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"Santa Claus is not real!" little Ryan Black taunted from the back of the yellow school bus. "He's not real! It's just your parents who put all that junk under the tree and in your stupid stockings."
A few of the other kids around him chuckled and nodded in agreement, but Jennifer ducked her head down and closed her eyes, as if to drown out the evil words that came from his sour mouth.
For her whole life, all seven glorious years of it, she had never once doubted the existence of Santa Claus. Why anyone would was unfathomable to her. All her friends believed. Her sister believed. Heck, even Ryan had believed not too long ago. It was just last December when her first grade teacher, Mrs. Dunbar, took the class on a field trip to Christmas Lane. Jennifer remembered that Ryan had been the first child in line to happily sit upon Santa's lap and rattle off his wish list of toys. So, what had changed? What had happened in the span of a year? Why was Ryan, and some of the others, saying these horrible, hateful things?
They're just teasing you, she thought. They just want to make you cry.
Yes, those kids did that quite often - pull her hair, tell her to look down at the spider on her shirt, then flick her nose when she did, rip the pages out of her notebook, and other second grade torments. And it usually ended the same way - Jennifer would start to cry, and her tormentors would naturally laugh. She hated when she cried in front of them, but sometimes she just couldn't help it. She hated it even more when they laughed at her. It was cruel and made her feel like a caterpillar trapped inside its stuffy and thread-filled cocoon. Her second grade teacher, Mrs. Johanson, had showed them pictures at the beginning of this school year of what the inside of a cocoon looked like, and she had often wondered what it felt like to be in that little enclosure.
The bus gently came to its next stop - its squeaky brakes jerking in rhythmic motion so as to not slip and slide on the icy road. Jennifer opened her eyes and looked out the window. The snowdrifts on the sidewalk were at least three feet high, and she watched as the children exited the bus and tried to plough through the dirty snow.
She took a deep breath. Two more stops, she assured herself. Two more stops and she would be off this bus and ready to start her Winter Vacation. She would be away from all the creeps at school, away from all the monotonous school work, and Santa would be making his way to her house very soon! Oh, had she been a good girl this year! She smiled to herself as she went over her mental checklist - kept my room clean, was always nice to my sister (well, tried to be), respectful to my parents, ate all my vegetables, got good grades in school, and.
"If you believe in Santa Claus, then you're a baby!" Ryan continued his oration.
"Yeah!" one of the other kids chimed in.
Jennifer cringed. She certainly was not a baby!
Ryan sauntered down the aisle and stopped at every seat. "Do you believe in Santa Claus?" he asked as he pointed his finger in each of the passenger's face. Jennifer heard the frightened mumbles of the other kids. "No," each responded hesitantly.
He made his way to Elizabeth Stockton who sat across the aisle from Jennifer and who was in Jennifer's dance class after school. Elizabeth looked over at Jennifer, her big brown eyes opened wide with terror. Ryan leaned over and got directly in Elizabeth's face, blocking Jennifer's view. "Do you believe in Santa Claus?" he sneered.
"N. n. no," Elizabeth stammered.
Jennifer froze and clutched the thick straps of her overstuffed My Little Pony backpack. She was next on Ryan's hit-list, and she knew the question he was going to ask her was a tough one. If she lied and said she didn't believe in Santa, then he would leave her alone and move on. But she wasn't supposed to lie. She never lied. She couldn't lie. She did believe in Santa and if she lied about it, He would know! She couldn't risk losing a present off her list. or even worse. coal in her stocking!
Her heart beat so frantically in her little chest she could feel it through the thick padding of her winter coat. Ryan swiveled his body around to face her, and a hot tear escaped from the corner of her eye. She couldn't stop it from forming or rising or swelling over and onto her cold cheek. His eyes locked on hers, and he gave a half smirk when he noticed the small streak glistening down the side of her face. Just as he was about the move in closer for the kill, the bus's brakes began to pump. Ryan lost his footing, grabbed on to the high-backed seat and jerked from side to side with the motion of the bus.
The door hissed open as a cold wave of air blasted its way inside. Jennifer closed her eyes in thankful prayer and breathed a sigh of relief. She wouldn't have to answer his questions, nor would she have to make the decision to lie or not because this was Ryan's time to get off the bus. Her body relaxed at the thought of not having to see him or hear his voice for the next few weeks. He gave her one last narrowed-eyed glare as if to say, "I'll be back for you," and turned to leave.
Jennifer stared at the back of his red coat until she could no longer see it down the aisle, and turned her head to look out the window again. All she saw out there was gray sky and mounds of dirty snow heaped recklessly along the sidewalk. It was the same thing she saw at every bus stop, every time it snowed. The three other children who had gotten off the bus with Ryan had scooped up handfuls of dirty snow in their mittens and began smashing the filthy concoction of snow and gravel on each other's backs. Ryan leaned forward to pick up some snow in retaliation, but lost his footing and fell face first into the snowdrift. A roar of laughter echoed against the gray sky until the bus was out of earshot.
