Friday, December 5, 2014

Holiday Flash Fiction: Midnight Clear

Welcome to the Flash Fiction Holiday Blog Hop!
All stories must include in the text: a winter holiday theme, a "bad boy" character, and a gift of some kind. For inspiration, we were given this photo:
Enjoy my interpretation of the theme, Midnight Clear. Thanks for reading!
Midnight Clear
By Whitley Gray

Snow really did squeak when it got cold enough.

The night air had gone from brisk to subzero and smelled like a deep freeze. It was a true midnight clear. The stars glittered like Christmas lights in the black velvet sky. If it weren’t for the moonlight reflecting off the snow, it would be blacker than an undertaker’s suit.

There wasn’t a single light to suggest civilization. And the silence, as if the temperature had frozen any sound. Unnerving.

This wasn’t the North Pole. This was…Nebraska. Hazard County, unincorporated.

Eric shivered, hiked his duffel higher on his shoulder, and walked faster along the side of the road. Somewhere out there was Graeme’s house.

What if Graeme wasn’t home? What if Graeme’s parents had a problem with an unexpected guest on Christmas Eve? What if he couldn’t find Graeme’s house in the dark?

Eric’s phone had died a while ago, and the charger was back home in Lincoln. Er, former home, most likely, judging by what had happened. How could this have happened? How had everything gone so spectacularly wrong from one minute to the next?

In retrospect, it had been a bad idea—a horrible idea—to come out to his folks during Christmas break. But he’d turned twenty-one the day before, and everyone had been in such a great mood, all holiday cheer and good will toward men. Then Eric had made his announcement and brought the festivities to a screeching halt, eliciting bad will all around. A crowd of angry faces and angrier words had driven him out into the cold. He’d barely had time to grab his coat.

Last week, Graeme had said, “Stay at my house over break. My parents would love to meet you.”

And Eric had turned him down, thinking about how much Mom wanted him home for his birthday and Christmas.

“If you change your mind, give me a call.” Graeme had waved on his way out the door.

What he’d had in his wallet had gotten him as far as North Platte by bus. And now it was up to his feet to get him where he was going, step by step, mile by mile, over the squeaking snow.  

Far off in the distance, a pair of headlights wandered over the rolling Nebraska plains. It was probably warm in that car. Maybe those people were headed home from a party, and would stop and give him a ride to Graeme’s. At the very least, they’d offer to call Graeme and tell him where Eric was.

Cold and homeless in the middle of nowhere.

Eric paused and stamped his feet. He’d lost the feeling in them. The chill dove down into his lungs in an arctic rush, making him cough; his breath froze in white plumes. As long as he kept moving, he couldn’t freeze to death, right?

Just keep walking, Hopkins.

The headlights veered away and then disappeared.

Aw, man. What if he walked right by the entrance to Graeme’s place? A shudder went through him. Teeth chattering, he pulled the collar of his coat up around his face.

A chime broke the silence.

Not exactly a chime. More like a jingle.

It sounded like…well, it sounded like bells. Sleigh bells, to be exact. And why the hell would he hear something like that out in the middle of nowhere? 

He turned in a circle, straining to see in the gloom. Something crested the hill ahead. Something jingling. Eric stared as the creature got closer. Something on four legs, trotting down the hill, picking up speed. Something with—


No. The cold apparently had brought on hallucinations.

Jingle-jingle-jingle. It’d be on him in seconds. He should run. But he stayed rooted to the spot. Or perhaps frozen to the ground.

It slowed on the final approach. It wasn’t big, but it did have antlers. The dog came to a stop, sat in front of him, and gave a canine grin. He wore a collar decorated with bells, and a pair of fake felt antlers.

Whoo boy. What a relief. Eric blew out a breath. “What are you doing out here, buddy?”

The dog raised a paw and reached for him.

“Shake? You want me to shake?” Eric laughed and shook. “I don’t suppose you know where Graeme lives, do you?”

With a whine, the dog shook its head, sending the bells pealing.

“Of course not.” Eric squatted and peered at the dog’s tags. One was thick and dark. The other was thin and glowed in the dark:

My name is Hercules

I belong to Graeme Monroe

RR 360 Hazard, NE

The phone number was the same one Eric had for Graeme. Somehow he’d found Graeme’s dog, but not Graeme. Great. Eric stood. Maybe the canine could find him…

“Where’s Graeme, Hercules? Huh? Where is he?”

