Briana was a beautiful lass with nut-brown hair and wide blue eyes. She sang a tune to herself as she strolled through the emerald green hills of the country. Following the road, she neared the Sweeney’s farmhouse.
A loud crash sounded in the distance, followed by a chuckle and a high-pitched squeal. Briana ran into the barn to investigate. Angus Sweeney’s arms wrapped around a creature the size of a chicken. It was a wee fellow in a green suit with a red buckled hat and boots.
“You’re going to drop all your gold if you want to be set free,” grumbled Angus.
“Oi!” yelled Briana.
Angus dropped the leprechaun in surprise, and the creature flashed behind a hay bale.
“Bria, you just cost me a fortune. I hope yer happy,” Angus’ crossed his massive arms and pouted in silence.
“What did the little man do to deserve to be jostled so?”
“He has all the gold, mountains of wealth. You only need to catch them.”
Briana folded her arms. “So you capture them against their will until they drop coins? Sounds like robbery to me.”
“They’re not human. They’re Sidhe.”
“That doesn’t make it right,” sighed Briana, shaking her head.
“I didn’t come here to be nagged by a woman. I have important work to do,” he said as he plodded away from the barn.
Briana found a tiny shoe by the hay bale where the leprechaun was hiding. It was the most exquisite little thing she laid eyes on. The leather was as soft as butter, and the buckles shone of pure gold in the broken sunlight.
“Tank you very much, my lady,” he whispered.
The little fellow came out of hiding and kissed her hand and bowed.
“For rescuing me, I owe ye one wish. “
Briana thought for a moment and handed him back the shoe he was working on.
“I want to learn how to make shoes like that,” she said.
The leprechaun raised an eyebrow. “To teach a human such a task would take ages. I can offer you gold, a handsome husband, land, or a mansion.”
“If I learn how to make shoes as thus, I will earn my old gold. I can buy the land and mansion myself and won’t need a husband, no matter how handsome he is.”
The leprechaun sighed and shook his head.
“Very well, woman. We meet at daybreak past the green hill with the stone circle. Your days will be long, and your toil will be great. I wish you had asked for something else.”
“You are Sidhe. You must keep your bargain.”
“As I shall,” said the little man before vanishing.
Briana woke by the cocks crow the next dawn. She packed herself a small lunch and headed past town toward the fairy mound. Underneath the hill, she found a tiny workshop.
“Hello?” she called.
The little man came out of the shop and snapped his fingers, and Briana shrank to his size.
“You kept your promise and came at dawn,” he said, putting a corn-cob pipe in his mouth.
“I work on a farm. Waking up early is nothing to me.”
He nodded and led her into his workshop. There was a bench full of little shoes and a hearth with a little pot cooking over the flame. They had a meal of porridge and tea in complete silence.
“Tank you for the food, but I want to start the lessons now,” said Briana.
“Well, you can start by soaking the hides.” He pointed his hand toward a mountain of rabbit pelts.”
“The leather is from rabbits?” asked Briana.
“How else would it get so soft? The hides need to be soaked and cleaned. Now ye best get to it.”
Briana lifted the pelts and soaked them in a small peat bog. She dredged the heavy skins from the drink and squeezed them dry. She took a little round knife and skinned off the fur and flesh.
The leprechaun came by and picked through all the hides. He tossed them into the bog after finding one solitary hair on the leather.
Briana took a deep breath and soaked the skins again. She wrung and scraped the hides for a week, only stopping for meals of rabbit stew, brown bread, and tea. She slept short nights in a thatched bed. Eventually, after the cool spring breezes turned into the beating summer sun, the hides felt like silk under her hands.
The leprechaun came back and checked the leather and nodded in approval.
“I didn’t tink yea had it in you. Now we make the sole.”
The following day, he took her to a patch of forest with an enormous oak log. Briana spent the next week sawing the log into planks. She carved the wood into soles and sanded them smooth.