Jennifer smirked in delight at seeing her arch-nemesis take such a tumble. Serves him right for saying Santa isn't real, she thought gleefully.
That night during dinner, Jennifer remained quiet and pensive. Normally she would have blathered on and on about Mrs. Johanson and her wonderful day at school, but the gravity of Ryan Black's claims still hung heavy in her mind. She opted to let her sister do most of the talking. She didn't even realize she was spinning her peas around with her fork until her mother snapped, "Jenny! What on earth are you.?"
She looked up from her plate as if she had been yanked out of a dream. "Oh, sorry," she meekly responded.
"Spacing out, kiddo?" her father asked with a smile.
"Thinking about what Santa is going to bring you?" her mother prodded.
Jacey, Jennifer's older sister, giggled. Jennifer shot her a puzzled look. She inhaled and muttered, "Ryan Black said Santa isn't real."
Her parents quickly glanced at each other in a peculiar way. Jacey choked a little on her soda. Jennifer's eyes went wide. "Well?" she begged her mother. "Is he right?"
Her mother reached her long arms across the table and placed her hands on top of Jennifer's. "Sweetie, do you believe that Santa is real?"
Without hesitation, she responded, "Yes! Of course!"
"Then he's real," her mother assured.
"But. but. but Ryan said that."
Her mother tilted her head forward and narrowed her eyes. "What exactly did Ryan say?"
Jennifer thought for a moment - wanting to get his exact words correct, needing exact confirmation on the situation at hand. "He said, 'Santa is not real. It's just your parents who put all that junk for you under the tree.' Is he right, Mom?"
Jacey started giggling again. "Jacey!" their father scolded, and she cleared her throat first before stopping.
"Yes," her mother declared. "He is right."
Jennifer swallowed hard and the world around her felt fuzzy - like being trapped inside a threaded cocoon. "He is?" she squeaked, the desperation in her voice hollow and grim.
"Santa doesn't come to your home if you don't believe in him. Ryan probably stopped believing, and now his parents have to give him all his presents. So, technically, he's kinda right. But if you believe in him, and you're a good girl all year, Santa knows where to find you and he will bring you whatever your heart desires."
"Within reason," her father butted in.
Her mother smiled and pulled back her arms. "Yes, within reason," she continued. "Have you been a good girl, Jennifer?"
Jennifer's face lit up and she wildly nodded her head.
Her mother smiled. "Then I don't think you have anything to worry about."
"Yeah, but you never know! You could get coal in your stocking from the Coal Elf, ya know. She's the crazy elf! She'll give you coal if you just look at Mom the wrong way!" Jacey teased and giggled again.
Jennifer bit her lower lip and tensed up. Her mother shook her head and said, "Don't pay her any mind. She's just being silly." Jennifer breathed out heavily and relaxed.
The next few days were pure torture. Jennifer's home was all a-buzz with preparations for Christmas Eve and Christmas Day - cookie baking, food making, setting up the guest room for Aunt Jill and Uncle Mark, gift wrapping, and card writing. The anxiety bubbled up inside of Jennifer so much until she thought she would burst. Even at the first sight of presents under the tree, she couldn't wait until she could dive right in and tear across the glittery paper to reveal her treasures beneath.
Christmas Eve was a nightmare. It seemed as if her entire family had gathered in her home with their loud stories and trays upon trays of food whose names she couldn't pronounce. Aunts, uncles, grandparents, cousins, and even friends congregated in every nook and cranny of her parents' home making her feel anxious and small and trapped. Here's my cocoon, again. The night dragged on and on. It started with appetizers, and Uncle Mark's disgusting stories of working in the ER. Then the grown-ups washed dishes while Grandpa Mac smoked his pipe. Then they sat down to eat dinner while Aunt Jill complained about her job as a Vice Principal. She used big words that went over Jennifer's head. Then the grown-ups had to wash more dishes while Grandma Tessie fell down and gave all the adults a heart-attack. Then all the children had to sit around and wait for the adults to finish their coffee and cake. Grandpa Mac smoked another pipe before they could begin opening presents from each other.
Torture. Anxiety. Sweaty palms of anticipation.
Amid the happiness, and family time, and gift giving, and laughter, Jennifer had only one thing in mind - Santa Claus. And because of that, a night that would have normally been a lot of fun with her sister and cousins ended up being unbearable.
But it wasn't until the family left that the real torment set in.
This was the worst time.
"Santa will know if you're not asleep, and he doesn't come to houses where the kids are awake," her mother warned as she tucked Jennifer into bed. "Make sure you close your eyes and try your hardest to get some rest."
