Very Short Story (VSS) Roundup 4/5/21-4/11/21

Here’s a collection of very short stories (tweet-length) I did based on prompts from vss365today.com over this past week. I’ve found these prompts are a fun way to keep the creative juices flowing and also are seeds for potential future stories. The prompt is the word next to each date. I hope you enjoy!

4/5/21 egg
The last egg stares at me from the plate. Maybe I shouldn’t have used the ones the kids hadn’t found, but we were out and grandma demands them.

Ugh. I don’t feel so well. Is that a tail? And horns? Shoot! I hope I’m hallucinating. I’m afraid, though, the eggs deviled me.

4/6/21 basket
“They’re monsters!”

“I’ve heard rumors. First, they take your ears, then your nose.”

“Charlie survived, but he was never the same.”

“Monsters!”

I leaned back, eyes closed, listening to their fears. It didn’t matter. Nothing stops a chocolate bunny’s time in the basket.

4/7/21 Whose
“Four, three, two, one.”

The portal opened, we expected the team back at any moment. When no one emerged, Shauna and I glanced at each other.

“Suit up.”

Ready, I stepped into the swirling lights. Once I could see, I cursed. A bloody hand lay on the ground. But whose?

4/8/21 Birds
There was no warning when the spaceships arrived, not even a radar blip. We weren’t prepared. They crippled our defenses and destroyed our cities before we launched a single missile.

I lived in the rubble. My world had gone silent. I missed the songs of birds most.

4/9/21 Picture
Sharon bought the strange-looking camera from a stranger-looking man in an alley. He promised she wouldn’t find a better one for the price.

When she snapped a picture of Earl, it emitted a beam of light. Her husband vanished, but it was the best photo she ever took.

4/10/21 Hippopotamus
The spaceship hovered over the zoo. A crowd gathered. Even scientists were slack-jawed.

First contact. A day so many look forward to.

The door opened. A creature emerged, strolled by the humans, and toward a hippopotamus, the most intelligent species on the planet.

4/11/21 Exile
Deborah set her gaze on the planet as the ship carried her away. She placed her hand on the window and whispered, “I’ll miss you, my love.”

It was the first day of exile.

Her heart ached for her husband, but leaving him stranded was the only way to keep the crew safe.

The Devil Went Back Down to Georgia (Writing Prompt Wednesday)

Today’s prompt is courtesy of: https://www.reddit.com/r/WritingPrompts/
comments/mfmn0j/wp_the_devil_did_
go_down_to_georgia_and_there_he/

Here’s my story, enjoy!

Somewhere in Floyd County, Georgia

I watched from the bar as the short, slender man strolled through the door. He had yellow eyes, an oddity for sure, that gazed toward the stage. Thursday nights were Billy’s nights, and the young man, not even old enough to drink, stood and sawed away at his fiddle. Truth is, I never should have let Johnny in the door, and there sure shouldn’t be a cigarette hanging from his lips. My sister would kill me if she knew, but my nephew was just too darn good.

Billy’s playing was why half the men were buying whiskeys or placing more beers on their tab. The greasy blond-haired boy was good for business.

I’d never seen anyone’s fingers move so fast. Sweat flew in every direction, and Billy grinned as the crowd clapped and hollered. Then, without warning, he struck his final note and stomped the stage.

“Woo!”

My patrons erupted, except for the yellow-eyed man.

Billy wiped his brow, took a bow, and dropped the cigarette into the ashtray. “Takin’ a little intermission. Y’all sit tight.” My nephew smiled and carried his fiddle to the bar. He never let the instrument out of sight.

“Coke?” I asked as he eased onto a stool.

“Y’ain’t gonna let me have something stronger?” Billy asked with a grin. He knew the answer. “Just a water.”

I poured the glass and eyed the short man as he approached, carrying a case in his left hand. He sat beside Billy.

“What’s your poison?” I asked.

“Fireball,” the man replied. “Leave the bottle.”

Billy giggled. “A little on the nose, don’t ya’think?”

“Come now?” the man asked.

“With eyes like that, you obviously gotta be a demon or something.”

“William,” I said, as stern as I ever spoke to the boy.

“Oh, I’m not offended,” the man said. “But I’m no demon. The name’s Lucifer. I’m their prince.”

I set the shot on the bar and rolled my eyes. What a crazy thing to say, I thought, until he opened his case.

Billy’s eyes grew big. “Is that a golden fiddle?” Light shimmered off the instrument in all directions.

“The finest fiddle there is,” Lucifer said as he pulled it from the case and ran spindly fingers along its neck and strings. “Do you want to hold it?”

“Billy, don’t,” I said.

That boy never listens. He took the fiddle from who I now assumed was actually Satan.

“Whoa.”

“You’ll never find another like it. I’ll make you a deal…”

“Like in that song?”

The devil wryly smiled. “We don’t talk about that song.”

“How’d you get it back?”

“Johnny was… Just… Never mind. Do you want the opportunity for a golden fiddle or not? Try it.”

Billy plucked a few chords. I had never heard an instrument as well-tuned.

