I know I’m pushing up against the line for holiday-themed stories, at ten minutes to midnight here on Christmas, but I had this little story for Kahrin and Innes in my head, and wanted to share it. Happy holidays to everyone celebrating. ~B
It wasn’t stealing, exactly. It was more like borrowing something that they could have gotten for the asking. Kahrin had it in her head it was more fun this way, and Innes knew from years of experience it was better to go along with her more harmless antics.
That was how he found himself here in the woods behind the Quirke farm, scouting the perfect tree. Snow to his knees, Da Quirke’s axe over his shoulder, and wearing enough flannel for three lumberjacks. Their love of Christmas was shared, but something about the holidays brought out an almost feral adoration of flannel plaid button downs in his best friend. He’d put his foot down over the turtleneck beneath it, despite her insistence that most heat was lost through the neck, and not the head like Ma Quirke had always insisted. He didn’t question where she’d come to this knowledge.
“Remind me,” he said with a click of his tongue, “why we’re creeping around in the dark?”
“It’s festive! Also, this!” She lifted her hands, clad in knit gloves and one holding a hacksaw, to indicate the clear sky, glittering pinpoints in the inky backdrop of night. “We’d never see this during the day!”
He could not argue with that logic, even when her chipper spirit was tarnished with a grumble that followed what he had to assume was the filling of one of her boots with too much snow. That only brought a twitch of a smile to his lips, and he lengthened his stride to get ahead of her, so her shorter lets could follow the trail he’d forge.
He was a gentleman, after all.
“By the time we get this back to the townhouse, it’s going to be two in the morning.”
“And?” How did she do that? Look at him like she did not see the problem?
He had to admit she was right, though. He grinned to mirror hers and shook his head. “We’ll stop and get some caffeine on the way home.”
They’d driven all the way to the farm from town after dinner (pancakes). Life had a way of eating time, and now the last minute had arrived—Christmas Eve—and they had not managed a tree, let alone two, one for each unit of their shared townhouse. Naturally it had been Kahrin who suggested this adventure, and even insisted they take the old K-car they’d driven as teens to haul it back.
He held up a heavy branch to keep it from smacking her in the face, and stepped over the fence into the clearing where her Da had roped off the trees set apart for this season’s cutting. The modest tree farm helped the Quirkes supplement their income over the tighter winter months. That, too was part of the fun as Kahrin explained it, tracking through the snow instead of taking the cleared path.
She found one she liked immediately. “It’ll fit in that front area, and you’ll be able to see the lights out that window no one can reach.”
Innes clicked his tongue in thought. “Did you steal a pickup while I wasn’t looking?” She was not incorrect about the perfection of such a grand basalm fir. The problem lay with the part where it was grand.
“That’s quitter talk!” she insisted, and the way her face lit up in the moonlight as she pretended to hug the tree made him want to give in.
Despite how difficult it was to tell her no, practicality took over, as it often did. “We might consider one that will actually fit on the roof of the car.”
She huffed. “Fine.” Her disappointment transitory, she hurried off to another. “Oh! Pretty Mouth! It’s perfect!” She bounced on her toes and pirouetted around to facing him. “This one.”
He chuckled as he set off to inspect this much more reasonably sized fir. It was much fuller than the other, but would easily fit on their old workhorse of a car. He stood back enough to examine it, finger and thumb stroking the stubble of his chin, letting the occasional hm as if contemplating the virtues and flaws. “I suppose it’ll do.” Even he wasn’t that good at keeping a straight face, especially in the face of her poked out tongue. He also loved the tree, and she knew it as well as he did.
It didn’t take long to fell the tree, even with Kahrin insisting he stop and pose so she could admire form as he readied to swing the axe. He was also sure he could hear the click of her camera when he bent down to see if an axe was even necessary. She was too quick, the camera back in her pocket and the most innocent face that did not open the earth to swallow them on her face.
They made better progress with the saw, and had the tree down in very little time. Innes let it be known that there was no way on her life he was dragging the tree back through the woods, and they could take the maintained path leading out of the lot of trees. Much to his surprise (not!) they made the trip back to the Quirke farm much faster.
“Look!” Kahrin bounded up the steps to the deck of her childhood home. “A Christmas miracle!”
“Indeed.” Sure enough, some “elf” with amazing forethought laid out a series of bungee cords on the tarp-covered patio table, freshly cleared of snow. Sitting right beside it stood a thermos. Kahrin had no more than unscrewed the lid and the smell of Ma Quirke’s hot chocolate tickled his nose. “One less stop to make?”