"But what if I have to go to the bathroom?" Jennifer said in fear.
"Then call for someone to come and get you. They'll make sure the coast is clear."
"But what if I get coal in my stocking?"
"I'm sure that's not going to happen, Jenny."
Jennifer still wasn't convinced. "What if I can't fall asleep?"
Jacey huffed and shifted restlessly under her covers in the neighboring bed. "Just go to sleep, Jen!" she whined.
"Come on, Jace," their mother pleaded, "you know how it is." She ran her hand across Jennifer's forehead. "You'll be fine. Just keep your eyes closed and you'll eventually fall asleep. You've been so good this year. Daddy and I are so proud of you."
Jennifer smiled and her mother kissed her forehead and left the room.
Try as she might, she just couldn't get her mind to calm down. Jacey had fallen asleep as soon as her head hit the pillow. How can she do it? Jennifer thought. How can she fall asleep so fast?
She tried shifting her position in bed in order to get comfortable, but that didn't help much. She tried singing songs in her head to take her mind off her anticipation, but that didn't work either. She even tried counting sheep, but the sheep morphed into reindeer pulling Santa's famous sleigh, and that got her even more anxious.
"I know I've been good this year, I know I've been good." she whispered to herself over and over as if in prayer. But her agonizing brain took her to other places. To darker places. "What if Ryan is right? What if there really is no such thing as Santa Claus?" To say the words out loud scared her more than the clown-monster in her closet.
The wind outside started to pick up and beat against the house. The initial howling sound made her jump at first. Curious, she sat up and leaned over to the window next to her bed. With her middle and forefinger she opened up two slats of her vertical blinds and stared out at the gray night. She scanned the horizon for any signs of his greatness - maybe a glitter trail of his sleigh, or a silhouette against the streetlights. Her heart beat fast with anticipation, and hope, and desire to see something.anything that would prove Ryan Black wrong and end Jacey's incessant giggling.
And then, in the distance, right above the crest of the tree-lined street she saw something.
A flash. A dash. A streak across the night sky that was too thick to be a shooting star, and lingered too long to be a trick of her own imagination. Grandma Tessie had told her sometimes angels fell from the heavens to help people on earth, but this was no angel. This could only be one thing. Santa Claus!
She pulled back her hand from the blinds and quickly covered herself up in her blankets. She closed her eyes tightly, in fear that He had seen her watching Him and would punish her by passing over her house. "I've been a good girl this year. I've been a good girl this year." she repeated to herself until she finally fell asleep.
The sun had barely peaked her head over their side of the world when Jennifer and Jacey shot out of bed and ran down the hall to wake up their parents. Christmas morning was upon them, and the excitement was electric all through the house. Their mother moaned as she wearily kicked her legs from underneath the covers and slid off the side of her bed.
"Get up! Get up!" Jennifer squealed as she shook her father's legs.
"What time is it?" their father grumbled.
"Girls, go downstairs," their mother commanded, "but don't open anything until your father and I get there."
Jennifer and Jacey raced out of their parents' room and flew down the stairs. Before them was a glorious sight of mountains of presents wrapped neatly in glittery paper. Jennifer jumped up and down with excitement as she took in the wonder and beauty of this Christmas morning.
I was a good girl, I was a good girl. she thought over and over as she impatiently waited for her parents to make their way to the room.
Once her parents arrived, it was on! Jennifer and Jacey happily tore through their presents like uncontrollable savages as Mom and Dad looked on. Dolls, clothes, clothes for her dolls, video games, reading books, coloring books, art kits, board games. it went on and on in a never ending frenzy of gifts. Jennifer didn't even mind the new packages of underwear, as long as it was something to open up! It was thrilling, and sent a rush down her seven year old spine.
"Oh, thank you, Santa!" Jennifer exclaimed as she clutched her new fashion doll - the one with the curly blue and pink hair and the cut off shorts.
When the gifts were just about finished, her father stood up in the sea of torn wrapping paper. "There's one more thing," he announced with a smile.
"Stockings!" Jacey screeched as if she had forgotten the family ritual of saving their stocking for last.
The stockings were always so much fun. Her mother would hang them with brass hooks right next to their fireplace and Santa would always leave the cutest little chachkies in them - lip-gloss, candy coins, gift cards to their favorite fast food restaurants, jewelry. They always saved the stockings for last because it was a nice way to wrap up the craziness of the morning.
Dad unhooked the stockings and handed the one that said "Jacey" to Jennifer and the one that said "Jenny" to Jacey. The girls laughed and said, "Daaaaaadddd!" with a unison eye-roll before passing the correct stocking to each other.
The girls laughed.
