Hooves on Ice

My breath fogged in the icy air; piles of snow lined the street after a recent storm. Ezra was running and screaming at the top of his lungs. Mom had to run into the store and asked me to watch him.

I wish she would have left him at home; I wished Ezra was never born. He was “special,” meaning that he screamed all the time and never talked. He didn’t go to standard classes, and the other kids made fun of me for being his sister.I chased him down the street, nearly slipping on the ice.

The coat I was wearing was far too big for me and made it hard to run. It belonged to my older sister, but my parents told me I would grow into it. The coat made it hard to run and keep up with Ezra. He ran into an alley; I followed as best I could, but I was running out of breath. My lungs burned as I breathed in the ice-cold air.

“I wish you would just go away, Ezra. I wish you would go away forever,” I said under my breath.

There was a loud crack as a colossal icicle fell right beside me. Two giant hooves rested where the icicle had dropped. Massive chains clinked to the snow-laden ground, held by a gigantic monster—long silver-blue fur with pale pearl eyes. Giant, crystalline horns rested on its head. On his back, he carried a bundle of sticks and a large brown sack. The bag on his back was squirming, and I heard Ezra crying from within.“As you wish.” It snorted as it disappeared without a trace.

My mom and sister came running out of the store.

“Hellen, where are you!”

I stood still; I wanted to speak, but words wouldn’t form. Cold air numbed my nose and the tips of my ears. My teeth chattered. My mother found her way to the ally and saw me standing staring into space.

“Hellen! Where is Ezra?”

“I don’t know!”

“You were supposed to be watching him!”

“He ran too fast, I followed him and here but…. but- “

“But what?”

I didn’t want to tell my mom what I saw, she would think I was crazy or making things up, and I would be in trouble.

“Why didn’t you bring me when he ran off?” asked my mother, her brows knitting.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Sorry fixes nothing.”

“Neither does arguing,” added my big sister. A new puffy jacket rested over her tall, willowy frame. “We should call the police.”

“You’re right, Liza,” said my mother.

“You take Hellen and look for Ezra. I’ll go tell the clerk what happened and make a report with the local sheriff.”

“Yes, mom,” she said.“I should have left you in charge, Liza. You’re the responsible one,“ she sighed.

“Hellen, you are your brother’s keeper,” said my mom.

“He’s your son. You had him. I didn’t have a choice in this.”I felt a stinging slap on my face as my mother slapped me.

“Go and help Liza. We’re all in this together.”

My older sister gripped my hand, nails digging into my wrist as she took off down the street. She was hauling me through every frostbitten ally looking for Ezra. We saw nothing, not even footsteps on the ground below. It was like he vanished.When we came back, there was a policeman with a notepad and a pen.

“Normally, we wait a couple of hours, but as he’s autistic, we’ll start now,“ said the policeman.“Thank God,” said my mom.

“I tried to watch him, sir,” I said. “But he ran too fast.”“Ma’am, why were you leaving an eight-year-old in charge of him?” The officer asked.

“I’m ten, sir,” I said.

The police officer eyed my mother suspiciously.

“Look, I was just running into the store for a minute,” she said, her cheeks growing red.

“I swear, I was only in there a minute.”

“We’ll send out a search and do everything we can.” The policeman clicked his pen and walked down the street.

She glared at me, and my sister pulled hard on my arm. We searched every block and ally downtown. My feet were numb, and my legs felt like rubber. My nose was sore and red. A knot formed in my stomach as we drove home in the station wagon. The heat was on full blast, and Christmas music blared on the radio. We got home to our little red house, just outside of town.

My father was pacing back and forth, gripping a phone in his hand. I tried to creep into the house unheard. Liza dragged me into the living room and shoved me toward the table. I hit the corner, and all it knocked the breath out of me.

“You nearly had us all taken away!” she yelled. “They’ll come and take us all away. Then they’ll put us in foster homes.”

“It’s not my fault; he ran too fast.”

“Why didn’t you get mom?!”

“Girls!” My father’s voice called out. “This was an accident; it wasn’t anyone’s fault.”

“I should have waited till you got home,” sobbed my mother. She was crying. “I could have taken the girls to the store, and Ezra would still be here.”

“Shh, hon, it’s not your fault, it’s not anyone’s fault,” said my father as he held mom close. I wanted to slink back to my room and pretend today never happened. I hated having to go to the store to watch him. I despised never having enough time to myself or to study. I knew they all blamed me, and I wished all of this to be over.

“Hellen, can you tell me what happened?” asked my father. His voice was low and soothing after the high-pitched screams of my mom and sister. I caught my breath and shuddered.

“Well, Ezra was throwing one of his tantrums and yelling and screaming. He ran off, and I went after him to an ally behind the Radio Shack. We looked everywhere for him, but he was gone.”

I didn’t dare tell my dad about the monster. He wouldn’t believe me, and I would get the belt for sure. It wasn’t fair. He shouldn’t have been out, to begin with. I wish I hadn’t been born at all. I went to my and Liza’s room. It was a simple girl’s bedroom, painted a soft violet, with a wooden desk and a bunk bed. Liza had a lower bed, and she covered the lower wall in boy band posters.

My little corner of the room had a bookshelf, and we shared a computer for schoolwork. She would hog the phone for hours when she knew I needed to go online and work on book reports for school. Liza threatened to beat me up if I told anyone I was her sister and made fun of me all the time. It was okay; I was smarter than her, anyway.

Ice crystals suddenly formed on the door. I saw my breath in the air, and my teeth chattered. The monster stood in front of me, chains rattling. Ezra screamed from inside the bag. The creature snorted. Fog, and snowflakes left his nostrils.

“Give my brother back! Please!” I said.

“Only if you take his place,” it said. Its voice was a low bellow like thunder in a snowstorm.