The leprechaun would inspect the soles and throw the ones that were too splintery into the fire. Her hands were rough and full of splinters. But as her hands grew rougher, the soles grew smoother.
The leprechaun came to the working mill with the soles and inspected them once more. He whistled as he saw the number of soles lying before him.
“Aye lass, these look fine. Yer next task is the fitting and sewing.”
As the summer sun turned to the crisp wind of autumn, Briana learned how to fit the leather to the sole and hammer the shoes together. She painstakingly fit each piece over the sole and hammered it to the wood. Once again, the leprechaun would inspect the shoes and threw the ill-fitted ones into the fire. As the warm colors of fall turned to the frost of winter, the leather fit the soles exquisitely.
“Last, I shall teach you how to make the buckles.”
He led her toward a large pot of gold coins. He showed her how to melt the coins using tiny bellows, the coals’ heat fending off the chill of winter.
After they melted the coins, she would cast the slurry into molds. When it cooled, Briana would polish the gold until her arms ached, and it still didn’t shine enough for the leprechaun. It wasn’t until the frozen ground thawed back to spring did she had the buckles polished to perfection.
In that year, Briana had helped the little man makes dozens of shoes. She now knew the craft of cobbling and could go back to the world of man.
The leprechaun looked at Briana with a forlorn expression as she left the workshop. His debt paid for. He let her take all the shoes that she had made.
All the times he had thrown the shoes into the fire or griped at her, she did not get angry or lash out. At worst, she would sigh and begin the same task again. He wished her well and drank a glass of ale the same size he was.
Briana grew to normal size as she returned to town. She sold the shoes for a handsome price and opened her own shop. She worked day and night tirelessly to keep her shelves stocked.
Rabbit pelts were a bit too small for humans, so she did her best with the skin of a stag. She couldn’t reasonably afford gold buckles but could buy the best brass and polish it to a blinding shine. Instead of giant oaks, she settled on good cork.
Her hands became rough and her slight frame filled out with muscle. Her face was still comely, and her chestnut hair was still silken, and her blue eyes were bright. Briana relished in her work and sang the most beautiful songs.
Angus Sweeney was now town mayor, and Briana’s craft and beauty caught his eye. He swaggered into her shop and plucked one shoe off the wall.
“I had thought you were a goner when you left town a year ago. It was as if you vanished. All of us thought the Sidhe had taken you.”
“I went to them of my free will. One of the little folk owed me a bargain,” Briana looked around her shop. “It looks like l succeeded.”
“I think you’d be happier as me, wife, ” said Angus, his broad shoulders blocking her door.
“I tink not, I earned everything here, not to have it ripped away by some bully.”
“You’ll have all the riches and never have to work again in your life.”
“I earned this right to work. I have honed my craft for a year straight. I belong to no man,” she spat.
“You did not learn this talent by natural means. You’ve consorted with fairies, and the devil touches you.”
Angus grabbed Briana and dragged her into the street to the courthouse.
“As mayor, I accuse this woman of witchcraft!”
Angus threw Briana into a small cell and locked the door. She curled up into a ball and cried through the night on the cold stone floor.
They called the priest to town the next morning. The people who had been in awe of her shoes the week before now reveled in the burning of her shop.
The mayor dragged her to a river, and the priest tied her hands together.
“If she sinks, then the Lord and will forgive her in heaven,” said the priest as he threw Briana into the rushing stream.
Before she could sink, a giant green salmon swam up to her and led her to the shallows. It used its colossal tail to knock to safety on the rocky bank.
“The woman consorts with the fairies. She is not of God’s creation,” said Angus, pointing at her.
Briana refused to let tears fall as they brought her to the pyre. They tied her to a stake. Before the townsfolk could light the stack of firewood, a bright green light dazzled everyone. When the townsfolk rubbed the sting from their eyes, Briana had vanished.