As Jennifer reached her hand up to the mouth of her stocking, she noticed a slight black, ashy smudge on her fingertip. She thought nothing of it and proceeded to stick her hand into the depths of the sock. Her face twisted when she felt something hard at the bottom.
Her mother gave her a puzzled look. "What's wrong, sweetie?"
Jennifer pulled out her hand to reveal an ash covered palm. Jacey's face fell in horror, as she too experienced the same black soot hand.
"Mom?" Jacey asked in terror.
"What's the matter? What's going on?" their mother said with heightened concern. She quickly looked over at their father who had a look of horror in his eyes. "Hun?" she asked him, bewildered. "Did you.?"
Her father shook his head in silence.
Jacey plunged her hand back into her stocking, digging around for something, anything. "There's a note! I got a note!" She pulled out her blackened hand, clutching an ashy scroll. She untied the black ribbon and unfurled the paper. Jennifer quickly put her hand back into her stocking to see if she, too, had a note. She moved her fingers against the hard, ashy substance, and sure enough, there was a little scroll for her as well.
"I got one, too," Jennifer announced.
"Well, what do they say?" their mother pried.
Jacey looked at Jennifer, tears starting to form in her eyes. "You first," she commanded, and Jennifer untied her note.
Jennifer swallowed hard, trying to dissolve the tight lump in her throat. "'Dear Jennifer,'" she finally squeaked out. "'I understand that you tried to be good this year, but you used your sister's hairspray and never replaced it, and you laughed at a classmate when he fell in the snow. Please be better next year. Sincerely, Ember, The Coal Elf.'"
There was a collective gasp in the living room. Jennifer nearly choked on the words she read. How could this be? They saw? They knew? How could this be happening? She actually had gotten coal in her stocking?
Her mother motioned for Jacey to read hers, but Jacey clutched it to her chest. "No!" she yelled. "I'm not reading this!"
Her mother extended her hand. "Give it here then!"
Jacey quieted down and reluctantly handed the scroll over.
"'Dear Jacey,'" Mom began to read, "'Your name has been grayed in the Book for some time now. Please don't ruin the day for others. There is still good, and hope, and the spirit in this world. Help keep it alive.'"
A deep silence hung heavy in the room - a silence that seemed to last forever. Finally, their father stood up and wiped his dirty hands along his pajama pants. "Well," he huffed. "At least we know one thing for sure."
Mother, Jennifer, and Jacey all tilted their heads to hear Father's explanation.
"That Ryan kid is totally wrong!"
Ember always enjoyed the view of the world beneath her whenever she rode in her sleigh or atop her reindeer, Asche. There was a calm serenity in the thin air that made her swoon and feel exhilarated. It was almost like taking a long, deep draught of the finest grulish, and feeling its dizzying effects right before sleep stretched out her loving arms, wrapped her up nice and tight, and carried her off to slumber. Riding above the world gave her a very similar sensation - as if there was true magic coursing through her veins.
She poked her head over the side of her sleigh and gazed at the scene below her. A gray fog blanketed the top of the dome and the bright stars speckled the inky black sky. But, somehow, something looked different. Off. New. Woven throughout the gray haze was a subtle glow pulsating and growing, almost like a shift in consciousness awakening on the horizon.
Could it be? Could my plan be working? she thought.
She patted an empty coal sack next to her on the bench of her sleigh and a small sensation of sadness sprung up in the pit of her stomach. Every child, everywhere, would wake up on the Big Day to a stocking-full of coal and a note about their specific transgressions. Ember's heart sank for all the Brittanys, and Tylers, and Taylors, and Jennifers of the world who may or may not have truly deserved it. She imagined their little hearts breaking as they reached in to their stockings only to pull forth a handful of soot. Coal was reserved for the naughtiest of naughties, the Sturds of the human world, if you will. But now, to quote Sturd, in these dire times, in order to stop the names from being blackened in the Book, in order to save the entire elven race from vanishing from existence, the human world needed a wake-up call.
How many human hearts would be crushed at dawn?
But how many fires would that coal re-ignite in those hearts?
If there was one thing Ember knew best, it was that a little disappointment in life never killed anybody!
She inhaled and closed her eyes, absorbing every second of the calm.
The calm before the storm.
"We did good tonight!" she called to Asche and Boptail, the two Shadow Deer who had escorted her throughout the human world that evening.
Both loyal beasts neighed and grunted in agreement. Ember smiled and tugged at the reins. "Not done, yet," she yelled. The deer stiffened against her pulling. "One more stop to make before we can rest."
Asche shimmied his thick head side to side like a boxer getting ready for a fight. Boptail's tail flittered up and down in anticipation. The two picked up the pace and sped off against the black night sky, and the stars whizzed by in a fast motion tail-light haze. Ember tightened her grip on the reins and planted her feet firmly on the sleigh floor.