I thought about my own life. If my brother never returned, the town would forget him soon enough. He would never go to college or have a good job. He would never contribute to the world as I could. The world was better off with me being here.

“No?” He said as he turned his head to the side. I looked up, and I was in there in the room alone. The surrounding air grew warm again.Liza came in just as everything melted.

“The city called a search party for Ezra. We’re gonna’ go comb through town. You better be there, Hellen,” she spat.

I nodded.

“Who were you talking to?” she asked.

“Myself.”

“Figures, you’re crazy. I just want one sane person to talk to here.”

“I’m crazy from you, always pushing me around. I’m crazy about mom and dad ignoring me. I’m going to crack and go to the loony bin, and it’ll be your fault.”

“Stop cryin’ for yourself. You’re so selfish. I bet you lost Ezra on purpose.”

“I was too slow to stop him. The policeman was right; mom should have never left him with another kid. I’m smaller than him, unlike you.”

She twisted my arm behind my back and pulled up sharply.

“Stop!” I screamed.

“Girls, knock it off!” yelled my mom from the other room.

“Get ready to get in the car. We’re joining the search party.”

We gathered into the car. Father was driving, and mamma sat in the seat next to him. Liza and I were sitting on opposite sides in the back seat, completely ignoring each other. Papa turned on the radio, and it blared the repetitive Christmas music. I groaned, sick of listening to the same songs everywhere.

“Mamma, can we listen to some rock music?” I asked.

“I want to hear the mix station!” said Liza.

“You girls need to stop arguing. We’ll tune in to what I choose,” said my mom as she turned the station to evangelical preaching.

“Great, now we’re stuck with this. It’s your fault,” sneered Liza.

She glared daggers at me and curled up on her side of the car.Driving off to town, fresh blankets of snow covered the ground. My mother turned the Christmas music back on, and she and my Papa were singing along.

The monster appeared in the middle of the road. He was in our car’s path, rattling his chains. Ezra squirmed inside the sack.

“Mamma!” I screamed as the car spun out of control. Tires screeched as our car turned in a circle before righting itself on the road. My father stopped and watched around, as pale as a ghost.

“Is everyone okay?” he asked.

“Yeah, did you see that?” I asked.“See what? Look, I think we hit a patch of ice. It’s good that we didn’t hit anything.”

“Be careful, Daddy,” said Liza.

We drove the rest of the way into town without incident. We parked in the main square, and we saw other families with flashlights and walkie-talkies.

“Mr. Parker,” said my father as he shook one of my teacher’s hands.

“I heard about Ezra. I’m sorry this happened. We’re gonna’ look the township over, we’ll find your son, he couldn’t have gone far.”

We all got out of the car and trekked through the cobbled streets of downtown. We looked in every ally, dumpster, and shop, no sign of Ezra. We went into the local Radio Shack, and on the T.V. I saw the weather. There was a report of a Nor’easter coming in within the next day or two. It was going to be a harsh blizzard, and we were right in its path.

“We have to find Ezra two days,” said a police officer. “There’s no way that kid’s gonna survive bein’ alone in a blizzard.”

My heart dropped when I looked up and saw the beast once more. I could hear Ezra, and it snorted, leaving trails of icy fog. The room grew frigid.

“You still can save him- “

“Hellen, I need you to pay attention!” said my father.

“He’s not here. Can you take me to the exact place where you saw him last?”

I nodded.

We walked to the alley where I saw Ezra last. There were footprints in the snow leading to the middle of the path. Then there was nothing but clean snow.

“This is where I last saw him, daddy.”My dad nodded toward a police agent that took more notes.

“It’s like he vanished,” one officer muttered.“Mr. Allen, I hate to ask this, but do you know anyone that Ezra had contact with, anyone outside from the school or church?”

“Not that I can think of. He has a school aid that helps him, Mrs. Bentley. She’s in the search party if you want to talk to her.”

“We think someone may have abducted Ezra-“

“How there are no other footprints, no trace of anyone who could have abducted him!”

“I don’t know. We’ll keep up with the search and issue an Amber Alert.”

Tears left my father’s eyes as he nodded. “My boy, my only boy,” he sobbed.

Yeah, because girls are the curse of the world. I kept these words to myself. I caught up to my mom and Liza as they kept searching. By the time they called off the search for the night, it was late. My fingers and toes were numb, and my voice was hoarse from yelling.

The ride home was silent. My mother’s brow knitted in a worried grimace, and my father’s eyes were bloodshot. Liza glared at me coldly the entire ride home. They ordered us to go straight to our room. Liza fell to sleep immediately. I tossed and turned the entire night.

The monster was above me, covering the room in frost. Ezra’s unrelenting wails came from within the sack. I wanted to call out to my sister, to curl up next to her. I wanted to tell her of the monster that took our brother.

“Then why don’t you go in his place,” said the beast in Liza’s voice. “No one likes you here, anyway. You’re selfish. You can’t pay attention to anything. Talking to yourself and staring off into space. No one loves you. I tell the kids at school that you’re not my sister. I don’t even want you talking to me. I wish you were to go instead.”

“Then why weren’t you watching him?” I screamed. “You’re the responsible one. You should have watched him!”

“I always watch him! Mamma wanted to take me to the store to go shopping for once and not you. You could have stayed home with him, but nooooo… you had to go out with us. Could you imagine, if my friends saw me with you and Ezra, what would they say?”

“And I’m the selfish one?”

“You should have remained home, both you weirdos should have, but now you can take his place.”

“I’m not going anywhere.“

Daylight broke, shattering my sleep. I climbed down from the top bunk and went downstairs. My parents were watching the weather report with worried expressions. The Nor’easter was honing in ever closer.

“Kids, I require you to go to school. We’re going to look through the town again, and the police are going to keep searching. I need y’all to ask around, check to see if Mrs. Bentley is there and anything that she remembers of your brother,” said my father.