Hercules danced around Eric’s legs and barked.

“Find Graeme, boy.” What were the chances it would work?

Hercules stopped and cocked his head, then turned and headed up the hill.

What have I got to lose? Graeme might live right over that rise. Eric strode after the dog, snow creaking beneath his boots.

At the crest, more rural nothingness. Hercules looked up at him and whined. This was pointless. The dog was as lost as he was. Maybe Eric should look for a haystack to hunker down for the night. In the morning he could try something else. He skidded down into the ditch by the side of the road and up the other side. A barbwire fence. Hercules bounded past him and crawled under the fence. When in Hazard, do as the dog does…

He slid under and came up inside a pasture. Bales of hay were stacked several feet high. With numb fingers, he pulled them off one by one until he’d managed a cave within.  It was like building a snow fort. Eric crawled inside.

“C’mon, boy! Here!” Eric whistled.

Hercules crawled in and lay down. Eric snuggled up next to him. The dog was so warm…

Warmth on his face. Fingers in his hair. A familiar scent of Old Spice. He was alive. Eric opened his eyes to the soft glow of a flashlight.

Graeme shook him. “Hey there.”

“I…I can’t believe you’re here.”

Chuckling, Graeme pulled him closer. Into the warmth of his body. “I’m here.”

“Where’s Hercules?”

“Right outside. He’s such a wily boy, taking off like that. Good thing we got him a Find Me tag.”

“What is that?”

“It’s a dog tag with a GPS. I have the app on my phone, and it tells me where to find him. He has a bad habit of running off.” Graeme raised an eyebrow. “So what are you doing out here in the middle of the night?”

Eric looked away. “I got kicked out. It happened so fast I didn’t have time to think. And then my phone died before I could call you. I got to North Platte and was going to walk the rest of the way, but I got lost in the dark.”

A tear burned down his cheek and he ducked his head into the crook of his arm. Don’t act like a wuss, Hopkins.

“You’re found now,” Graeme whispered. “Let’s go home.”

They wriggled backward out of the straw cave, into the startlingly cold air. It was still full dark. Hercules grinned and stuck out a paw. Eric shivered. “What time is it?”

“Midnight. I didn’t notice Hercules was gone until the Christmas party wrapped up.” Graeme waved him forward. “Your sleigh awaits.”

They trudged across the pasture, slid under the fence, and then they were in the blessed warmth of Graeme’s vintage pickup with Hercules in the backseat. Eric sighed and stretched his legs out. The heat pouring out of the vents felt like heaven. “God, that’s good.”

“You’re half frozen. Get over here.” Graeme tugged on Eric’s jacket until he slid over. Graeme wrapped an arm around Eric’s shoulders. “Better.”

It was better. Eric didn’t mean to, but it had been an emotional night, and he’d lost his family, and then the dog… Eric reached for him, tilted his head, and brought their mouths together. He could feel Graeme’s surprise. Then Graeme kissed back, lips meltingly warm and sweet. God, it had been a while since Eric had had this.

Graeme’s arms twined around Eric and pulled them together. The almost shy kiss deepened. Graeme’s tongue teased its way inside, and his hunger caught Eric off guard. 

Bells jingled, followed by a sharp bark.

With a shaky laugh, Graeme pulled away. He ran his thumb over Eric’s bottom lip. “Been wanting that since September, ever since you moved into the house.”

Holy shit. “Why didn’t you say anything?”

“The place is like Grand Central Station. No privacy. I was going to tell you over break, but when you said you were going home, I didn’t think I’d see you until January.” He ran a hand along Eric’s jaw. “What a terrific surprise.”

“Speaking of surprise… Will your folks mind? Me staying with you, I mean.” Eric didn’t think he could take another angry mob.

“Of course not.” Graeme sounded a touch indignant. “They know about me.”  

“Sorry about dragging you out on Christmas Eve.”

“Nah.” Graeme brushed a kiss across Eric’s mouth. “Santa came early. You’re my Christmas gift.”

Eric’s heart swelled, filling his chest with warmth. “And you’re mine.”

Hercules barked and put his paw on the seatback between Graeme and Eric.

Eric laughed and gave the dog a pat between his fake antlers. “Who dressed the dog up?”

“My little sister. For the party.”

“Thanks goodness for party animals.”

“No doubt. Let’s go home.”

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