"Alfreight onla Lapis Hall!" she screeched in Elvish, and the deer dipped below the clouds on their final descent.
Lapis Hall: The home of the Claus, a castle shrouded in magic on the highest mountain in Norland, unseen to the naked elf-eye. Only a select few had the privilege of approaching its gates and entering inside. And even then, it was said that once an elf leaves the domain, they are stripped of the memory of how they got there. Ember had an advantage tonight - she had not one, but two Shadow Deer who not only understood Elvish, but who had an inherent ability to navigate the most mystical, magical, and most secret avenues of the land. The castle was surrounded by Blueice archways that sparkled from within - the essence of the ice glowed, creating natural lit pathways to the blue iron doors of the castle. Boptail and Asche slid up to the doors - the Blueice path unfamiliar beneath their hooves. Ember hadn't even hopped out of the sleigh when the iron doors flung open and a frantic elf raced out of the castle.
"What are you doing here?" she shouted in panic. "You are absolutely forbidden to be here!"
It was Senara Calix, Madame Claus's trusted assistant.
Ember slid out of the sleigh, patted Asche on the nuzzle as if to command him to stay put, and approached the hysterical elf. "I'm here to see The Boss," she declared as she adjusted the black cap on her head.
Senara's eyes widened. Her black eyes jutted out like two pieces of coal freshly mined from the cavern. I've had enough coal for one night, Ember thought as she studied Senara's face.
"Ember!" Senara pleaded. "You must leave! Right now! Go back home this instant!"
Ember stopped in her tracks and hunched her shoulders forward. "Listen, Senara, it's been a very long night. Don't give me any static, okay? Let me in to talk to the Big Guy, and I'll be on my way."
Senara exhaled, and a thick white puff of smoke circled around her face. "Nope. I can't let you in. You need to leave."
Ember rolled her eyes. "Well, that's not going to happen. I can stand out here all night if I have to."
Senara's face twitched as her arms crossed in front of her chest and grasped her shoulders. Norland was cold this time of year. Lapis Hall, the home of the Claus, was even colder. Ember knew Senara wouldn't be able to guard the door all night; she knew Senara wouldn't be able to meet her challenge. Ember smirked as Senara started shifting her weight from side to side, bravely keeping her stance and bravely taking on the frigid blast of night time wind. It was only a matter of time before she broke.
Suddenly, a tall figure materialized at the open door and called, "Senara! What's going on?" It was Docena. Madame Claus. Her black silhouette was sharply outlined by the candle light from within the hall.
Senara spun around and ran to her. "Madame! I'm so sorry, but Ember."
"Ember?" Docena repeated in disbelief. "Ember? What is she."
"She's demanded to see the Claus, Madame. She said she won't leave until she does."
Docena craned her neck over Senara's head to catch Ember's gaze. With part of Senara's body blocking the light, Ember could see Madame Claus was dressed only in a red silky night gown. Her white hair tumbled over her shoulders in snowy waves nearly touching the floor - a stark contrast from the no-nonsense business attire and tightly-bunned coiffure she normally wore. Ember's smile and wave was first met with Mrs. Claus's initial eye roll, and then her hesitant hand motion to come in.
"Good evening, Madame!" Ember said cheerily as she walked over the castle's threshold and into the front hallway.
Senara closed the heavy doors behind them and Docena's eyes narrowed, glaring hard at Ember. "That'll be all, Senara," she said, holding her stare on the Coal Elf.
"But, Madame." Senara stuttered.
"It's okay, dear. Go to your room and warm up. You'll freeze to death if you don't. Thank you. I can take it from here." Senara nodded fervently, and click-clacked her way through the icy hallways.
Docena turned her attention back to Ember. "Poor girl. She can't stand the cold. I set up her chambers on the warm side of the palace, but she still needs to wear layers upon layers," she chuckled. "I find most of my attendants have a low tolerance for the cold." She ran her long fingers down her pale-skinned arm, and Ember noticed the dark purple veins pressed closely to Docena's skin gave her a violet skin tone, as if there was pure ice coursing through her.
There's magic in those veins, Ember thought.
"Not cold, child?" Docena asked curiously.
Ember jammed her ash covered hands deep into her pockets and looked down at her attire - she had on her filthy black jumpsuit, the hat given to her by Tannen's wife, Holly, on top of her head. That was it. That was all she needed. "Um, I guess not," she stammered, taken off guard. "It could be that I've been working double time tonight and my blood is pumping extra hard. I mean, it's chilly, but not any more than I'm used to." Yes, the extra work could explain her indifference to the frigid temperatures surrounding the ice structure of Lapis Hall, but come to think of it, the cold never bothered Ember much at any time in her life. She remembered playing in the snow as an elfling with little more on than a tunic! In fact, there was something about the splendor of Lapis Hall that made her remember a very particular time in her elflinghood.