I nodded, half asleep as Liza stole into the bathroom. Great, she would hog it for an hour, and I would be late for class.

“I shouldn’t have to go to school,” I said. “Ezra’s still missing, and I should help find him.”“You’d help us more by going and asking questions. We can tell the information to the police, and it will help them find him. I love you, and we have to work together as a family. There’s a terrible storm coming in.”

“Yes, daddy.” I threw on some clothes and combed my hair. I wouldn’t be able to get a shower this morning, but that was okay. Liza came out dripping wet, and I went in to brush my teeth before she locked me out to do her make-up. We took the bus to school. As usual, I sat in the back alone. I took out a book by C. S. Lewis and read quietly. In the school hallway, there was nothing but quiet faces. The kids that usually teased me were leaving me alone today.

I walked through the halls and found Mrs. Bentley in special education. She was the teacher’s aide for special ed. She worked with Ezra a lot and tried to teach us how to treat him. She had dark skin and short hair. One of her ears had a bunch of earrings.

She was at the table where a little girl was sitting. There were cue cards out, and she appeared to be teaching the girl how to read English.

“Mrs. Bentley?” I asked.

“Uno memento por favor?” she asked the girl.

The little dark-haired girl nodded and studied the cue cards.

“I am so sorry about Ezra,” she said. “I should be out there looking for him, but the police called off the search.”

“My parents are searching for him in town. They’re asking if you remember anything about Ezra.”

“I already told the police everything that I know, sweetie,” she said. “The day before he disappeared was pretty standard. We went to classes and speech therapy, you know, where we work on trying to get Ezra to talk “

“I know,” I sighed.

“Dear, what is it?”

“Mrs. Bentley, can I tell you something? It might sound insane.”

“Sure, Honey, you can say anything. I promise I won’t think you’re crazy.”

“I saw a monster take Ezra. It looked like the devil, but it was all hairy with two giant horns on its head. There was a bundle of sticks on its back. Rooms start freezing whenever it arrives. It has Ezra in a big ole bag and wants me to trade places with him. It won’t stop following me.”

She paused for a minute, frowning. “Honey, I don’t think you are crazy, you have a great imagination, and you’re under a lot of stress. Your brother missing is making you see this monster, this Krampus.”

“Krampus?”“You must have seen it on T.V. or something and imagined it. Krampus, it’s a Christmas monster that punishes bad kids. But it’s a fairy tale. He isn’t real.”

“But he took Ezra!”

Mrs. Bentley hugged me. “I think you are a brilliant girl with a terrific imagination. I’ll say to your parents about getting you to put into the gifted and talented program when this is all over. The kids are smarter and would probably bully you less. I know this is hard for you, but they will find your brother.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“I’m going to talk to your teacher to see if I can get you and Liza a library pass for the day. You both must be extremely stressed from all that is happening.”

Mrs. Bentley took my hand and gently led me to the library. My teacher had signed a pass that said I could spend the day in the library as long as I finished the packet of work handed to me. The work was simple. It was always too easy. I would finish my work early and often stare blankly out the window, lost in thought. When my teachers would ask me why I was staring, I would hand them the work already done. They would send me to the library to read or given me a textbook to study for the next test.

Other kids hated that I would always get done early. The teachers would request me to help them study, but the last time I tried, I got my hair pulled, and my shin kicked in for even asking. I disliked school, but I loved the library.

I would find an old comfy chair and pull out a bunch of books and read. I usually chose fairy tales of books on monsters. I went back to my regular book pile in the library and found a book on the Krampus. The beast on the cover looked exactly like the monster that stole my brother away. Reading the book, I learned the Krampus was a monster out of Germany. Instead of getting coal for being naughty, the Krampus would spank the children in Germany with the sticks he had on his back. He would stuff the terrible children into a sack and carry them away forever.

Was the Krampus trying to take Ezra away forever? Ezra wasn’t bad. He just didn’t know any better. It wasn’t his fault he was hard to watch. Liza was right. This was all my fault.

“So, you’ll take his place then?” Ice crystals formed around the library as the Krampus knelt over me, chains jangling.

“I can’t do that. Why don’t you just let my brother go?”

“I need another child in his place.”“There are plenty of kids that are worse than me. I am not the naughtiest. Why don’t you take one bully instead?”

“You asked me to take him, child. I am only fulfilling your wish. The wish bearer is the only one that can take your brother’s place.”

“Just give him back!” I screamed.

The librarian shushed me.

“I’m sorry it won’t happen again.”

She came over and hugged me and took the book from my feet. “It’s alright. You’re under a lot of stress, I understand. Just try to be quiet if you’re going to stay here, please.”

“Yes, ma’am.”

I spent the rest of the school day reading tales about the Krampus and Santa Claus. I learned that Santa was an actual person nearly two thousand years ago. He saved many kids from being eaten and gave his money away so that some girls in his town wouldn’t have to sell their bodies. The Church later made him Saint Nicholas. The legend of Santa grew. They combined him with pagan folklore from Northern Europe and Father Christmas from England. In Germany and Central Europe, they had a Christmas Devil known as the Krampus.

Krampus became Santa’s opposite, the evil side of Christmas. A demon that would torture wicked children and drag them off to God knows where in his sack. The bell clanged for the end of the day. I left the library and walked out towards the bus.

On the way to the bus stop, Kyle, one of the bigger kids, stopped me. “Look, it’s Hellen! I bet you she killed her brother and has the body hidden in the basement.”

I opened my mouth, all the words torn from my tongue.

“She did not!” said Liza from behind me. “How can you say such a thing? Our brother is lost, and you make fun of us? What is wrong with you?”

“Less than what is wrong with your parents. I thought they outlawed inbreeding.”

Kyle then made squealing noises, imitating how Ezra would act when he was at school. Until Liza punched him straight in the stomach, he crumpled into a ball.