She was underground by the most beautiful palace she had ever seen. Walls carved out of crystal met shining silver doors and windows. Intricate knotwork framed every wall. There was no daylight, but carved prisms doused the cave in a rainbow glow.
By the gate stood the most beautiful man she had ever seen. He had copper hair and eyes of emerald green. His ears came to a point. He wore a beautiful green cloak fastened by a gleaming gold buckle.
“I owe you my life,” said Briana.
“I thought this would happen if I taught you. The crafts of the Sidhe weren’t meant for man. They are so often lost to jealousy and greed.”
“Do I know you, sir?” asked Briana, her head tilting toward the side.
“I know you. I saw you every day in my shop for a year. I know your rough hands and your calm temper. You could be a swan or a salmon, and I’d know who you are, Briana.”
“You’re the leprechaun,” said Briana, her mouth falling open.
“I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Leprechaun.”
“Call me Lugh.”
“I still owe you me life, Lugh” said, Briana.
“Then you’ll agree to marry me and be my queen. It’s been lonely since ya left.” Lugh knelt before Briana.
“But you taught me how to make all those shoes,” she said.
“You worked your fingers to the bone day and night to make those shoes. I trust you more than any woman I’ve ever known to help me run my kingdom. I love you, and it’s been so quiet since you left. I miss yer laughter and your song.”
Briana kissed him and took his hand as Lugh led her to his crystal castle.
The locals to this day can hear the sounds of little hammers and singing when they walk near the low hill with the stone circle.
Our platoon marched in file through the thick brush. The air was thick, hot, and so humid I could barely breathe. Mosquitoes had chewed every inch of my body, and my feet rubbed raw in my boots. We were looking for rest, three of our men were stricken by malaria, and we were marching toward a clearing where the airlift would be tomorrow morning.
The village appeared in the distance, a few huts surrounded by rice fields. The Red River curled lazily by the hovels.
We went into the grass huts and found a few cooking fires still burning. Bowls of rotten food lay on the table, filling the air with the smell of dead fish.
After searching through the houses and not finding any Viet Cong, Sergeant Banks ordered us to burn the houses down. I held lit torches to the buildings, and watched as the fires engulfed them, dirty black smoke curling into the sky.
Banks lead the platoon to a clearing near the river. The airlift would be there in the morning to take the sick. I would still have to march on, burning village after village to the ground, interrogating the few farmers we found on finding the VC. Short amounts of fretful sleep broken by the sounds of gunfire.
I wanted to go home. I wanted to see Bobbi again, her hair the color of sunshine and her skirt short enough to see heaven at the right angles. Now I marched through hell instead.
The sun sank below the tree line, leaving us in inky blackness. They assigned Private Nelson and me watch duty that night. The last few nights had been hot and miserable but quiet. We made camp, and I set up my rifle and prepared for a long few hours of guard duty.
Nelson and I took shifts. I went first, watching the river. The heat and the exhaustion lulled me to sleep—the sound of distant gunfire cut through the buzz of summer insects.
My eyelids snapped open, and my heart beat faster. I quickly glanced around to find Nelson snoring nearby. I checked my watch, 0300. It was well over Nelson’s turn for the night watch. As I nudged him awake, I heard a rustle in the nearby vegetation.
Nelson shot awake as well, aiming his rifle in the darkness. The Red River was ink-black in the evening, and we saw what looked like a raft floating on it.
“Sh,” said Nelson, putting his fingers to his lips.
I nodded as we saw the raft head toward the other side of the river—the shadow disappearing into the darkness.
“VC?” I asked.
“I’m going to scout it out,” he said.
“Are you sure that’s safe?”
“Nothin’ here is safe. I’ll take my chances.”
He got up to leave. I kept my post until I heard a blood-curdling scream cut through the night. It was Nelson. Running toward’s them, his howls growing louder and louder.
“Watch out for the hole, Cox!”