“You’re good,” Lucifer said. “But are you as good as me?”

“Lemme guess. We duel, and if I win, I get to keep your fiddle, and if you win, you get my soul.”

“Precisely.”

“Just like the song.” Billy grinned.

The devil furrowed his brow. “Just like the song,” he said through gritted teeth.

“You’re on.” Billy handed back the violin. “Hit the stage, let’s see whatcha got.” Before I could stop him, my nephew grabbed the shot of whiskey and tossed it against the back of his throat. “Woo!” He slammed the glass on the counter as his cheeks burned. “Pour the devil another!”

Lucifer grinned and sauntered to the stage.

I leaned toward my nephew. “This is not a good idea.”

“Trust me, Uncle James, I got this.”

“Pride goes before a fall.”

“Yeah, yeah. Mama tells me that all the time.”

I sighed. I wasn’t much of the praying sort, but I made an appeal to the Good Lord for Billy’s eternal soul. I stared at the stage with my arms folded across my chest. Billy drummed the bar with his fingers as he wore a big, goofy grin.

Lucifer plucked a few strings, smiled, and set his bow. His hands flew into a frenzy, faster than Billy’s ever had. My jaw dropped at the sound.

It wasn’t what I expected.

Billy clenched his jaw and scrunched his brow. I bit my lip and shook my head. This was bad. The men and women spread throughout the tables covered their ears.

“You suck!” someone shouted. Others booed.

The screeching ruckus threatened to drive away my patrons.

“This is awful,” Billy shouted at me over the racket.

I watched as those closest to the door stood.

“Hey!” I yelled as I jumped over the bar. The devil kept playing. “Hey!” I ran onto the stage and grabbed Lucifer’s hand.

His shoulders slumped with a sigh. “I might be a little out of practice.”

“Why don’t you come to the bar,” I whispered as the boos died down. “I’ll pour you another shot, on the house. Just stop playing, please.” I was an optimist at heart. I hated to see anyone dejected, even the dark lord of hell.

Lucifer again took a seat beside my nephew.

“That was awful,” Billy said.

“I know,” Lucifer replied. “I just need a little more practice to get back in the habit. Then I’ll take you on, Billy Hogan.”

My nephew smirked. “Oh, no, no. A deal’s a deal.”

The devil rolled his eyes and handed the fiddle to Billy. As the boy ran to the stage, Lucifer sipped his shot and shook his head. “I hate humans. You’re foul, vile creatures, especially your young ones.”

Billy jumped onto the stage and grabbed the mic. “This one’s for ol’ Lucy over there.” With a toothy grin, Billy set his bow to the strings and started in on The Devil Went Down to Georgia.

The devil growled and then yelled, “I hate this song!”

Image cred: unsplash.com/@mralireza06

The Smuggler – a short story (writing prompt Wednesday)

image cred: unsplash.com/@juanrojas

Here is this week’s story for Writing Prompt Wednesday (prompt at the bottom)

“Stop looking over your shoulder,” I whispered through gritted teeth.

Jon glanced forward again and down. “We’re being watched,” he replied. “Two officers, seven o’clock.”

I didn’t bother to turn. I knew better. “Gee. Wonder why?”

Jon was next in line. A Customs agent peeked up from his post and motioned him through the turnstile.

“Stay calm,” I said as Jon started toward the counter with his bag. I hated taking new recruits, especially when there was a good chance of a situation going south like it had. I couldn’t blame Jon too much. He was doing well until the blast. Now, we were only a few feet from freedom and the best payday I ever had, if only he could play it chill.

The agent was about to stamp Jon’s passport when one of the officers approached. Great. I felt a towering presence. Behind me stood another officer, at least a foot taller than me.

“Pardon me, sir, but I need you to come with me.”

I smirked.

A few minutes later, we sat in a cold room at a metal table that held our bags. The officers hadn’t handcuffed us, but the tall one stood at the door with his arms crossed. His body language made it clear that we would not be leaving soon. I glanced at the clock above the door. It took eight minutes until another man stepped into the room, wearing a white button-down shirt and black tie. A badge rested on one hip and a gun on the other.

He tossed my passport onto the table. “Mr. Benjamin Anderson.”

“That’s me.”

He did the same with Jon’s. “Mr. Jonathon Warhol.”

Jon gulped and nodded.

“Why you nervous, kid?”

“I… Because… I…”

“He suffers from chronic anxiety,” I said.

“I didn’t ask you, Mr. Anderson.” The man didn’t press Jon further, though. Instead, he turned toward me. “Brazil is a restricted country.”

“Restricted,” I replied, “but not illegal.”

“You travel there often.”

“I love the culture.”

“Mmm. And the purpose of your trip?”

“I’m part of an organization that works with an orphanage in Guarulhos. I have paperwork to…”

“I’ve seen your paperwork.”

“Then, might I ask, why are we being detained?”

The man, who had yet to share his name, narrowed his eyes. “You and Mr. Warhol checked out of a hotel in Guarulhos shortly after an explosion nearby.”