“You bitch!” he wailed.

“Serves you right!” I said smugly.

Mr. Murphy, the gym teacher, fought his way through the crowd of kids.

“What in tarnation is going on here?”“Kyle called Ezra inbred, and Liza punched him for me,” I blurted out.

“Kyle, this family has been through enough. Leave them alone.”

Kyle groaned.

“Look, Liza, I’ll let it go this once, but girls shouldn’t resort to violence. It’s very unladylike. Normally this would be cause for suspension, do you understand?”

“He started it!” I screamed.

I opened my mouth to yell at the gym teacher, but Liza covered it.

“Yes, sir, won’t happen again,” she said.

“It’s not fair!” I said.

“Life isn’t fair!” said Liza under her breath.

She walked me to the bus, on the lookout for any other bullies. We sat down in the same seat. Liza grabbed my hand and her face crumpled. Tears sprang from her eyes as she sobbed.

“I miss him. I asked around, and no one noticed anything different.”

“Me too. Nothing.”

“If the police don’t find him, he’s going to freeze to death in the blizzard. Or some creepy guy might have him, and oh God, what if someone killed him? I saw T.V. shows where killers take kids.”

Liza sobbed, and I put my arms around her. She felt very frail. The bus stopped, and we walked off together.

The air was ice cold. Thick, pillowy clouds loomed overhead. I smelled dampness, dust, and ozone on the breeze. The storm was near.We came home to a couple of police cars outside the house, lights brightly flashing. We ran inside to see my parents were at the table. The policemen were looming over them.

“How can you name us as suspects?” screamed my mother.

“Look, ma’am, this is normal procedure. You and your husband need to come to the station with us and answer a few questions.”

“Mom, Dad, what’s going on?” asked Liza.

“Do you have a place where your daughters can stay during the investigation?”

“I can’t believe this is happening,” said my father.

“Look, we need you to have a list of relatives; otherwise, we must give them to child protective custody.”

“Don’t let them take us away!” sobbed Liza.

One policeman put my father in handcuffs, and he was crying. My mom screamed out and fought the other one as he tackled her to the floor.

I pounded up the stairs to my room and screamed as loud as I could: “All right, all right, I’ll go in his place!”

The Krampus appeared before me, Ezra crying in the sack.

“Are you certain, little girl?”

“Yes, I just want everything to go back to how it was before, and if that means I have to go in his place, then so be it.”

The monster took the sack off of his back and opened it. My brother screamed and climbed out of the bag. He looked around and saw that he was home and started laughing uncontrollably.

I took a deep breath and climbed into the giant bag. The inside of the sack opened to a vast dark room lit by a single candle. When I breathed, little puffs of vapor left my mouth, and icicles formed on my hair. An old man sat at the table. He was skinny and dressed in a long red coat. A golden circle of light surrounded his head. I sat down across from him.

“Hello,” I said.

“Hello child,” he said, he smiled brightly, and the room warmed up.

A soft light came overhead, and there was a table with gingerbread, candy, shortbread, and hot cocoa with marshmallows. I took some coco and started drinking it right away.

“Where am I?”

“Some call it the North Pole,” said the old man.

I looked back at him; my mouth cracked.“Hi, my name is Hellen. What’s yours?”

“Oh, I have many names?”

“Like what?”

“Oh, Father Christmas, Chris Cringle, Santa Claus-“

“Saint Nicholas?”

“That was my first name, child.”

I stopped and looked at him, tilting my head to the side.

“Why am I at the North Pole?”

“My brother and I thought you needed to learn empathy; it seems to have worked.”

“Empathy?” I asked.

He led me to another room with a giant fireplace. There were two overstuffed chairs with red velvet cushions. I sat in one of them, and he sat in the other. I sipped my cocoa; it was the best coco I had ever tasted.

“The ability to put yourself in another’s shoes. To be kind to your brother and your sister.”

“By kidnapping my brother?”

“You wished for the Krampus to take him.”

“I didn’t mean it. I didn’t want him to go away. It’s just been so hard. I just wish he was normal.”

“I know, but some people are unique, and everyone has their own story. That story, you must listen to with your heart every day.”

“I’ll try my best. So, I’m at the North Pole. Am I going to be stuck here, making toys? Is this how you recruit your elves?”

“Oh, no ho ho ho.” He chuckled merrily.

“Krampus and I aren’t real in the physical sense; we don’t exist as a matter on your plain.”

“Huh?”

“Krampus and I are genuine, but in spirit. We’re ideas that people choose to believe in if you believe in something enough, it’s real in your heart.”

“Then how did Krampus take my brother and hold him. What about the chains?”

“The chains that Krampus carries are the chains in your own heart. The chains were the bitterness and cruelty you secretly held towards Ezra. We had to scare you enough to break those chains.”

“Really?”

“Yes. Krampus exists in spirit to warn people of their cruelty. I exist in spirit to give people a sense of kindness. I am the spirit of generosity and peace with the Holiday Season.”

“You’re the Christmas Spirit!”

“Exactly. Yes, dear Hellen, Santa exists, but he exists in your heart. Whenever you want to rejoice in the warmth with your family, I am there. Whenever you want to give, I am there. But whenever you feel the bitterness of your life, that is the Krampus. He is your chains of ice.”

“So, if this is in my head, how do I get out?” I asked.

“This isn’t in your head, not exactly. You’ve left the plain of existence when you came here. Think of it as another dimension.”

“How do I get back?”

“You wish hard enough.”

“That’s it?” I asked.

The old man nodded.

“Okay,” I breathed a sigh of relief.

“I want to go back, but can I ask you one thing, two things actually?”

“Yes, child?”

“Can I see the Reindeer? And can you stop the repetitive Christmas music this time of year?”

“Ho ho ho,” he laughed. “As far as the Reindeer, you may see them before you go, but I’m afraid people make Christmas music for profit. That I have no power to stop that.”