I looked down and saw that Nelson was at the bottom of a pit. Sharp punji sticks carved out of bamboo skewered through him. The smell of blood cut through the acrid smell of the jungle.
“Nelson!” I screamed.
“Tell mama I love her. I want my mom. Mom,” he whimpered through tears.
“I will,” I said. Aiming my rifle carefully, I put Nelson out of his misery.
Screaming, I ran toward the river and saw the mysterious raft on the water. Just as it was about to slink off into the night, I fired my rifle into the darkness. A tall shadow on the raft slumped over before splashing into the water.
“Cox!” screamed Sergeant Banks as he tackled me to the ground.
“Man down, we have a man down,” Banks screamed into his radio. “Friendly Fire.”
The raft belonged to a neighboring platoon across the river. Another soldier was scouting the area for VC. I would return home with the sick on the Jolly Green Giant tomorrow and await my court-martial.
Another man of circumstance, just like me. Another mother would get the news that I killed her son. Another girl left, cold and alone. Another father without a son to carry his legacy, another brother went. I had made a terrible mistake not burning my draft ticket.
Crawling through the damp, cold earth. Inching its way over decayed leaves and dead branches until it dug deep into the black soil. It crawled through the loose, rich earth for some time until finding the mother load.
Rancid, rotting flesh enticed the creature to crawl to it. A mouth ringed with thousands of tiny, jagged teeth hooked into the eyes of the corps. The worm sank into the jelly of the eye, slurping up every decaying morsel. Nature requested this being to return to the earth. As the worm ate the precious jelly, a flash of memory passed through its simple mind. It remembered hatching, crawling into the soil, consuming and defecating, returning debris to the rich soil. Before that, there was only darkness. The darkness grew deeper and warmer. Then cold, hard light.
Before he was born to crawl, he walked. He had arms and legs and stood upright. He was in a distant land. They sold children on the street here; they were his to consume. Part of his collection. He was the monster that returned them to the earth; no one cared to look for them. Consuming youth and returning it to the earth, the children were his to slaughter.
Holding a child’s cold dead hand, admiring his work, his collection. Startled by shouting in a foreign tongue, and the door swinging open. The light hurt his eyes. Gunfire roared through the darkness—blood, and bits of flesh scattering against the earth and the soil. Coldness and ringing faded away to silence and black.
The next memory was breaking through a thin shell into the warm earth. No limbs, no sight, only smell towards the delicious rot of its former host.
Embers glowed against the snow white of the field. Anya stood hand in hand with her tribe. Singing songs and reveling into the longest night of the year.
The men hunted in winter and had caught a great boar for the feast. They served breads and sweetmeats. Mead and ale flowed from kegs on long tables. The night was full of revelry and song, of feasting and lovemaking into the frosty night.
The last harvest gathered. Tomorrow they would return to their longhouses and wait until the muddy thaws of spring came. Locked away for months, living on dried meat and dried vegetables, and whatever grain they had stored away for the long months ahead.
Not all the tribe would make it through. The snows and ice were harsh, and sometimes there was not enough food to last. Sometimes huntsmen would not return home from the icy depths of air and darkness.
Between songs they heard shrieks and howls in the long night. The air outside the village grew more frigged, calling deep winter to come. This fire, built from wood they all gathered, would hold the beast at bay.
Tonight they feasted and sang, holding onto the light when the black of night threatened to take them. The bonfire burned high into the night sky, providing warmth and light.
Past the village into the night, eyes glowed in the inky darkness, waiting for the wind to hide their howls. Knowing that they too had to feed through winter.
My breath fogged in the icy air; piles of snow lined the street after a recent storm. Ezra ran and screamedat the top of his lungs. Mom had to run into the store and asked me to keep an eye on him.
I wish she would leave him at home; I wished Ezra was never born. He was autistic, meaning that he yelled 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, 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 whispered.
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 an enormous brown sack. The bag on his back squirmed, Ezra cried 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.
“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- “
I didn’t want to tell my mom what happened, 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.