I nodded. “It was very chaotic. We were fortunate to make it to the airport in time. I haven’t seen much news. Were many people hurt?”

“Yes. Five were killed.”

“That’s tragic.”

The man grunted. “We’re going to search your bags.”

I shrugged. “Go ahead. We didn’t have an opportunity to wash our clothes, so you might want to be careful.”

Jon fidgeted, but I leaned back and folded my arms as the tall officer approached and opened our luggage. He removed our clothing, felt around the inside of the case, and called for another agent with a dog. The dog ignored our suitcases but whined and scratched at Jon’s clothing. The officers then unfolded every item and searched through the pockets, but all they found was a pack of chewing gum. It was a waste of our time and theirs.

The man in the tie didn’t look happy. “You may go. Sorry for any inconvenience.”

I grinned as I repacked my case. “Always a pleasure.”

As we headed for the airport’s exit, I texted an unspecified number in my phone that we were ready for our ride. A red minivan met us on the loop outside the terminal. Jon didn’t say much, but I chatted with the driver. Her name was Samantha. Of everyone I knew, she was the fastest through the busy streets of Chicago.

Our destination was an office building three blocks south of Willis Tower. Samantha dropped us off outside, and a man named Bryan greeted us and escorted us to the fourth floor. We sat in another room with our bags on the table, but this room was well-lit and cozy. I prided myself on having nice furniture at home, but these chairs put mine to shame.

We didn’t have to wait long before Robert Reynolds, a chunky man who I was sure slept in a three-piece suit, entered with a big grin. “Another successful run?” he asked as he keyed a special code on the locks of our luggage.

“We had a few problems.”

“I heard.”

“Our contact was compromised.”

“But you took care of her?”

“Of course. There was unfortunate collateral, but we weren’t seen.”

“Good. We’ll have to find a new location, though. Guarulhos isn’t safe for us anymore.”

I nodded but sighed. “Understandable. I’ll miss it. I love the nightlife there.”

“How were these new cases?”

“The dogs didn’t even find anything.”

“Good. Good.” He popped open the case, but instead of clothes, there were rows of tiny brown bags. Robert’s smile grew even larger. “Beautiful.” He tossed me a bag. “Here’s your cut.” He then glanced at Jon. “How’d my nephew do?”

“He’s not going to work out.”

“What?” Jon whipped his head toward me.

“Sorry, kid,” I said. “You’re the reason we were stopped by Customs.”

“That’s too bad.” Robert snapped his fingers.

“But…”

A large man grabbed the front of Jon’s shirt and lifted him from the chair. Jon protested and begged as tears filled his eyes. The large man was undeterred in dragging him from the room. I knew better than to ask what would become of Jon.

Robert tossed me another bag. “You get his as well.” He then motioned for a woman who held a smaller case. She set it on the table and opened the lid. Leaning forward with a grin, I thumbed through stacks of one-hundred-dollar bills. “Go buy you and the Missus a nice steak.”

“The nicest,” I replied.

It was after dark when I made it home to Bourbonnais. The lights were off. It didn’t surprise me that Jacquie and Matthew were in bed. My wife worked early, and Matthew had preschool. I set one of the bags Robert gave me on the kitchen table along with the case of money. I took the other bag to the counter, ripped it open, and inhaled the aroma. Measuring two tablespoons, I hit the button to start the machine.

Soft footsteps crossed the wood floor behind me.

“Hey, babe,” I said and turned. My toothy smile faded as I saw Jacquie with a gun pointed at my chest. Tears flooded her cheeks. “What are you doing?”

“I’m sorry, Bennie. I already called the police.”

“Why would you do that?” I asked.

Her hands trembled. With her finger on the trigger, that worried me more than Jon’s anxiety.

“I saw on the news,” she said as she sniffed. “The explosion… I can’t…” She bit her lip. “I can’t do this anymore. That’s blood on my hands if I do nothing.”

I heard sirens and sighed. Then, I chuckled. “You remember our first date? We went to that little café in Evanston. I introduced you to blonde roast. You said it was the best coffee you ever drank. It was a year later when President O’Brien issued that executive order making coffee illegal. He never should have done that, but look around, babe. That decision drove up the prices, and my work is why we can afford this house and Matthew’s private school and that favorite necklace of yours.”

The sirens cut off, but red and blue lights flashed through our windows. Jacquie lowered the gun, took a seat, and sobbed as fists pounded on our front door.

“ATCF, open up!”

The door flew open, and agents rushed in. I held up my hands and lowered myself to my knees.

“I love you, Jacquie. I always will. Tell Matthew that daddy loves him. Take care of our boy.”

The coffeemaker dinged.

The government would cut me a deal. If I named names and agreed to testify, I’d only serve twenty-five years.

But as officers handcuffed me on my kitchen floor, I knew what my arrest meant. I inhaled the deepest breath I could. I loved the fragrance of coffee. Sadly, though, I had drunk my last cup.

Today’s prompt is from: https://www.writtenwordmedia.com/500-writing-prompts-to-help-beat-writers-doubt/#5

Coffee is illegal and you have to single handedly smuggle it into the country.

