Yeah, so. This is late.
It’s been a rough few days…
The Catastrophe of Christmas
Tramping through six inches of snow and being brained in the face by a snowball is not Liriel’s idea of fun. In fact, her idea of fun is so radically different from the current situation, she’s contemplating writing an essay about it once this nightmarish experience is over.
“HA!” Lotch crows, scooping up another handful of snow, “ten points go to me!”
Aven skids to a halt on the sidewalk, mouth twisted in indignation. “That was only five points.”
“No it ain’t! I beaned her in the sniffer!”
“You missed her nose by at least three inches.”
“Children,” Liriel says, exasperated, “My face is not a target.”
They fall silent, blinking at her like a pair of empty-headed sloths. Aven glances at Lotch.
Lotch chucks another clod of snow at Liriel’s face.
The poorly aimed missile explodes on the street lamp behind her. Liriel sighs, tightens her scarf around her face, and turns away. The little imbeciles. If they can’t act like respectable, sentient beings, she’ll have to do it for them.
Something scuffles on the sidewalk beside her. Emolas materializes in the lamplight, smiling and bare-headed, two spots of crimson in his cheeks. Frost dusts his hair.
“I know I’m late,” he says, triggering a small avalanche as he ducks his snowy head.
“Silly.” Steam rises from the warmth of her breath. “Where’s your hat? Your ears will be cold.”
Emolas bats at the side of his face. “They’re fine.”
They’re also turning a frigid, purplish red, but Liriel doesn’t mention it. She doesn’t need to, and she wouldn’t have the chance, anyway, for Lotch comes hurtling down the sidewalk with arms flailing and mouth acting as a foghorn in the freezing mist.
“Liriel!” she screeches, and promptly trips over Emolas’ bootlaces (which aren’t tied), “Christmas is in two days and — oh hi, Mr. Green Hair — and Aven says he won’t get me a present!”
“Good for him. Holiday gifts are a waste of economic resources.”
“Liriel!” Emolas and Lotch cry in unison, the latter significantly louder and more passionate.
Aven appears at Liriel’s elbow. “Heyo, Emolas!” he says, grinning. “Now that we’re all finally here, Liriel can stop fidgeting over schedules and we can do this thing!”
He makes it sound like they’re going on a grand adventure, like all’s well with the world and they weren’t kicked out of their tenant building that morning. Like a pile of useless instruments doesn’t now reside in the back of their van. Like they didn’t have chicken nuggets and partially thawed frozen peas for dinner.
As it is, Aven figured it would be grand (or melodramatic, she thinks) to go caroling on the night of their eviction, to “lift the vibe,” he said, and “preserve the spirit of friendship and Christmas felicity during such a time of disproportional atmospheric imbalance.”
(Whatever that’s supposed to mean — he thought if he used big words, it would make her more inclined to believe him.)
(He was wrong.)
So here they are. Herself, her cousin, and the only friends who aren’t phased by their recent poverty — that is, a green-haired klutz and…
Well, she’s still not completely sure who Lotch is or why she’s here, but Aven seems to think her presence is necessary. So. A green-haired klutz and an eight-year-old. And if they’re going to “do this thing,” as Aven said, then they might as well do it properly.
“Alright.” Liriel claps her hands together. “Does everyone have their carol books?”
Three blank gazes stare back at her.
So much for doing it properly.
She sighs. This should be expected, really, when pairing three of the world’s biggest dunces together. Her only complaint is that she has to be paired with them. “Are you trying to tell me that not a single one of you brought a book?”
“Oh, shucks, is that what you mean?” Lotch’s cheeks are blue and nose is red, and when enveloped in a coat three sizes to big, somehow manages to look like a frozen tomato. “I got a book!” She brandishes her trophy, which is upside down and says Narkle’s Guide to Auto-Repair on the front cover.
“Wrong,” Liriel says, but has grace enough to leave it there. Besides not being able to read, the poor little brat probably doesn’t even know what a carol is. “Next?”