“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 search for Ezra. I’ll go tell the clerk what happened and make a report with the local sheriff.”
“I should have left you in charge, Liza. You’re the responsible one. Hellen, you are your brother’s keeper,” said my mom.
“He’s your son. You had him. I didn’t ask to be born in this family.”
My mom slapped my face, it didn’t hurt much, but the sting lingered.
“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. Nothing, not even footsteps on the ground below. It was like he vanished. Finally, 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 takecare of him, sir,” I said. “But he ran too fast.”
“Ma’am, why were you leaving an eight-year-old in charge of him?”
“I’m ten, sir,” I said.
The police officer eyed my mother suspiciously.
“I swear, I was only in there a minute. You try dealing with three children, one with severe autism.”
“We’ll send out a search. We’ll do everything we can.” The policeman clicked his pen and walked down the street.
My mother glared at me, and my sister pulled hard on my arm. We searched every block and ally downtown. My feet were numb from the cold, 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. Finally, 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. Instead, 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.
“Do you want the police to take us away?! They’ll come and take us all away. Then they’ll put us in foster homes. Is that what you want, Hellen? I bet it is.”
“This is 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, I could have taken the girls to the store, and Ezra would still be here,” sobbed my mother.
“Shh, hon, noone is atfault,” said my father as he held mom close.
“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 wanted to slink back to my room and pretend today never happened. I hated having to go to the store to babysit him. I despised never having enough time to myself or to study.
“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.
I didn’t dare tell my dad about the monster. He wouldn’t believe me, and I would get the belt for sure.
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. My breath formed clouds 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!”
“Only if you take his place,” it said. Its voice was 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 get a good job. He would never contribute to the world as I could. So 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.
“Who were you talking to?” she asked.
“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. So I’m going to crack and go to the loony bin.”
“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 shouldn’t let us babysit him. “
She twisted my arm behind my back and pulled up sharply.
“Stop it. You’re hurting me!”
“Girls, knock it off!” yelled my mom from the other room.
“Get ready to go 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.
“Lovely, now we’re stuck with this,” 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 sang 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 glanced around, as pale as a ghost.
“Is everyone okay?” he asked.
“Yeah, did you see that?” I asked.
“See what? 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. Other families milled around with flashlights and walkie-talkies.
“Mr. Parker,” said my father as he shook one of my teacher’s hands.
“I’m sorry this happened to your boy. We’re gonna’ turn 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. The news on T.V. reported of a Nor’easter coming in within the next day or two.
“We’ve got to find Ezra. There’s no way that kid’s gonna survive bein’ alone in a blizzard,” said a police officer
My heart dropped when the beast appeared in the shop. 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!” snapped my father.
“Can you take me to the exact place where you were last with him?” asked a police lady.
We walked to the alley where the Krampus took Ezra. Giant footprints in the snow lead 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.
“He just vanished into thin air,” 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 abducted Ezra-“
“How? There are no other footprints, no trace of anyone else with him,” said my father.
“It’s the most logical answer we currently have. So 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.”
Yeah, because girls are the curse of the world. I kept these words to myself. Finally, 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.
The ride home was silent. My mother’s brow knitted in a worried grimace, and my father’s eyes looked bloodshot. Liza glared at me 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 left instead.”
“Then why weren’t you watching him?” I screamed. “You’re the responsible one. You should have babysat 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 watched 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 search through the town again, and the police are going to keep searching. So 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 go to school,” I said. “Ezra’s still missing, and I should help find him.”
“You’d help us more by asking questions. I love you, and we must work together as a family. But, unfortunately, there’s a terrible storm coming in.”
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. Then, 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 teased me were leaving me alone today.
I walked through the halls and found Mrs. Bentley. 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. Cue cards were laid out on the table as Mrs. Bentley taught the girl English.
“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.
“My parents are searching for him in town. They’re asking if you remember anything about Ezra.”