The Supervillain’s Song (Writing Prompt Wednesday)

I found this prompt from a defunct page on Tumbler. There wasn’t a link or attribution, so I don’t know who it originates with. If you know, I’d love to hear to I can give credit! Prompt: Tell the story of why a supervillain sings a song in the shower to get prepared for the day.

Beep. Beep. Beep. Beep.

“Richard.”

Beep. Beep.

“Richard!”

“Hmm?”

“Your alarm, babe.”

“Oh.” Beep. Beep. Bee… “Thanks.”

I watched from the doorway as my husband sat up on the side of the bed and stretched. For ten years, he and I have been married. For ten years, I have returned to the room to wake him after he slept through the alarm. I’m not sure why he even uses one.

But Richard Barnhart, if nothing else, is a man of habit.

“Coffee’s brewing.”

He cocked his head and grinned, gazing at me through squinty eyes. I blushed. My sister told me before I married Richard and every week since, “You could do better, Janie, you really could.”

Maybe Richard struggled with work and sometimes went days without showering. He could be a bit quirky, but he was also charming. That goofy grin and his sweet words melted my heart. When he made me mad, I couldn’t stay angry long.

And Richard Barnhart, if nothing else, is a man of commitment.

That’s hard to find nowadays, but he loves me, and he loves our son, and not once have I had a doubt about that.

“I’m making muffins,” I said. “Do you want eggs or sausage?”

“Eggs, please.”

I smiled and blew him a kiss. He returned the gesture.

Jonathon, our seven-year-old, sat at the kitchen table. It was Monday. Jonathon, without fail, asked for blueberry muffins on Mondays. They were my favorite breakfast, so I was happy to oblige. He drew on a sheet of paper with colored pencil—a scene with tall buildings, a bright yellow sun, and two men fighting in the street. One wore a brownish-gray guise that resembled an armadillo. The other sported black tights, a matching cape, and a purple mask. He held a laser gun of some kind that fired at the armadillo.

“Who wins?” I asked.

Jonathon glanced up, grinning from ear-to-ear. It was his father’s grin, that same charm. “The Darth Avenger, of course!”

“Of course.” I chuckled and patted his shoulder before I grabbed an egg and a frying pan.

The pipes clanked as Richard showered. It wouldn’t be too long before we heard his voice echoing through the walls. He sang the same song every day.

I love my husband, but Richard Barnhart, if nothing else, is a man who cannot carry a tune.

Still, he belted: “Woah, we’re halfway there! Wo-oah, livin’ on a prayer! Take my hand; we’ll make it, I swear. Wo-oah livin’ on a prayer! Livin’ on a prayer!”

Jonathon used to ask why daddy sang the same song every day. I would smile and tell him that it was our song. We often struggled to pay the bills. It frustrated Richard, but the song reminded us that we had the most important thing already.

He finished his shower. I pulled the muffins from the oven and slid the egg onto his plate. Richard emerged from the bedroom wearing a black Spandex suit with a matching cape. “This looks awesome, hon,” he said as he kissed my cheek and grabbed his plate and coffee. “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome.” I beamed, but my grin quickly faded. I pointed to the growing stack of bills on the counter. “Several of those are second notices.”

He nodded. “I know. I have a bank job today. That should take care of the pile and the next month’s.”

“What if the Amazing Armadillo shows up?”

“I got that covered.” Richard glanced at Jonathon. “Isn’t that right, son?”

“Yeah!” Jonathon’s eyes grew big. “Dad has a new shrink ray!”

“Is that what you’re drawing?” I asked.

Jonathon nodded.

“Okay.” I placed my hand on Richard’s chest. “Just be careful.”

“Always am.” We kissed. “Love you, hon.” Richard pulled on his purple mask and headed for the door, singing as he walked. “Oh, we’ve got to hold on, ready or not. You live for the fight when it’s all that you got!”

Richard Barnhart, if nothing else, is a man of hope.

Photo cred: unsplash.com/@peterlaster

The Firefighter and the Cat (Writing Prompt Wednesday)

For Christmas, my wife bought me a Writing Prompts journal. One of the prompts is: Express the thoughts of a firefighter trying to rescue a kitten stuck in a tree. Here’s my response. Share in the comments your 500-word or less response to the prompt.

You’ve gotta be kidding me. Not this again–a cat, another cat!

I’ve been doing this job for thirty years. Do you realize how many cats I’ve rescued? It’s gotta be at least one a week. I’ve never once had to rescue a person from a tree. Well, actually, there was Mrs. Parker that one time, but that was after she climbed into the tree to rescue her dumb cat! That cat actually jumped out.

“His name is Mr. Pickles!” the little girl on the ground calls up.

Mr. Pickles? Give me a break. Why do parents let their kids name living creatures things like Mr. Pickles? At least Darla and Donnie wanted to call our puppy Sadie. I like Sadie. She’s a good dog and has a good name.

And she doesn’t get stuck in trees.