Emolas raises his hand. “Well, I have a carol book—
She holds her breath.
“—but I lost it.”
Aven tilts his head to the side like a grinning lemur and brandishes his book. “Behold!”
That can’t be right. “What’s the catch?” she asks, narrowing her eyes, but he only shrugs.
“No catch. I’m a responsible adult.”
This, regardless of how much she wishes it were true, is blatantly inaccurate and mildly suspicious. She snatches the book from him, rifles through it, and — ah, oh yes, now she understands, because the hymns are covered top to bottom in crudely sketched caricatures of herself and Emolas engaged in various forms of stupidity.
(Like gardening. Or karaoke.)
“Wrong,” she says, shoving it back at him with more violence than was probably appropriate. (He stumbles, she notes with an icy sort of pleasure, and almost falls into a snowdrift. She should have pushed him harder.) “I suppose we’ll have to share mine.”
What a dreadful thought.
They take a full thirty minutes to walk beyond the shop fronts and neon ‘closed’ signs, and when they finally do find the crumbling residential district, a thin lair of ice crusts Liriel’s coat. The street is shadowy, deserted, lined on either side by dark-windowed duplex houses and lit by a solitary street lamp. Snow swirls in the flickering light, teasing the darkness’ existence. Liriel closes her eyes and breathes. This is her paradise, when the world is lonelier than she.
“Hey Liriel! Look at these weird hot-dogs someone left lying out!”
Her eyes snap open. “Those are dog droppings, Lotch. Don’t eat them.”
Lotch puts the weird hot-dogs back where she found them.
So here they are. Crowded together on a stranger’s front porch, slipping on ice and elbowing each other — Liriel in the middle, holding the carol book open, with Aven shoving against her on one side and Lotch’s frigid little fingers clawing for balance as Emolas lifts her high enough to see the page.
“Aven,” Liriel says, “ring the doorbell.”
The cl-cl-clack of Lotch’s chattering teeth swells in the silence of the night. They wait, and wait. A mental image appears unbidden in Liriel’s mind, a momentary glimpse of a flannel-wearing, bristle-chinned, shotgun-wielding old man cussing at them to get off his lawn. Wouldn’t she do the same, if a hoard of unwanted carolers appeared on her front doorstep? (Not that she has a front doorstep any more, but that’s beside the point.) “I wonder,” she begins, “I wonder, do you really think this is—”
And then, without warning, before preparation or thought or a moment to steel herself for the shotgun and cussing, the door slams open. Light gushes forth. They blink.
“Sing!” Aven screeches, “sing!”
So they sing, bursting into four different renditions of “Away in a Manger,” using every key known to treble clef, tripping over their words and coming to the shocking conclusion that Emolas is tone-deaf. They reach the end of the chorus, flounder, turn the page, and now they’re on the second verse. The sting of snow on Liriel’s skin melts away in the heat of raging, red-hot embarrassment, only heightened by the fact that Lotch isn’t singing words at all, but a garbled mish-mash of vowels and consonants vaguely reminiscent of the tune of their song. The child’s eyes glaze over as she puffs at the book.
Oh, right. She can’t read.
The person standing in the doorway is bristle-chinned and wears a flannel shirt, but he’s very much a young man and instead of a shotgun, he grips the door frame as though it will impart enough strength to withstand Emolas belting “Look down where He laaaaaay—” three decibels louder than everyone else.
“The little Lord Jesus—” Aven glances up at their victim— “asleep on the ha— Oh!”
His voice stumbles to a halt.
The song dies after that, petering into an awkward silence broken only by Lotch’s little “wooha!” of victory at the end. Liriel catches her breath and glances at her cousin, in time to see his eyes bug from their sockets. The man in front of them stares back. His face is a ragged tapestry of tanned lines and untrimmed scruff and base confusion, mixed with so much animosity her heart does a double take.
“Do you think—” she begins, turning to Emolas, but stops short.