A time when the snow drifted down slowly from the heavy white clouds.
Each paper-thin flake had felt like a soft icy kiss caressing the tips of her pointed ears. She stuck out her tongue and outstretched her arms, embracing the frigid air and onset of a mid-March North Pole snowstorm. Coatless, hatless, gloveless. It didn't matter, for there was an anticipation burning in the pit of her stomach like the spark of a wildfire ready to grow and consume. An ember. Like her name. Ember. This frantic feeling of flame from within made her stir with jitters and little kid excitement, like that feeling she got every Big Night when The Boss would make his grand ride across the sky delivering presents and treats to the good kids in the world. That feeling made her skin hot to the touch, completely unaware of the sub-zero degree weather in which she so mindlessly played. Nothing could ruin that day. Not the impending storm, nor her Nanny Elf hollering from the second floor window for her to bundle up. That day was special. That day was going to change the rest of her life - the day of her 9th elfyear birthday.
"Emmy!" Nanny Carole had called, yet again. "Emmy! You get in this house right now before you catch your death! Didn't you hear your father calling for you?"
Ember had tilted her head back once again to meet the descending snow with an opened mouth. "Two more minutes!"
"No, no, no!" Carole replied. "Your mother will have a fit if you get sick! And don't you go expecting me to take care of you when you do. Now git, you ornery girl!"
Ember's tiny shoulders slouched in defeat and she exhaled loudly. Of course, her daydreams would have to be interrupted by the agitated voice of her caregiver.
"Stop your huffing, and march your elfling self in here right now!" Carole's voice echoed across the courtyard.
"Okay, okay," Ember muttered as she dejectedly made her way back to her family's sprawling manor in Tir-La Treals.
Nanny Carole was waiting at the back door with a plush pink bathrobe in hand. She had held it wide open, and when Ember had stepped over the threshold of the back patio door, Carole engulfed her with the oversized garment.
Ember turned up her nose. "I don't need this. It's too hot!"
"Oh, you quit your complaining, Emmy! Your poor parents are as nervous as Chin-chis sitting in that there parlor, and you're outside all wild-child dancing in the snow without a care in the world."
Ember's face twisted. "Nervous? Nervous about what?" What did her parents have to be nervous about? This was her special day! Her 9th elfyear birthday! The day that she was going to start preparing the rest of her elflife!
Carole huffed in disbelief. "You can't be serious, child. Today is one of the most important days of your life!"
True, it was. And of course, Ember was feeling the tell-tale symptoms of excitement, but nervousness? That wasn't quite the word for it. Anticipation? Yes. But nervousness? That would indicate some sort of fear, and fear was the last thing that she had racing through her mind. Life for Ember had been good. Charmed. She had wanted for nothing. Had no worries or doubts or fears. She had been certain that the news from the Council would be nothing but wonderful, and it perplexed her that her parents had been a bit unhinged by the day's major announcement.
Ember had tugged the bathrobe tightly at the waist and spun around the kitchen floor. Carole shook her head side to side and made a "tsk tsk" clicking sound with her tongue. "Wild- child," she remarked under her breath and under a small smile. "You'll certainly be the one who retires me, now won't you?"
Ember had giggled gaily as she went whirling past Carole and nearly collided with the sharp metal edge of the wood burning stove. Carole gasped as she instinctively stretched her arm out to block Ember's near-miss crash. "I'm okay!" Ember had said with slight defiance. "You can't protect me forever, you know!"
Carole sighed deeply and gave Ember a tight squeeze. "Can't protect you forever, this is true," she began, "but I have one more year left to do my best."
"Ember Autumn Skye!" her father had roared from within the living room. Ember heard the urgency in his voice and she stiffened a little. She clutched tightly on to Nanny Carole's apron as Carole lovingly stroked Ember's hair and whispered words of comfort. Ember scampered into the living room where the rest of her family had been gathered.
The light from the eager sun had been trying to punch its way through the white-cloud-sky. It cast eerie shadows in the room - scary shadows across the floor and furniture. Mother and Father had looked like elongated ghostly figures hovering sternly over the candy cane striped sofa. Ember's older sister, Ginger, had been sprawled out on the floor - her tummy resting comfortably against the fluffy rug while the heels of her bare feet rhythmically tapped against her rear end. Father had held the letter from the Council in his chubby hands and motioned for her to sit next to him on the candy cane striped couch.
"So," Docena said breaking Ember from her memory, "what brings you here, to my home, on the busiest, most important night in the entire Elven Realm?" The sarcasm was thick in her voice.
Ember balled her fists inside her pockets, readying them for her verbal altercation, holding herself steadfast in preparation for what was to come. "While seeing you is always a pleasure, Madame, tonight I'm here to see your husband."