These stupid cats, though…

Sigh. There is one bright side–it’s my last day on the job. Tomorrow, I begin a life of retirement. My coworkers insist that I’m still young. I don’t know about that. Yeah, I’m barely into my fifties, but after thirty-years of lugging equipment around and running into burning buildings? I’m ready to call it quits.

Besides, Donnie is going to be a senior. I really want to make more of his games.

I reach the top of the ladder and the cat looks me in the eyes and meows. Honestly, I see no fear in his face. “Why do you do this?” I ask. He licks his paw.

Curious.

Unless, maybe all these cats I’ve rescued were never really in distress? Maybe they just get themselves in the trees to get away? I mean, have you met their owners?

I grab a branch and pull myself into the tree.

“Hey, Mike! What are you doing?” a voice calls from below.

The cat moves, allowing me to wiggle toward the trunk. I feel safer there. Mr. Pickles then crawls into my lap and curls up. You know, the view’s not bad from here. I think I’ll stay for a little while.

Photo cred: unsplash.com/@berg_photo

Writing Prompt Wednesday (Characters in a Crunch)

Today’s writing prompt comes from Writers’ Digest. Click on over and join the discussion there: https://www.writersdigest.com/be-inspired/characters-in-a-crunch

Here’s my contribution:

“Oh, my gosh, Dad! What did you do?”

James stopped chewing mid-crunch and glanced up from his phone. His eyes were wide as Kole and Katie, still in their pajamas, stared at him.

“What?”

Katie held up the nearly empty cereal box and shook it. There were two, maybe three pieces left as crumbs. “Trix are for kids, Dad!”

“Sorry,” James muttered. Then he finished chewing his bite. “I was starving, and it was the only cereal we had. Your mom is shopping. She’s buying more. If you’re really that hungry, I can make you pancakes or something.”

Seven-year-old Kole had been scowling, but his eyes grew wide and his jaw dropped. Both he and ten-year-old Katie took a step back, but the boy cowered behind his sister. James followed his gaze and peered over his shoulder. He jumped, startled, and nearly spilled the remaining cereal and milk as he scurried to the opposite side of the table.

A six-foot-tall white cartoon rabbit stood in the kitchen. Its ears flopped as it cocked its head. “Hello, James.”

“This can’t be real.”

“Oh, I’m real.” The rabbit’s eyes narrowed. “Did you enjoy your lemony yellow and orangey orange, James?”

James sidestepped so he stood between the rabbit and his children. “They were alright. Froot Loops are better.”

The rabbit shook its head. “You shouldn’t have done it, James. You shouldn’t have eaten the Trix.”

“What do you want, Rabbit?”

The rabbit opened its mouth. A ray of sparkling blue light poured from the dark cavern behind its bright red tongue. Katie and Kole dropped to the floor. Katie hid her eyes, but Kole gawked. James felt warmth as the light enveloped him. It was soothing, like crawling under an electric blanket on a chilly evening. His clothes seemed to grow bigger. James stared at his hands and watched his wedding ring slide off and strike the linoleum with a clink.

That was when he realized his clothes weren’t getting larger.

The light faded, and James grabbed the waist of his pants to keep them from falling. “You turned me into a kid?” he squeaked.

The rabbit grinned. “There!” He pointed at the table, and a new box of cereal appeared. “Now you can enjoy all the Trix you want!” The rabbit turned and strolled out the back door.

Katie and Kole stood. James shook his head. “Your mom is going to kill me.” He glanced down at himself and sighed. Then he cocked his head and eyed his son. “I’m going to have to borrow some of your clothes.”

Photo cred: https://unsplash.com/@nyanastoica

The Necklace (a Christmas short story)

The seventh and final in my Christmas short story / flash fiction series. Enjoy!

I hesitated as I rounded the corner and hunkered into my down jacket.

Half a block ahead, a grizzled and unkempt man sat with his back against the brick wall. He wore a stocking hat and overcoat, both of which had seen better days. Without gloves, he rubbed his hands together and blew warm breath onto his fingers.

Maybe if I had seen him sooner I could have crossed the street. I thought about turning around but he caught me with his gaze.

What’s the big deal? you might wonder. I felt bad enough whenever I walked by a beggar on a normal day, but Christmas Eve?

I shoved my hands deeper into my pockets and sighed.

“Hey, Mister?” the man said with a gravelly voice. “You got some change?”

“Sorry.” I quickened my pace.

“Merry Christmas!” he said to my back.

My heart sunk. I had a dollar in my wallet. I suppose I could have given it to him though it wasn’t much but I wasn’t turning back.

In three more blocks, I reached my destination. Bart’s Cafe on Fourth Avenue had existed longer than I had been alive and I was certain they hadn’t changed the fryer grease in those thirty-four years, either. Mom used to work there. I was three when she died. Dad helped keep her memory alive by taking me and my older brother to the diner every Christmas Eve. I hadn’t been in a decade, neither had Dad or Aaron. I wouldn’t have gone that year except I needed the solace of familiarity.

I stepped inside, pulled off my gloves and scarf, and welcomed the warmth. There were only two other patrons, a waitress in a green elf’s hat, and a cook who chomped on gum and shot the breeze with a man on a barstool.