“Dang. Well, it was worth a shot,” I said.

The old man smiled and gently took my hand. The warm room suddenly turned into a large stable, and the old man became much more rotund in appearance. He wore a traditional Santa Suit complete with a hat. I saw all the Reindeer lined up in a row. They smiled and trotted in their thick, shaggy coats. At the front, there was a Reindeer whose nose glowed a soft red.

“Rudolph!” I said. “You’re my favorite Reindeer. You know what it’s like to have others pick on you. Don’t you?”

“Why, yes, I do,” said Rudolph.

I looked around, and Santa was gone.

“You..you can talk?”

“I can. I’m a part of you, after all,” said the Reindeer.

“Can you fly?”

“Do you believe I can fly?”

“Of course, all of Santa’s Reindeer can fly.”

“Then I can,” he said.

“So, you can fly. Does that mean you can take me home?”

His nose glowed a bright red.

“Hop on,” he said, gesturing to his back.

It took some work, but I climbed onto his back. His fur was soft and warm. I grabbed onto his antlers, and he took off running. Soon the ground was far beneath us as we flew through the starry sky. The stars faded to clouds as we descended on my town. Rudolph dropped me off at the ally where Ezra disappeared. He flew off into the night.

The snow was coming down hard and thick. My body was shaking uncontrollably, and my teeth chattered. I could barely see a foot in front of me. I heard a woman’s voice, muffled from the snow.

“Hellen! Hellen! Where are you?”

“I’m here!” I called at the top of my lungs.

“Hellen!” I heard another voice. A man’s this time.

“I’m here!”

“Hon! It’s her!”

My parents were rushing towards me, the best they could through the thickly falling snow.I held my arms over my head and waived. Behind my parents were a group of people with flashlights. My father found me and held me tight.

“Papa!” I said.

“Honey, we were so worried. You’ve been missing for two days!” said my mom.

Behind them was Liza, in her pink, puffy coat. She hugged me begrudgingly. A policeman came up to me and knelt.

“I know you want to go home, but let’s get an ambulance to check on her, make sure she doesn’t have any frostbite or hypothermia.”

A few minutes later, an ambulance pulled up. It’s orange and white lights reflecting brightly against the snow. I walked into the vehicle and popped into a sleeping bag that was silver and shiny. I looked like a giant baked potato. I stopped shivering and felt much warmer.A girl came by and checked my fingers and toes and nose and said I was okay. A police lady came by and gave me a cup of cocoa. It was good but not nearly as good as the cocoa from the North Pole.

“I have a few questions to ask you if that’s okay?” said the police lady

.“Okay.”

“What happened after you left the store with your mom and sister?”

“I saw a man in a red coat, and I followed him?”

“Did this man do anything to you?” she asked.“No, I just followed him until I lost my way.”

“You could have called mom on a payphone,” said Liza coldly.

“All right. I ran away. I’m tired of everybody being mean to me. I was in the back of Radio Shack this whole time, in a big cardboard box. But then it started snowing, and it’s freezing.”

“You scared all of us,” said my mom.

“We were so worried,” said my dad.

“That was very irresponsible and selfish, Hellen. You could have frozen to death!” barked Liza.

“I know, Liza, I’m sorry.”“You should be! I was worried sick,” she then bear-hugged me so tight I couldn’t breathe.

“I’ll report this as a runaway. I’m glad she’s back and safe,” said the policewoman.My father drove at a snail’s pace through the snowstorm. When I got home, I saw Mrs. Bentley with Ezra. He was rocking rapidly backward and forward on the couch.

“Hellen! Glad to see you’re okay!” said Mrs. Bentley. “I thought I would watch Ezra while your family went to look for you.”

“Thank you, ma’am.”

“Did anything happen?” she asked softly.

“I ran away,” I said.

“Look, I know it’s been hard for you, but we can talk to the state and see if we can get a service to help watch your brother. I know it must be hard on you girls. Also, I’ll talk to your parents about the gifted and talented program. I think you’d be happier there.”

I nodded.“I’m just glad you’re safe.”

“Thank you very much, ma’am. I think I got it from here, and thank you for your help with my children,” said my dad.

“This entire town is like my family,” she said.

“Mine too,” said my mom. You can stay here for the night if you like. The storm looks dangerous.

“Nah, I think I got it from here, it isn’t too bad yet, and I don’t live that far away.”

“Well, call us when you get home,” said my mom.

Mrs. Bentley put on a large, fuzzy, white coat and gloves and left. An hour later, we got a phone call saying she made it home safe.

“Well, that’s enough excitement for one day. It looks like it’ll be a snow day tomorrow for sure,” said my mom.

“Yeah, I must find someone to watch Ezra while we go to work,” said my father.

“I’ll babysit him and call in every hour to let you know how he is,” I said. “It’s the least I can do for the trouble I caused.”

“That’s very sweet, but I think I’ll call Mrs. Bently to see if she can stop by. You’re a bit young to be babysitting.”

“Yes, mamma,” I said.

“Why don’t you go to bed?” said my dad.

“You might not be able to babysit, but you can help shovel snow.” I rolled my eyes and groaned but stopped myself. I felt grateful to have a home and a family that cared.

“Sure thing, papa, good night.”

Liza was already snoring when I went up to our room. I looked out the window and snow falling in solid sheets. A tear left my eyes as I heard hooves on snow, not the hooves of the Krampus, but the hooves of eight tiny Reindeer.

The Warrior in The Dark

Wulfgar rode his Harley through the jagged mountain pass. The cliffs jutted out like crooked teeth in the darkness, boulders and rock-slides threatened to cut off his path. The sun had set three days ago and had not risen.

In his youth, this would only be a sign of winter. In the north lands where he was from, now called Lapland, the sun would set in November and not return until nearly January. But this was not the north lands. The sun rose, even in the most frozen part of winter.