Docena arched her throat and gave a forced laugh. There was nothing funny about the situation at hand; the both of them knew that all too well. "Oh, my!" she said in mock surprise. "That is some request, child."
Ember inhaled deeply through her nostrils, her anger rising at Madame Claus's obvious derision. "Yes, I know," she said calmly, composing herself. "I am well aware that it is a very large request - a very unorthodox request. But I'm afraid that this can't wait, and."
"The Boss needs his rest," Docena interrupted. "He will have his grulish and mustn't be disturbed for a fortnight. That is the way. You know this. And as you know, any formal requests for audience with the Claus must be presented to the Council in writing, so if there isn't anything else I will gladly escort you." Docena motioned her arm toward the front door.
Ember looked over her shoulder at the doors behind her, but did not budge. She looked back at Docena and crinkled her nose in defiance. "No," she said casually. "I don't think so. I think I need to talk to The Boss. Tonight."
Docena smiled and stepped forward. She wrapped her arm around Ember's shoulder, sending an icy chill throughout her body, even through the thickness of her burlap jumpsuit. Ember shivered from her touch.
"This simply can't happen," Docena said in a loving way. "He's tired. He needs his rest. And so do you. You've had a busy night, too. You need at least a week for down time. Take my advice - go home, drink some of the finest grulish you can get your hands on, and sleep until you can't sleep anymore. It'll do you good. Trust me, I've been around the Claus for an extremely long time, and he's always his best and sharpest and wittiest and most productive right after his two week sabbatical." She smiled and began waltzing Ember closer to the front door.
Ember stopped in her tracks and wriggled from under Docena's arctic grip. She gave a small chuckle. She knew it was a dead end with Mrs. Claus, so she needed to change her game plan. Time for a full blown confession. Now or never. "I suppose you're right, Madame," Ember said, returning the sarcasm. "Just look at me!" and she gestured her hands, motioning them up and down the front of her body. "I'm a filthy mess! Filthy! Awful! Tired, too. Oh, so very, very tired!" She stretched her arms high above her head and feigned a yawn. Ember knew Docena was no idiot, and that she would see right through the sarcastic charade.
Docena crossed her arms in front of her chest. "Speak true, child," she said, narrowing her eyes.
Ember shrugged her shoulders. "I've just been busy."
"Yes, I know. Go on. What exactly does that mean, girl?"
Ember swallowed hard. The knot in her throat almost took her voice away. She knew that this confession was probably the only thing that would allow her to come face to face with the Claus. She paused - hesitated for a split second, and for the other half of that second, mustered up her courage to say, "They all got coal, ya know. All of them. The whole lot of those kids."
Docena's face twisted to the side. "Excuse me?" she asked.
"All of them. Ya know. Like, the whole world. Every kid. I gave them coal."
Docena's chest rose out in front of her as she breathed deeply. She shut her eyes and quickly shook her head side to side. "Are you telling me that you delivered coal to every child in the world? Bad and Good?"
"Mmm hmm," Ember said.
Docena's hands shot up to her head and she gathered her hair away from her face in exasperation. "What?" she screamed, her voice echoing throughout the palace. "What did you do, Ember? You can't be serious!" Unhinged, she paced back and forth across the ice floor with anxious strides.
Ember took a step back, scared of what Madame Claus's rage might bring out, scared of what Madame Claus was capable of. "I had to!" she argued in her defense. "Something had to be done! Those kids needed to know what was up! The blackened names in the Book were getting out of control and.and, well. I think it worked! There was a different kind of energy in the air. You just wait! When the reports come out tomorrow, when you get word from the Council members at Headquarters, I will almost guarantee that the Book will have calmed down, and that the Blackened names have stopped. I'd be even willing to bet that some of those grayed names go colorful again, and."
Docena stopped in her tracks. "That was not for you to decide! You went above the Council, above the Law, above the Claus! How dare you think that you matter enough to go out on your own!"
The blood in Ember's veins got hot and pulsated through her body. "Well, it didn't seem like your husband was doing anything about it!" she spat.
A long finger glided up and into Ember's face. "Watch your tongue! My husband, your Boss, is not a well elf. He's lucky he was able to make it out of his chambers to ride tonight. Could you imagine if that were to happen? And here you are - belligerent, obstinate, wishing to disturb an old elf on the precipice of convergence with the Mists. How dare you! How dare you think." Docena's voice trailed as tears rose to her eyes.
Ember hung her head low, absorbing the reality of Docena's words. She felt sorry that Docena would soon be losing the man she loved so dearly. "I'm sorry," she said. "Yes, I am belligerent, and obstinate, and ornery, and all those other words you and the others have said about me for all these years. I am all those things only because I am desperate. I am sad for the Boss. I feel very badly that he is in the twilight of his years, but he has completely given up! The elves all feel it - Above and Below!"