I sat at the opposite end of the bar. The waitress approached and asked what I wanted. “Double cheeseburger with mustard and extra onions,” I replied. I thought about the homeless man I passed. “Actually, you know what, make that two. No onions on the second. And two coffees to go.”

“You want anything with that? The slaw is fresh.”

“Two orders of fries.”

“K, hon. It’ll be a few minutes.” She relayed my order to the cook.

I rubbed my face and then played with my wedding ring. It was my and Katie’s tenth Christmas together. I was afraid it would be our last. We had opened presents that morning, a tradition of our own, then she took the kids to see her parents. I hadn’t been invited on the trip. The year hadn’t been easy, especially after I lost a second job in six-month’s time. We argued almost every night, a few times in front of the kids at supper, something we had once vowed never to do. We were drifting. I had spent more nights sleeping on the couch than I had in our bed.

How could two people once so in love find themselves so far apart?

Neither of us had cheated. We didn’t hate each other. We just couldn’t get ourselves on the same page. A friend had recommended counseling. We had gone a few times but even those sessions often ended in verbal tussles.

We were worn down and tired. Josh and Hannah felt it, too.

The waitress brought me the food, two takeout containers in a plastic shopping bag. She ran my card. I added a ten-dollar tip and scrawled Merry Christmas! across the receipt.

The man still sat where I had passed him. He gave a curt nod, likely thinking I would walk by again. Instead, I asked if I could join.

“No one’s ever asked that.” He gestured to the sidewalk.

“Sorry, I was rude.”

He shrugged. “I’m used to it.”

I handed him a box. “I don’t have cash to give you but no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. I hope you like cheeseburgers.”

He smiled. “I love them.”

I held out my hand. He shook it. “My name’s Kenton.”

“Gus.”

“Pleased to meet you.”

“What’s your story?” Gus asked, his mouth full of cheeseburger.

“What do you mean?”

“You said that no one should eat alone on Christmas Eve. If I hadn’t been here, you’d have been alone.”

I chuckled. He had a point. I told him my reason.

“That’s rough,” he said.

“Yeah.”

“Do you still love her?”

I rumpled my brow. “Of course.”

The man glanced at me and grinned. “Then why, Kenton, are you sitting here talking to a lonely old man?”

I slowly chewed my bite, pondering what he meant.

“Go to her,” he whispered.

I stood. He was right. I gave him the rest of my food.

“You might need this.” Gus reached into his pocket and pulled out a tiny box.

“What is it?”

“Take a look.”

I opened the box and inside was a necklace with two butterflies. Katie loved butterflies. I had bought her a necklace like it when we dated. Somewhere along the way she had lost it. Neither of us could quite remember when.

“How’d you…” I glanced up. Gus was gone. The boxes were still on the concrete where we sat. I looked left, then right. He couldn’t have disappeared that quickly. My eyes returned to the locket. Whatever happened with Gus or whoever he actually was, I knew what I had to do.

It was a three-hour drive. I arrived just as the sun was setting. Many of my in-law’s neighbors tried to outdo each other with their display of lights. The little white and brick house that sat on the corner, however, had simple strings of white running along the gutters. Things didn’t have to be complicated.

That’s what I forgot.

Spend time with her. Listen. Enjoy life with her and our children.

I parked, ran to the door of that white and brick house, and rang the bell in a frenzy.

“Okay, okay, coming!” my mother-in-law hollered.

She opened the door. “Kenton?”

Katie sat on the floor playing Candyland with Josh. She glanced up. I smiled.

+++

The next week, we walked hand-in-hand down the street. Katie wanted to see what after-Christmas deals the stores and shops promoted. Across the street, I saw a familiar face. A young man stopped and handed him a bottle of water.

“I have to do something.” I started toward the street.

“Where are you going?”

“I’ll be back! Give me a moment!” I called as I jogged to the unkempt man. “Hi, Gus.”

The man stared at me with yellowing brown eyes.

“I wanted to say thank you again.”

“Do I know you?”

I gazed at the man, unsure what to think about him, his question, or what had happened. I carried a twenty-dollar bill in my wallet that time. Instead of pressing him further, asking who he was or how he knew about the necklace, I pulled out the bill and handed it to him.

He grasped it with rough, callused fingers. “Thanks.”

I gave a nod and returned to my wife.

“What was that about?” she asked.

I shrugged and took her hand. Then I pointed at the store window. “Hey, there’s that train set Joshie wanted. Looks like a good deal. Maybe we should get it for his birthday.”

©2020 Michael Bergman

Image by unsplash.com/@golfarisa

A First Christmas (a Christmas short story)

Today’s Christmas story:

“Mmmm.” My eyes slowly opened. I could smell the bacon on the stove. I glanced over the side of the bunk. Stevie’s mattress was empty and his sheets in a tangled clump. I slowly lowered myself to the floor and yipped as my bare feet touched cold hardwood before I could find my slippers.

Landon still lay in his bed, half on his back and half on his side. His arm hung off the bed and his long, greasy hair covered his face. I grabbed Stevie’s pillow and threw it at my oldest brother. Landon grunted and stirred.