A boulder crashed down from the cliff. He sharply swerved his motorcycle and barely missed getting struck. A towering troll sat at the top of the cliff, grinning with a club in his hands.

“Come celebrate with us, warrior! It is a never-ending night. We shall feast without fear of the sun turning us to stone. Join us, brother in the darkness,” said the Troll.

“I swore an oath, as brethren of the night to protect humankind,” said Wulfgar.

“That was nearly two thousand years ago, your brethren left, and humanity’s time has come at an end.”

“Begone foul bridge dweller!”

Wulfgar held an ax shaped amulet towards the troll. The troll shrieked as if they threw acid on it and slunk off into the woods.

There was a loud mechanical sound in the distance. The metallic scream came from the West, over the next mountain. There was a small logging town in the area, and perhaps Wulfgar only heard lumber equipment. He cocked his ear to the side to hear the scraping again. It was an unfamiliar mechanical scream.

Restarting his Harley, he rode towards the next town.When he reached the outskirts of the town, the sound was loud enough to drown out his motorcycle. It became too oppressive as he headed toward the lumberyard. Wulfgar’s hearing was far too acute as his eardrums threatened to burst from the noise. Even now, he could feel the pressure from the sound. He had to turn back and head towards the town.

Wulfgar saw a bonfire at the end of the road, next to a trailer park and a dilapidated apartment complex. A group of people huddled together around the fire. Dressed in coats, hats, and knitted scarves. Their eyes widened as Wulfgar road up to them. They gawked at the biker. His long blond hair, leather jacket, and piercing green eyes seemed to put him out of place with the trailer park crowd.

“I come in peace,” Wulfgar hollered over the sound.

One man eyed him cautiously and put his hand into his sports coat. Wulfgar raised both of his hands over his head.

“I thought you could use some help with the..” Wulfgar nodded in the noise’s direction.

A woman with long dark hair and doe eyes nodded.

“You really think you can help?” she asked. Two young boys clung to her.

“I can try,” said Wulfgar. “It’s better than nothing.”

A man with thick glasses and a parka stood by the woman, putting his arm around her.

“What’s in it for you, man?” he asked.

“I swore an oath,” said Wulfgar.

“You a cop or something?”

“Or something,” said Wulfgar, grinning slightly.

The sound came from the lumber mill. I tried to investigate it, but it’s impossible without hearing protection. My ears are extremely sensitive.”

The man quirked an eyebrow, but the woman handed him a pair of fuzzy earmuffs.

“They’re all I have,” she said.

“I have some ear protectors for the firing range,” said a voice from behind them. It was a middle-aged gentleman in forest camo.

“Thank you, no offense, ma’am, but I think those would work better,” he said, handing the earmuffs back to her.

The hunter handed the hard ear covers to Wulfgar and shook his hand, looking deeply into his eyes for a moment before recoiling.

“Your eyes!” said the hunter.

“Contacts, they help deter bandits,” said Wulfgar.

The hunter shook his head and headed back toward the fire. Wulfgar put on the large plastic ear protectors and rode toward the lumberyard. Huge woodpiles and pallets dotted the yard.

He had to park his Harley walk the rest of the way. Heading toward the sound, a pool of black shadow manifested into a form. It was twisted and rotted; an animal’s skull appeared as its head.

Another monster, a muscular being covered in hair with snarling jaws, formed from the shadows.

“They take our homes and cut down our forest. They are the monsters, not us. Join us, let Fenrir cleanse the earth,” grumbled the wolf-like creature.

“I swore an oath to protect man,” said Wulfgar.

“If the earth dies, there will be no more men to protect. Even you need them to feed. Let us cull them now,” whispered the wraith.

Wulfgar pulled a revolver from his jacket and shot at the bony creature. The bullet shot through the wraith, splintering a two by four in the distance. Of course, these were creatures of shadow. Human weapons did not affect them.

Wulfgar’s eyes glowed bright green like a cat, his nails grew slightly longer, and his teeth sharpened into fangs.

He leaped on the wolf-like creature, tackling it to the ground, his hands grasped around his throat. The creature snapped back, catching part of his shoulder. A stream of blood poured out, painting the wood.

He spat and grabbed the wolf by the throat with his teeth. He ripped and tore. Blood from the creature poured out, and Wulfgar drank deeply. The monster screamed and melted into a black ichor that faded away. The bony wraith shrieked and flew towards the mill. Wulfgar chased it into the large mill.

An enormous wolf, the color of mist, was fighting against a silver chain. The chain wrapped over a circular saw. The blade was spinning, but the wolf pulled in the opposite direction, causing the horrid screech.

“They caught you in a trap, brother,” said Wulfgar.

“These dark creatures found my chain and left me in this forsaken realm,” snapped the wolf.

“So, they have not set you free for Ragnarök?”

“Oh, how I wish my brother, but now is not the time. Wraiths trap me,” growled Fenrir.

“I was summoned here; I know not by whom,” whispered a voice in the shadows.

The bony wraith appeared in the corner.

“By someone calling for the end of the world, and I think he wanted me to join him,” said Wulfgar.

Wulfgar remembered the troll atop the crag. It would have reason to call upon the never-ending night. There would be no sun to turn him into stone.

“I will free you. Can you stop trying to pull your chains?” asked Wulfgar as he turned off the saw.

“I agree, brother, and thank you,” said Fenrir.

Wulfgar raced back toward the mountain where he found the troll. At the top of the bluff, a small cave jutted out into the darkness.

Wulfgar climbed up the cliff inside the cave to find the troll sleeping. Behind it, a thin silver chain draped around a boulder.

“Troll, you dare to trap Fenrir here? Now is not the time for Ragnarok.”

The troll woke up, yawned, and looked at Wulfgar grumpily.