“One less stop to make.” She hopped the foot of height between them—where she found the energy he may never know—and pecked a kiss to his mouth before collecting up everything they needed to get going.
The trusty car had only earned a few new scrapes by the time they’d fastened their tree to the roof, and they were on the road back to town. Kahrin curled against him on the bench seat so they could share the hot chocolate, and had played a Taylor Swift Christmas cover three times before he noticed and insisted she find a new song.
“Whose side of the house will we put the tree?” he asked once she’d settled on some acceptable Advent carols. The year before they’d done one in each; this year did not afford them the same amount of time.
“Does it matter?”
That was the answer he’d expected. “Not at all.” His eyes slid her way before dutifully back to the road ahead. “It’ll save us looking for the deeds.” They never had sorted that part out, and he could not think of a time when they would need to. “We’ll do mine, since it’s cleaner.”
She made a sound of indignation. “Maybe if you picked up all your stuff.”
“If there is any of my stuff lying about your house, it’s because you put it there.” Let her counter that!
She didn’t get the chance, though, and instead used a phrase which was getting too common in this car: “Innes! Look out!”
Not so much habit as reflex by now, Kahrin balled up and braced for an impact which never came. Her scream turned out unnecessary, as was Innes’ slamming on the breaks (her fault), since whatever had run in front of them was still. Mostly. It limped along, dragging something with one hind foot.
“Is that a moose?” she asked, peeking between her fingers. It was too small for a moose. Also, moose were not known for their calm demeanor when faced with a car.
“No. I think…” Innes’ voice hung with a note of awe which was too familiar to Kahrin. She waited for him to finish his thought, which he did not do. Instead he got out of the car, one foot at a time, his body in slow motion. She watched him step carefully, all the sureness of someone used to both walking on ice and approaching animals. Kahrin dropped her head back before he spoke again. “Kahrin!” came his hissed reply, “it’s a reindeer.”
Oh, no, no, no. She huffed out a sigh he couldn’t possibly hear but she suspected he felt with that certain tingling sense they shared. There was no good which would come from finding a reindeer in the road, an injured one, no less.
Just a few years ago she would have rolled her eyes and played along with whatever fantasy he’d concocted (and some, she still did), but she knew better now. The stories he read to her, the whimsy fairy tales, the fables and folklore. There were elements of truth to them, and as they’d emerged from teen years into their adulthood, they were still discovering which ones and how much were true.
Injured reindeer on Christmas Eve was pushing it for her. “Don’t jump to conclusions,” she tried, climbing out of the car. The poor thing was stomping and snorting, though she couldn’t make out what was catching it up. “Reindeer are native to these parts.” Caribou, mostly, but that was a matter of linguistic potatoes and she didn’t have time.
“This far south?” he asked.
“If you mean ‘south of Canada’, then…” She shrugged to finish her thought. He wasn’t wrong. At least she didn’t think so. “I’m not an ecophysiologist.”
Innes lifted an eyebrow. As if she couldn’t know what that was! He didn’t think she was stupid, and she knew that. “What? I slept with a scientist for a few weeks. He liked to talk.” A lot. About himself. Not the point.
Of the two of them, Kahrin had the most experience wrangling animals, and she approached the supposed reindeer. It snuffled as she approached, her hands palm-out in front of her in placation.
“Careful,” she murmured, and behind her Innes made a series of low shushing sounds. Why did people shush animals, she wondered, thinking on all the times she’d done the same with that ornery old goat buck her parents still had. When she was almost three paces from it, the creature made a loud grunt, rearing up, apparently forgetting its injury and tripping over its own lamed leg.
“Kahrin.” Innes tried to gain her attention as she made another attempt to reach for it. It ducked its head, threatening it with a swoop of its velvety antlers which, while rounded on the ends, would likely do damage if it struck her. “Kahrin,” Innes called again. “He’s afraid of you.” Innes’ hand touched her elbow, urging her to back up.
“Of course he is. He’s injured.”
“No,” he countered. “He’s afraid of you.”
Oh. Oh. “So…” She took a step back, noting the way the creature calmed as she did. “Reindeer.”
“Reindeer,” he echoed. He didn’t say it, but she could feel the I told you so in those two syllables. Or maybe she was projecting. Fine. She’d probably be the same way if she’d been right twice. “Can you get my—”
“—first aid kit. Got it.” She was already jogging towards the car as she answered.