“What?” he mumbled.

“Come on! It’s Christmas! Dad’s cooking bacon and there are presents to open!”

Landon rolled away from me, not sharing my enthusiasm.

I ran to the kitchen. Stevie was already sitting at the table poking his fork into red and green pancakes.

“Good morning, Mark,” mom said and kissed my head. Dad slid a plate of three pancakes and a side of bacon onto the table.

My eyes grew big. “Looks delicious!” They tasted as good as they looked.

Stevie and I were done eating by the time Landon stumbled in scratching his neck. He yawned, stretched, and grabbed a pancake without sitting down. “Don’t we got presents or something?” he asked, crumbs falling from his lips. He glanced at me with a grin and a wink.

Mom clapped her hands together. “Yes, now that you’re all awake! Come, come!”

We moved to the living room and my brothers and I crammed around the tree. Stevie and I scuffled and scurried, trying to figure out which ones belonged to us.

“Boys,” dad said sternly as he sat in the recliner. “Calm yourselves. Landon, why don’t you pass out the presents this year?”

Landon shrugged. “Whatever.” Stevie and I sat back as Landon sorted through the wrapped treasures and stacked piles in front of us.

“On three,” mom said. “One… two…”

She didn’t make it to three before Stevie and I tore paper and sent it flying through the air. My first present was round and heavy. With the paper gone, I stared at a giant can of cut green beans.

Landon must have noticed the tears starting to well in my eyes. He leaned close and whispered, “Hey, buddy, remember you have to pretend to like it. That way they won’t realize that we know.”

I nodded, forced a smile, and glanced at mom and dad. “Thank you. It’s just what I wanted!”

The next Christmas was better. That first one was rough. That’s life, though, when your parents’ bodies get taken over by alien brain slugs.

©2020 Michael Bergman

Image by: unsplash.com/@hi_i_am_steph

Giving and Forgiving (A Christmas Short Story)

Here’s today’s Christmas short story. I hope you enjoy!

“Watcha have?”

I glanced at the shelves behind the bartender. “You got any eggnog?”

The tall lady raised an eyebrow.

I sighed and rubbed my face. “Just a Coke, please.”

She grinned and grabbed a glass as an older, grizzled man sat beside me. “You look festive,” he said while he pointed at me and held up two fingers. The bartender returned with two Cokes.

“I don’t feel festive.”

“The name’s Tim. What’s yours?”

I didn’t feel in the mood for smalltalk, either, but I sensed that Tim wasn’t going to leave me alone. I, however, didn’t want to explain the uniqueness of my name (Aloysius Frankincense Robbins), so I just said, “Al.”

“Good to meet you, Al.”

“Same to you.” I took a sip and nearly spat as the fizz burned my throat. It was the strangest sensation I had felt. No wonder the old man banned carbonated beverages. Yet, I also kind of liked it.

“Why so dour, especially this close to Christmas?”

I glanced at the man. “You really want to know?”

“I’m told I’m a good listener.” Tim smiled.

“I quit my job,” I said with a sad chuckle. “It was stupid, too. I was good at what I did, the best even, and the benefits were great.”

“What happened?”

“Sometimes the monotony gets to me,” I answered. “I wash tights. Every day–red, green, white, sparkly, tights, tights, tights, thousands of tights. It gets old but it also gives me time to think. It’s just that me and my girlfriend had an argument and it gave me too much time to think, I guess. So, I started throwing tights all over the place, screaming how much I hated everything. I didn’t mean it but others were staring at me, including the boss, and I stormed out and told them where they could shove the tights.”

“That’s not good.”

“No.” I sighed. “I didn’t really hate my job. I was even offered a move to the toy line a few years ago but I turned it down, even though it’s supposed to be every el… er… person’s dream.”

“Would you go back, if you could?”

My eyes lit up. “Absolutely!”

The grizzled man smiled. “Well, Aloysius, why don’t you?”

I scrunched my face. “How do you know my name?”

The man began to laugh. His laugh echoed louder as he tossed back his head and placed his hands on his bulging belly. His beard grew longer and lights swirled around him. The tattered clothes he wore morphed into a red and white suit. “Ha ha ha! Ho ho ho!” His laugh became his famous bellow.

“Santa!” I exclaimed.

He winked. “We’ve missed you, Aloysius. It’s only been three days, I know, but the elves trying to replace you don’t have a clue what they’re doing. It takes a special person to handle delicate laundry. Merrywinkle has even shrunk three pairs of Mrs. Klaus’ unmentionables. I don’t think I’ll ever hear the end of that. We need you.”

“You really want me back?” I couldn’t believe it.

“Of course! Christmas is about giving and forgiving, as the Good Lord taught us. So, what do you say? Donner and Blitzen are waiting out back with the sleigh.”

I smiled. “Can I finish my Coke first?”

©2020 Michael Bergman

Image by: unsplash.com/@polarmermaid

A Matter of Presents (Christmas Short Story)

Set up: Don’t mess with a girl’s Magic Rainbow Pony Giraffe dreams!