“If they don’t call Ragnarok now, humanity will end the earth on their own accord. Even now, the ice melts and the sea boils. I called upon darkness and winter to save them,” yawned the Troll.

“Never-ending night is not the way to save them.”

“Their time is over. They could not take care of the World Tree. Even now, its leaves and branches die. Is this the parasite you wish to save?”

“I swore an oath!” said Wulfgar.

“To a blood maiden that died on her shield thousands of years ago. It is over. Join the night. Humankind is but your food to feed on. Isn’t that why they sacrificed unto you. How many brides have you drained throughout the years to save the human species?”

“I haven’t drained a bride in years. They give willingly now, and I only take what I need, or I fill in battle. I can taste the likes of troll blood in my gullet now,” said Wulfgar. His fangs gleemed in the moonlight.

The troll rolled over, and his club hit Wulfgar hard, knocking the wind out of him. He staggered and rolled to the other side of the cave. The troll went to hit him again, but he uppercut the creature in the jaw, hard. The troll staggered back but rushed him again.

Wulfgar had fought trolls before. They were large and fairly stupid, and he normally would wear them down until the sun rose. At that point, the troll would turn to stone, and he had to run into the shelter before he burnt to a cinder. But now, night had no end, and the creature would not stop fighting. It wouldn’t be as simple this time. The sun would not rise unless he freed Fenrir.

He inched closer to the boulder, but the club hit him again, knocking him toward the cave entrance. Wulfgar caught himself before hurtling down the side of the cliff. The troll stormed out and raised his club, ready to smash his hand, when something caught the troll from behind.The giant wolf had somehow escaped the mill and now had the troll in his teeth. He shook it from side to side, and the troll went limp. Fenrir tossed the troll over the cliff-side, the creature hitting treetops with a thud.

Wulfgar went to the boulder and loosened the other part of the chain.

“Are you ready to go home?” asked the bony wraith as it materialized behind them.

The giant wolf sighed as Wulfgar handed the lead to the wraith. A portal opened behind the wraith, and it was full of stars. The Aura Borealis glowed.

“When I return, you shall know it. The ground will shake and freeze over. No sun nor moon shall shine. But not today. I’m only letting you drive me. I could snap you in two if I so chose,” said Fenrir.

“I’m sure you can, but for now, be a good boy,” sighed the wraith.

Fenrir growled and lowered his head and tail as the wraith led him through the portal. The portal closed, and, for the first time in three days, the pale light of dawn stretched across the horizon. Wulfgar headed back into the deepest part of the cave. He would have to stay there until nightfall, lest he became a pile of ash.

A growl came to his stomach, and he remembered the Doe-eyed woman. Yes, he had saved the village, and when he returned, he would take his sacrifice as a tribute.

The Shadow Of Sorrow

“You’re not good enough; you never will be,” said the shadow.

Looking away as the darkness crept in and dissolved the remaining splashes of sunlight against the buildings. I shivered, pulling my jacket closer as I ran down the empty street.

“You’re a failure. You have nothing to show for yourself,” hissed a voice from the shadows.

The inky darkness became tangible and oozed past my feet up to my ankles. Yanking my feet out, I stumbled backward. I turned and sprinted down the street.
The inky sludge chased me, threatening to drag me back down and swallow me whole.

“You’ll never make it! You’re past your prime. You’ll die alone,” it kept whispering.

From the blob, shadowy forms crept up against the walls, red eyes glaring. My heart was pounding in my chest, and my lungs felt like they were about to burst.

My home loomed overhead. A squat brick apartment complex that lurched free from the shadows. The ooze followed me as I pounded up the concrete stairs.
Slamming the door behind me, I turned on the bright overhead light, the shadows fading away.

Coughing hard, my lungs racking, I made my way to the restroom and splashed icy water on my face. A reflection stared back at me in the mirror, but it wasn’t me. She appeared to be me, but her eyes were completely black, her lips curled in a sinister smile.

“You can’t fight me forever. I’m part of you now. We will be as one. You are my dearest enemy.”

“One day, you might, but not today,” I said, gagging down the pills the doctor prescribed to me.

The shadows dissolved from the reflection, leaving only me.

The Howls at Dawn

Dedicated to my mother, who grew up in Alaska

A loud rumble woke Dawn from her evening nap. She jumped from her bed to see everything in her room swaying. As she hurried out of her bedroom, her brothers bolted past her. They went to the kitchen, and all was still shaking.

She grabbed her little brother, Thomas, and they hid under the kitchen table. A few plates fell and shattered overhead, and then the rattle stopped.She checked on Mary, the baby of the family, and saw that she had a slight bruise from where a book fell and hit her, but nothing too serious.

Mary wailed, and dawn picked her up from her crib and bounced her on her hip. Her hands trembled as she slowly opened the door. A water main had cracked and was pouring into the street where the road had completely buckled. It had looked as though the hand of God had come down and folded the next street in half.

The earthquake spared the trailer where her family lived from the damage. Inside there were a few broken dishes and picture frames, but nothing too great. It had crumpled the houses on the neighboring street to the ground, and giant cracks were in the road.

“Tom, I need you to watch Mary. I’m going to go over to the shop and make sure mom and dad are safe.”

“It’s too dangerous for you to travel alone,” he said. “I need to know that they’re ok,” she said while handing off the toddler to her ten-year-old brother. “I’ll be back as soon as I can.”

With that, she snatched some sandwiches her mom made for lunch from the refrigerator and lay them in a basket. She gripped a large nickel-plated flashlight, put on her heavy red coat, and dashed out the door.The air was icy, and the ground still had a healthy amount of snow, but it was thawing in the March air.

It was already dark at 6:00 pm, but that was how Alaska was. Where Dawn lived, and she would not have traded it for anything, except for today. All the beauty had folded in half. Trees jutted out of the road, and rubble lay everywhere.