“I already told the police everything, sweetie,” she said. “The day before he disappeared was pretty standard. We went to classes and speech therapy, 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.”
“A monster took 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 vivid imagination, and you’re under a lot of stress. Your brother missing is making you see this monster, this Krampus.”
“He’s a Christmas monster that punishes bad kids. He isn’t real.”
“But he took Ezra!”
Mrs. Bentley hugged me. “I think you are a brilliant girl with a terrific imagination. I know this is hard for you, but they will find your brother.”
“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 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 give me a textbook to study for the next test.
Other kids hated that I would always finishmy work 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 read fairy tales or 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.
“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. So why don’t you take one bully instead?”
“You asked me to take him, child. Therefore, I am only fulfilling your wish. The wish bearer is the only one that can take your brother’s place.”
“Just give him back!”
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. “You’re under a lot of stress, I understand. Just try to be quiet if you’re going to stay here, please.”
I spent the rest of the school day reading tales about the Krampus and Santa Claus. I learned that Santa was an actual person that lived roughly 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 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.
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.”
“Look, Liza, I’ll let it go this once, but girls shouldn’t resort to violence. That’s very unladylike. Under normal circumstances, 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.
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? “
Liza sobbed, and I put my arms around her. The bus stopped, and we walked off together.
The air was ice cold. Thick, pillowy clouds loomed overhead. I smelled dampness, dust, and ozone in the breeze. The storm was near. We came home to a couple of police cars outside the house, lights flashing. My parents sat at the kitchen table. The policemen stood over them.
“How can you name us as suspects?”asked 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 started laughing.
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, child,” he chuckled in a richbaritone. The room became warm as he smiled.
A soft light came overhead, and there was a table with gingerbread, candy, shortbread, and hot cocoa with marshmallows.
“Help yourself to some sweets, child.”
I took some coco and started drinking it right away.
“Where am I?”
“Some call it the North Pole.”
“Hi, my name is Hellen. What’s yours?”
“Oh, I have many names?”
“Oh, Father Christmas, Chris Cringle, Santa Claus-“
“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.”
“What is empathy?”
He led me to another room with a giant fireplace. Two overstuffed chairs with red velvet cushions sat near the fire. 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.”
“So you showed me empathy 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.”
“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 really in the physical sense; we don’t exist as a matter on your plain.”
“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.”
“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!”
“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 back home?”
“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.”
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?”
“Can I meet the Reindeer? “
“Ho ho ho. Of course!”
The old man smiled and took my hand. The warm room suddenly became a stable, and the old man became much more rotund in appearance. He wore a traditional Santa Suit complete with a hat. The Reindeer lined up in a row. They trotted in their thick, shaggy coats. At the front, there was a Reindeer whose nose glowed a soft red.
“Rudolph! You’re my favorite Reindeer. But, 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 disappeared.
“You..you can talk?”
“I can. I’m a part of you, after all.”
“Can you fly?”
“Do you believe I can fly?”
“Of course, all of Santa’s Reindeer can fly.”
“Then I can!”
“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 shivered, and my teeth chattered. I could barely see a foot in front of me. Then, 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.
“Hon! It’s her!”
My parents rushed towards me the best they could through the thickly falling snow. I held my arms over my head and waived. Behind my parents was a group of people with flashlights. My father found me and held me tight.
“Papa!” I beamed.
“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 callan ambulance to check on her, make sure she doesn’t have any frostbite or hypothermia.”
A few minutes later, an ambulance pulled up. Its 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 as warmth enveloped me. 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 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.
“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?”
“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 I got scared.”
“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!”
Liza 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 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 take care ofyour 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’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 take care of 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.”
“You might not be able to babysit, but you can help shovel snow,” said my father
I rolled my eyes and groaned but stopped myself. I had a home and a family that cared about me. As I shoveled a path in the snow, I heard the laughter of St. Nicolas in the distance and smiled.