Emolas has gone pale. Paler than the day after his concussion, paler than a bloodless corpse. He sets Lotch on her feet (still wiggling and exclaiming “wooha!”), straightens, scrunches his brows — when he looks at Aven, there’s no more softness in the dandelion eyes — and says, “Well.”
Which must be a codeword, because Aven bolts.
The world descends into a riotous whirl of madness and muted shrieking. Liriel is running, though she doesn’t know why, with Emolas beside her and wind in her hair and ice in her lungs and Aven screaming, “Go, go, go!” behind her, snow exploding beneath her boots as they pelt into the street and someone — the man? — bellowing incoherently after their shadows.
They stumble over a snowdrift, trip, sprawl — but it’s alright, the snowdrift hides them. Cold seeps into her back as she lays there, gasping for air.
Emolas coughs. “That was unexpected.”
Liriel straightens, brushes hair out of her face, and glares at both of them. “Dare I ask?”
Now Aven coughs, and glances at Emolas. They look down. “Um, d’you remember that… that concert I went to a while back? And there was, uh—”
“An attempted murder, yes I remember.”
“Well, you know the guy? The almost-murderer?” He taps his fingers together like this is the most innocent thing in the world, like he’s about to explain the rules of Checkers or Go Fish, “well, we just sang him a carol.”
Liriel’s stomach flips.
“I have a concern.” Emolas’ hesitant voice interrupts her self-pity. “Where is Lotch?”
They find her where they left her, wiggling on the front porch and facing a (probable) ex-convict. (Or maybe not even ex. Who knows, he could be an escapee! — or so Aven theorized.) Liriel slinks around the side of the house, Emolas following so close she can feel the warmth of his breath on her neck. Aven trails further behind. They peer around the corner together, and there she is, their little friend. And she—
“Okay,” Aven whispers, skidding to a halt behind them, “should I call 911 or— holy smokes, what is the kid doing?”
“She’s talking to him,” Emolas says glumly.
The man still stands in his doorway, arms crossed so tightly over his chest Liriel wonders how he can breathe. Greasy black hair falls in a ragged pony-tale to his shoulders. He stares, brow furrowed, at the chattering little girl in front of him.
“And then Liriel went whooosh—” Lotch spreads her arms wide and pantomimes someone falling— “and Green Hair grabs her like this—” she clutches the man’s plaid sleeve, eliciting a flinch— “and the car goes by and splashes muck, and they almost gets their heads run over, and blarmey, Mister, you shoulda seen it!”
The man carefully disentangles himself from her grip. “Um… yeah, okay…”
Lotch, mistaking his hold on her fingers as a sign of further affection, hugs him.
He stumbles back with Lotch wrapped around his waist, rams into the door-frame, and curses. Lotch beams.
“Shucks, I don’t even know that word! What’s it mean? Liriel prob’ly knows what it means — Liriel knows everything, Mister, you gotta believe it, she’s always spouting stuff like ‘ecohomical resurfaces’ or—”
“Kid,” the man wheezes, “kid, I can’t breathe.”
She lets him go slowly, like a koala peeling away from its tree. Stepping back and lifting her face to the light, suddenly grave as she peers at him with eyes too small for the enormity of her soul, she is no one and yet everyone — a child made of silver and stardust and ten-cent aluminum. “Who be you, mister? Why did they run away from you?”
And she looks at him, and he looks at her (and Liriel watches from the sanctity of her hiding place), and he is no longer the murderous animal Aven told stories of, a creature of violence and horror and wickedness incarnate — he is not that, but only a man. A man with rumpled clothes and shaking hands and frown-lines tugging the corners of his mouth down. A man with too many memories spilling through the bloodshot depths of his eyes.
A man who is mortal.
“My name is Sley,” he says.
(And Liriel shivers, though she doesn’t know why, for somewhere in this name, this voice, these eyes — somewhere, a bloodthirsty beast lurks.)
OoOOooh, cliff hanger…
I want to go to bed now.