Docena waved her hand in the air as if to silence Ember. "There are still rules, young lady. Rules that we have followed for many a century. The Council will want to see you once they find out about what you've done tonight. You might face banishment, or even worse. You, and everyone else who helped you in your plot."
Think again, lady! That's not happening. 'Almond tall struthers' before I let that happen!
"You do know The Council is corrupt, right? I don't understand why you refuse to see that!"
Docena wiped her tear-stained cheek and inhaled. "It doesn't matter what I see, or don't see."
Ember balled up her fists again as the rage inside her grew. Confusion and frustration started to eat at her, and she did everything in her power to remain calm and composed. "I don't understand. You and the Claus are above the Council, are you not?"
"Yes. And no. You see, child, the ancient elves long ago created this system of checks and balances in service to The Mists of the North. The Claus was instated as the figure-head, or rather, the Hand of the Mists. The Council was created as a support system for the Claus. So yes, while in the hierarchy of power, the Claus is technically Law, it's the Council who dominates the operation."
"So, it's totally okay for the Council to give Sturd free reign to come and go as he pleases, to create his own agenda of chaos and."
"As his elfwife, you were supposed to get him under control."
The silence in the frozen foyer filled the space between Docena and Ember with a sharp buzzing noise. The sound rang in Ember's ears like a bomb had been detonated right next to her head. She walked toward the door and opened it. A gush of pure Norland wind raced passed her, nearly blowing her cap off her head. "That's not my job," she said looking at her boots. "It was never my job to be your pawn. Whatever sick game you're playing with the Council, leave me out of it." She turned her head and faced Madame Claus. Tears were still running down her face, but Ember had no more sympathy for her. "Instead of worrying about proper coal deliveries and ancient decrees, maybe you and the Boss should be worried about your people - ya know, the Elven race! How about the fact that I quite possibly stopped the names from being blackened in the Book. How about a 'Thanks Ember, whoo-hoo!' Remember that unfortunate Coal-less Night disaster? Yeah. I kinda fixed that, ya know. Or how about this one - the groups of twins that are currently being held captive by Sturd and his weirdo army known as The Brotherhood waiting for Claus-knows-what to happen to them. Groups of twins who are supposed to be candidates, replacements, for the Boss. What about all that?"
Docena had no words. She just stared straight ahead at Ember.
"Let me ask you one thing. My Life-Job. My Assignment in the Mines. Did you have anything to do with that?"
"No," Docena answered quickly and quietly.
"Oh, so it was the Council then?"
Docena seemed as if she was deep in a memory. "No," she said in a faraway voice. "The Claus and your father." her voice trailed.
"My father?" Ember shouted. "What do you mean, my father?"
Docena snapped back into the present and waved her hands in the air. "You need to go, Ember. This has been quite enough for one night!" She swiftly glided over to Ember and ushered her closer to the door.
Exasperated, Ember's shoulders fell forward in defeat. It was no use and she could longer deny her own fatigue. "Tell your husband, the great and powerful Claus, that I'll come back to talk to him after his fortnight siesta." And with that, Ember slammed the blue iron doors behind her.
Above the Ash Copyright © 2017. Maria DeVivo. All rights reserved by the author. Please do not copy without permission.
Maria DeVivo is a native New Yorker that has had a lifelong love affair with 'the pen.' A graduate of St. John's University with a BA in English Literature, she has a passion for all things mystical and mythological. She has taught seventh grade Language Arts since 2000, and in 2010, designed the curriculum for an academic elective class entitled Folklore where she has been able share her passion and knowledge on concentrated topics such as folktales and mythology to her students.
Having grown up in a large Italian/Irish family of five children (where Maria falls as the oldest, and of course, wisest) the mystery and wonder surrounding holiday traditions were a main staple of her upbringing. At the age of seven, when her mother finally admitted the "truth" about Santa Claus, Maria became somewhat of a "Santa-phile," an obsession that has rooted its way deeply into every fiber of her being. She's one of those people who cry when Santa makes His grand appearance at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Couple that obsession with a spark of creativity for all things dark and twisted, and her debut novel The Coal Elf was born.
Maria resides in Florida, with her husband, Joe, and daughter, Morgan.
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Maria DeVivo, author of The Coal Elf, has upcoming author events in Florida.
Back to Twilight Times Books main page
A special note to TTB readers. All contents of this web site are copyright by the writers, artists or web site designer. If you discover any artwork or writing published here elsewhere on the internet, or in print magazines, please let us know immediately. The staff of Twilight Times Books feels very strongly about protecting the copyrighted work of our authors and artists.
Web site Copyright © 1999, 2000 - 2017. Lida Quillen. All rights reserved.
This page last updated 04-20-17.
Twilight Times Books logo design by Joni.