his face blended with the concrete — called out to them as they passed. They waited for the elevator to grind to the fourth floor.

Greg didn’t like leaving the car with a hotel valet, he believed they were tempted to try out hot cars while their owners partied. He didn’t mind paying for parking and foregoing the company-expensed valet. Miri pulled her coat tight. She was freezing and flush with adrenaline at the same time — anxious to get inside the hotel where she could check her coat and show off her dress that revealed the skin of her back from her neck to her hips.

They stepped out of the elevator and walked to the exit. Greg moved slowly, still holding her elbow. She hated leaning on him like this but the pavement was damp and dotted with puddles. It was better to be safe. She wouldn’t present a classy view if she ended up on her ass in a muddy smear of water.

They passed a bank with glowing ATM machines and then a deli, closed for the night. Between the deli and an office building was an alcove. Tucked inside was a sleeping bag, a pile of flatted cardboard boxes, and two stuffed black plastic bags.

A man stepped out from the shadows of the alcove. He wore three coats and a thick yellow hand-knitted scarf that was easily six feet long, since he had it wrapped several times around his neck and jaw and it still hung past his knees. “Spare some change?”

Greg stepped around and took Miri’s right elbow so he was between her and the man. He held up the bag of food. “Giving a donation here. Check in with the food bank.”

“I’m hungry now.”

Greg walked faster. Miri stumbled to keep up.

“Hey! I’m talkin’ to you. Don’t just walk by me like I’m a piece of trash that fell into the gutter.”

Greg and Miri increased their speed. It did no good, she heard his boots thudding on the sidewalk. Despite the layers of coats and the army style boots, he was following at a good clip. In a few moments, he’d overtake them.

“He won’t do anything, will he?”

“He’s harmless,” Greg said. “I think.”

“You think?”

“He’s demented. Drugs. Or something. That’s all.”

“I thought we bought a good supply of food, don’t you?”

Greg nodded.

The man’s voice bellowed out, right behind them, so close they could smell his body. “You don’t have a single buck?”

Miri slowed her pace.

“Don’t stop,” Greg said.

“I been calling and calling, and no one listens. You walk by like I’m a stinking can of garbage.”

“We’re giving food.” She turned to Greg. “Give him a can of soup.”

“Can’t open a can. I know you have money, lady. It’s all over you. Both of you.”

“Stop talking to him,” Greg said.

“I can hear you!” the man shouted.

Greg walked faster. She stumbled forward. “I can’t walk this fast.”

“You have to.”

They hurried up the block. A few hundred more feet and they’d be at the corner, turning onto a cleaner, brightly lit street. Her feet ached from walking so fast, and her ankles felt wobbly, unable to keep the shoes in place while taking such long strides.

Something soft hit the exposed back of her neck. “Ew.” She stopped.

“Don’t stop.”

“He threw something at me. Something disgusting.” She turned her back to Greg. “What is it?”

“We’ll look when we get inside. This is making me uncomfortable.”

“You’re the one that had to park in a crummy garage.”

“Okay, sorry. Bad call.”

She put her hand on the back of her neck. It felt like spoiled fruit. She took her hand away and smelled her fingers. Banana. “Now my hair’s going to stink. Gross!”

As they rounded the corner, they nearly tripped over a homeless man and woman sitting on the sidewalk with their arms around each other. The woman called after them, “What’s that smell?”

“Just keep walking. We’ll take care of it inside.” They reached the revolving door. Greg pushed forward and Miri stepped in behind him.

Inside, she felt the cold and fear slide off her like the shedding of dead skin. After she checked her coat and cleaned the back of her neck and spritzed perfume on her shoulders, she felt clean again.

Greg smiled when she emerged from the women’s lounge. They glided through the foyer, past two glittering twenty-foot trees.

At the entrance to the ballroom, Greg handed the sack to the woman collecting donations.

“Wow. Thank you,” she said.

“There’s a check in there too,” Miri said.

The woman reached into the bag and pulled out the envelope. She peeked inside. “How generous! Thank you so much. It’s MaxLight’s mission to improve the world with our presence. The holidays are meaningless if we don’t share with the less fortunate.”

“I totally agree,” Miri said.

Intro to the 12 Days of Xmas Series of Flash Fiction for the Cocktail Hour: read the stories in order