Sometimes she envied the difference between them. Her unique nature further estranged her from the easy faith he had in the wonders of magic around them, that she’d been so sure did not exist but had always gone along with. Because that’s what best friends did. She’d never been a Grinch—her whole family loved Christmas—but she’d grown up skeptical. She noticed in the leaner years that Santa’s generosity didn’t match the prerequisite behavior demanded for granting her wishlist (and decided the whole Santa thing was a scam the year she asked him for boobs). If this was a real, magical, sleigh-pulling reindeer, it was possible she was wrong about all of it.
But she could sulk about her curse of being a special snowflake later. Kahrin grabbed the red pouch with the white plus sign on it from the trunk, and when she returned, Innes had coaxed the reindeer to the side of the road and was kneeling beside it. A nice bit of salt in the wound to see it lying so trustingly beside him. It was then she saw the length of concertina making a mangled mess of the creature’s leg. Had she not castrated her share of goats in her life, she might have been ill.
The animal’s breathing quickened as Kahrin drew closer, so she stopped, dropping the kit to the ground and sliding it across the cold macadam to within Innes’ reach. Thinking quick, she ran back and retrieved thick gloves and the small tool satchel from the car.
“She’s going to help us,” Innes explained to the reindeer, it’s eye flitting back and forth between them. “You can trust her.” The low coo in Innes’ voice as he reassured the creature that Kahrin meant it no ill eased away the bruising in her heart over its fear of her.
He softly stroked the reindeer’s neck and nodded, pointing with his lips for her to step closer. Even so, each of her steps were careful, cautious, not wanting to be responsible for it spooking and goring Innes in front of her. That would probably put a damper on their Christmas Eve festivities. The knees of her lettings soaked with snow as she knelt, her toes still in contact with the ground. Just in case.
“This looks like the wire Old Man Fisher keeps around his rabbit pens.” She unwound the wire slowly, afraid to go too fast and make it worse, even though the razor bit easily into the gloves. “Great for keeping bobcats out. Not much fun to stumble into.”
Innes hummed his agreement, immediately returning to comforting the reindeer, who kicked reflexively, barely missing Kahrin with its hoof. The last coil untangled, they traded places so Innes could mend what damage he could. He hissed at the damage.
“Is he going to be okay?” The reindeer snorted as she reached to pet the thick fur of its neck.
“I’m not a veterinarian,” which was true, he was barely into med school. “But it could be worse.”
Kahrin popped her hands up to either side of her face to show the reindeer she wouldn’t touch it, and rocked back to her feet. “You might cut me a little slack,” she chided softly. “I think I’ve shown my loyalty to the magical world.”
The reindeer snorted again, lifting its head to look too Innes.
“She’s always like this.” He chuckled, applying some of her Da’s pungent homemade salve he learned to make back on the rez.
“Hey!” She narrowed her eyes at him, though the corner of her mouth twitched. “I give what I get.” She punctuated it with a poke of her tongue, because she was a mature adult.
“Kahrin, look at this!” She turned to look where he pointed, the bright moon illuminating his silver hair, but also letting her see the glistening wound, now dressed with salve as they zipped shut, tearing in reverse. Unthinking, she stepped closer, the process ceasing almost immediately. With a whistle of air sucked over her teeth, she hopped back.
Faster than she could blink, the reindeer rolled with a grunt and heaved itself to its feet. Innes sprang up, barely scrambling out of the way in time to miss being knocked aside by the creature’s bulk. Kahrin startled and hopped into Innes’ side. It was so much more massive standing than it looked lying down. Silence hung between the three of them and Kahrin’s muscles pulled taut, twitching in anticipation of running, and dragging Innes with her if she had too.
The reindeer didn’t charge, though. It stomped a hoof on the asphalt, then lowered its head in a nod that lasted just long enough to show intent. It turned and bounded off into the woods, kicking up a storm of white powder behind it. A heartbeat later, Kahrin could have sworn she saw a star streak across the sky.
“Look!” She pointed to the flash of silver light, guiding Innes’ eyes to what she saw.
He hugged her into his side, arm around her waist. He leaned and dropped a kiss to the top of her head. “We should get home and put up the tree, hm?”
She let a soft laugh, barely more than the breathed puff of steam drifting away from them. “We can wait a few minutes. This is nice.”
He peered over her shoulder to his wristwatch. “Twelve-oh-three,” he announced. “Merry Christmas, Kahrin.”
“Merry Christmas, Innes.”
©B.R. Hill-Mann 2019
If you’d like to read more about Kahrin and Innes, check out my novel, The Hole in the World, available here, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Atmosphere Press.