She turned on her flashlight to better see in the dark and rushed towards downtown Anchorage to the repair shop her parents ran. Stopping to catch her breath, her flashlight caught glowing eyes.A giant brindle wolf jumped in front of her, knocking the basket out of her hands. The wolf went over to the sandwiches and devoured them. When Dawn ran to reach for her basket, the wolf snapped at her and continued eating.

There was a gunshot overhead, and the wolf ran off in the other direction. Another shot fired.

“Please stop! It was probably just hungry!” screamed Dawn.

“The wolf looked like it was attacking you,” said a man’s voice in a slow drawl.

“No, it just wanted my sandwiches, so much for lunch,” sighed Dawn as she picked up the basket. “Sir, I have to go downtown. I need to make sure my parents are ok.”

“Why are you going alone?” he asked.“My folks run a repair shop downtown. My brother is at home with my baby sister. We’re all right, but it looks like the phone lines are down.”

“All correct, but why don’t I go with you? The earthquake has made the roads dangerous, and up here, you’re not on top of the food chain,” he replied, nodding in the wolf’s direction.

Dawn nodded as she picked up her basket. She saw that the man was skinny with an enormous hat and thick glasses. They both walked over the craggy streets together.

“My name’s Hansen, Robert Hansen,” he said, holding out his hand.

“Dawn Michals,” she said, giving his hand a firm shake.

“That’s some coat you have on.”

“My folks got it for me at J. C. Penney’s for my birthday. I turned thirteen a month ago.”

“Is that so?” Dawn nodded and hurried up ahead, but the street had shattered, leaving a massive sinkhole.

“What do I do now?” sobbed Dawn.

“I know a way,” he said, nodding his head past the rubble.

“Thank you, Mr. Hansen.” He grabbed her hand firmly and pulled away from the road, towards the deep pine forest.

“Are you sure you recognize the way, sir?” asked Dawn.

“Of course, I do.”

“Well, are you sure the woodlands are the best course? As you said, we’re not on top of the food chain, and there may be bears, wolves, or angry moose out that way?”

Dawn followed Mr. Hansen into the woods as the ground rumbled once more, knocking them both to their knees. Soil tumbled down the steep ravine. Robert got to his feet and helped Dawn up. He led her down a path in the forest. Debris lay everywhere. It ripped trees from their roots, and rocks jutted out like angry teeth.

“Sir, I don’t think it’s wise to go this way,” said Dawn.

She no longer felt safe with Mr. Hansen and headed out of the woods. He grabbed her sharply by the arm and pulled her close to him.

“You’re going to have to trust me!”

“No,” she yelled as she struggled to break free.

“You’re not on top of the food chain, little girl, I am.” He added as he pointed the gun at her.

His body pressed against hers, and she felt cold steel from a knife tip on her neck. She wanted to scream for help, but she was so far in the wilderness no one would hear her.

She knew she should have listened to her brother; it was too dangerous to go alone with the wild animals and aftershocks. But she never thought a person would hurt her. People were here to help. When the nights got cold and dark, they were there to be beside you and keep you warm. Now she would never feel warm again. Tears fell from her eyes.

Out of nowhere, she heard a low growl. Looking up, she saw the brindle wolf from earlier, only now it had its pack-mates. They surrounded Mr. Hansen. He aimed and shot at one of them, but the bullet flew wild. Dawn struck him in the head with her flashlight, and he fell unconscious.

The brindle wolf licked Dawn on the hand and watched her. Its eyes were a beautiful warm gold. Dawn saw that the wolf was female and appeared as though she might have been nursing. “Thank you, Mrs. Wolf,” she said, dusting herself off. The wolf seemed to nod and then trotted off into the forest after her pack.

Dawn headed back to the road, and a large army truck greeted her. A gruff older man piled her into the rig.“They have called martial law on the city of Anchorage. Tsunamis have struck coastal towns like Kodiak, and landslides are wrecking total devastation.”

“I need to see my parents,” said Dawn.

She gave the address of their store to the gruff man in the truck. Driving downtown, she saw it devastated everything. J. C. Penney’s had all but sunk under asphalt. It ripped roads in half, and gas and water lines were burst, pouring everywhere.

They stopped outside the repair shop. It was crumpled to the ground, but her mother and father stood. She saw that her dad had a large goose egg on his head, but her mom looked uninjured. Dawn embraced them, and the army truck took them to the hospital for examination. Her father only suffered a mild concussion, and her mom was fine. A cab dropped them off at their trailer. Rushing in, they hugged Thomas and Mary, relieved that their house and children were well.

“I’m glad you went looking for us, but never do something that stupid again,” sighed her mother. “I’d rather have you home safe. Something could have happened.”

Dawn nodded. She was about to tell her about the man when she heard a howl outside. She looked out the window and saw the brindle wolf.

“It’s all right, mama, I gave her some sandwiches, and she’s just been following me.”

“You know, if you feed them, you’ll never git rid of them,” her dad said, raising an eyebrow.

“That’s ok. The earthquake scared her,” said Dawn.

The wolf wagged her tail, and she could see the smaller eyes of four pups looking at her. The mama wolf then gathered her young and headed off into the woods.

“I think she just wanted to say goodbye.”“Just be vigilant. They’re dangerous animals,” her dad said.

“Yes, papa, but man is the most fatal.”

“I suppose you’re right, Dawn, be careful of who you trust. At least most of God’s creatures are pure in their intention.”

Dawn nodded at this, and overhead the northern lights shimmered, and she heard howls in the distance as she settled down for bed. ………Anchorage eventually got back on its feet after the earthquake. Her parents finally had their shop again, and all was well. She never saw Mrs. Wolf again but would occasionally hear howls in the night that comforted her. They arrested Robert Hansen and charged him with killing over seventeen women. She felt lucky that she survived, all by the luck of a furry guardian angel.