“Andrew! Carla! What on earth?” Dad stood in the living room, having just woken up. My sister and I sleepily stirred from our rooms. My hair was a mess, I’m sure. It always was.

Carla rubbed her eyes and carried her teddy bear. I fumbled with my glasses and almost dropped them twice. The sun wasn’t even up and I hated mornings.

It was the week before Christmas. Mom and dad had placed the first presents under the tree. They were supposed to keep us excited for the Big Day but they were also relentless temptations.

When I was five, I opened them early, even ones that weren’t mine. Dad threatened to return them to the store. Mom talked him out of it but he warned me if I ever did it again then I’d only get underwear. No kid wants underwear for Christmas let alone only underwear.

That year I was nine. I knew better than to mess with the presents but as I stumbled into the living room, Carla at my heels, my bare feet stepped on shreds of wrapping paper. My mouth hung open. I stared at dad. He crossed his arms and tapped his foot. He glared at us, as mad as I’d ever seen him.

“What did I tell you?” he roared. Carla started to cry; I wasn’t far behind.

“We didn’t do it, I swear!” I squeaked.

“Then, who did?”

“Maybe it was Bruticus!” I blamed our corgi.

Dad rolled his eyes. He was about to say something else when Carla shoved me out of the way and bolted toward the tree.

“A Magic Rainbow Pony Giraffe!” She swept the package off the floor and spun circles, her tears suddenly gone. “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!”

Dad sighed and took the toy from her hands. “Remember what I’ve told you?”

“No!” Carla scrunched her face, crossed her arms, and stomped. “No! No! No!”

“Brent.” Mom stepped into the room carrying a cup of coffee and softly said dad’s name.

“Fine. We’ll rewrap them.” Dad scowled and pointed at me and Carla. “But if this happens again, they’re going back.”

I wish I could say that was the end of it. I wish I could say it didn’t happen again. I really thought it might have been Bruticus, though I didn’t rule out Carla. I was wrong. Mom and dad wrapped our presents and put them under the tree again. When we woke the next morning, the same thing had happened. Only that time, dad stumbled in and found me standing in the middle of the paper mess.

We begged. We pleaded. Carla cried, stomped, and shouted. I might have done the same as dad gathered all the presents in his arms. I don’t remember. Maybe. I didn’t even want to have Christmas if it was package after package of brand new undies.

I knew I hadn’t opened the presents. Carla insisted she hadn’t. Dad had locked Bruticus in the garage, so it couldn’t have been him.

Who was ruining Christmas, then? I had an idea to try.

That night after supper, I snuck into mom and dad’s room and grabbed wrapping paper and tape.

“What are you doing?” Carla asked when she found me wrapping my ball glove, some Legos, and a pair of pants. I just shook my head and told her to go away.

I did all I could to stay awake until I heard mom and dad go to bed. Then, I snuck the fake presents under the tree and hid behind the couch. I didn’t last long, though. My eyes grew heavy. I fought and fought but sleep won.

That was until I heard rustling and paper tearing. My eyes slowly opened. I rubbed them and again. My jaw dropped. I couldn’t believe what I saw. We had an Elf on the Shelf. Carla liked it but I thought it was dumb. I knew mom and dad moved it every night. At least I thought they did. The old elf we had for years had vanished so mom bought a new one.

And there it was, under the tree, ripping into the fake presents.

“Hey!” I whisper-shouted and jumped from behind the couch. “It was you!”

The elf narrowed its eyes and sneered. My baseball glove fell from its hands and it pushed its sleeves up its arms. The elf was no bigger than my foot but I suddenly wasn’t sure of myself.

It lunged. I shrieked.

“Ahhhhhhh!” Carla blew by me, snatched the elf, and before I could blink the doll was torn to pieces on the floor in a pile of stuffing. Carla had it’s head in her hands and smashed it repeatedly against the floor. “I wanted a Magic Rainbow Pony Giraffe!” she screamed each word as she pounded.

Mom and dad ran into the room.

“What on earth?” mom asked while dad said some words I shouldn’t repeat and scooped Carla into his arms.

I gawked at the dismembered elf. There was no way I could explain it. Mom and dad wouldn’t believe me. I’m still not sure I believed what I saw. In shock, I wandered to the pile of elf and bent down for it’s torso. I glanced at the tag and chuckled in disbelief.

“It’s a South Pole elf. That’s the problem.”

The elf body fell from my fingers and I lumbered away to my bedroom, shaking my head.

As for Christmas, it turned out not to be that bad. I still got a new package of underwear and honestly I kind of needed them, but mom hadn’t let dad return the rest of the presents. They waited until Christmas morning to pull them out of their closet.

As Carla sat on the floor happily playing with her Magic Rainbow Pony Giraffe and dad went for a second cup of coffee, I snuggled with mom.

She kissed my head. “Did you have a good Christmas, bud?”

“Yeah,” I said and then glanced up. “Let’s just never do Elf on the Shelf again.”

©2020 Michael Bergman

/end story

Hope you enjoyed!