The Christmas House…
The fading glow of dusk settled over the house as the 24th of December began drawing to a close. A breeze whispered through the trees, the gently falling snow carpeting their branches in white.
A squirrel nibbling happily on his dinner squeaked in affront as a clump of snow landed with a soft thud beside him, showering him in cold and wet. Shaking his ears to free them of snow, he finished his nuts and scampered back up into the tree to re-join his family. He’d just made it up into the shelter of the branches when something caught his eye– a light had flickered on in one of the windows of the old house nearby.
Tomas slugged through the snow. He was tired and hungry and the jacket he wore no longer prevented icy tendrils of air from penetrating through to his skin. Shivering, he came to a stop, hefting his backpack on one shoulder. At first glance it looked like he was in the middle of nowhere–he’d been walking for hours through the forest, hoping to find shelter before nightfall. Now the sun was setting over the horizon, and the air was growing colder.
Blowing on numb fingers, he looked around again, and this time his gaze snagged on one flickering light amid the falling darkness. At the same time, the faint sound of bells drifted to him on the night air. When he frowned and looked more closely, he could see the house. It was old and rambling, looking in dire need of repair. Still, it had a roof, and would be somewhere to shelter for the night. Changing direction slightly, he made for the house. Snatches of ringing bells followed him as he walked. Two more upper floor windows lit up as Tomas walked up the long driveway to the house, and he swore he could hear the sound of children’s laughter coming from inside.
At the imposing front doors, Tomas hesitated only a moment before pushing them open. They swung inwards with a groaning creak and blessed warmth enveloped him. Stopping just inside, Tomas stared in surprise at the fire burning merrily in the entrance foyer. An unbroken layer of dust covered the wooden floor and the mantle above the fireplace.
The word echoed back at him over and over, seeming to reverberate through the entire house. No response came. Shrugging, Tomas closed the doors to keep out the cold and stepped closer to the fireplace. As he stood there, debating what to do next, an arched door to his right swung open soundlessly. Golden firelight from beyond shone through onto the floor, illuminating the motes of dust floating through the air.
“This is creepy,” he muttered. But oddly enough he didn’t feel in any danger. His instincts were sharp, and usually warned him if there was something wrong nearby.
The bells sounded again, louder this time, almost immediately followed by a snatch of bright music. He was just working up the courage to walk through when a rustling sound from above had him turning and edging back towards the front door. Moments later, a small figure appeared through one of the windows set high up in the wall, carefully lowering herself down. Tomas stared in astonishment as the girl dropped lightly to the floor, brushing clouds of dust and snow from her clothes, before turning to scowl at him.
“Who are you?”
“Who are you?”
She looked around, her glance taking in the dusty floor and the melting snow from his boots. “You don’t live here either.”
“I was just looking for shelter for the night. The house seems empty, though.”
“Lit that fire all by yourself, did you?”
“No, it was lit when I walked in.” After hesitating a moment, Tomas reached out with his hand. “I’m Tomas.”
She stared disdainfully at his hand. “Amerla.”
“So, what are you here to steal?” he asked.
She smirked. “Like you, I’m just looking for shelter. The snow is getting heavier out there.”
Both of them glanced around as the sound of bells echoed through the house again. After a moment, Amerla rolled her eyes and strode towards the open doorway. Shrugging to himself, Tomas turned and followed. His mouth fell open in surprise as he stepped though. This room was lit by another crackling fire that filled the cozy space with the sweet scent of cedar. A Christmas tree stood in the corner, decorated with lights and baubles and a bright golden star. A long, plush-looking couch sat across from the hearth, a neatly folded quilt sitting at each end.
Both Tomas and Amerla jumped as a scratching sound came from the old record player in the corner. Moments later, the tune to ‘jingle bells’ hummed softly from the speakers.
“This is weird.” Amerla’s eyebrows were narrowed in suspicion. “I don’t believe in ghosts.”
“Neither do I.” Tomas looked around the room one more time before dropping his backpack to the floor. “But it’s cold and dark outside. I’m staying.”
She stared at him for a long moment before finally conceding with a sigh. “You’re right.”
As Tomas and Amerla cautiously approached the couch, the door behind them silently swung shut, keeping the warmth in the room. Outside, red and green fairy lights strung along the eaves of the roof suddenly turned on. The chiming of bells swelled.
“So what are you running from?”
Tomas shrugged. “The usual.”
Amerla acknowledged that with a small, sad smile. “You headed anywhere in particular?”
“Just away. As far as I can get.”
Silence fell around them again, broken occasionally by popping from the fireplace. Tomas leaned down to pull off his boots and stretch his frozen toes out towards the warmth of the fire. “How long have you been on your own?”
“Long enough,” she said softly.
His stomach rumbled then, breaking the tenseness. Her swift grin, as brief as it was, warmed Tomas. She had a face made for smiling, he thought.
“I’m bored.” She rose to her feet. “I’m going to see what’s through here.”
Made sleepy by the warmth despite his hunger, Tomas stayed on the couch while Amerla crossed to the only other door in the room. This time it was the sound of chimes that echoed through the house as the door opened. Unbeknownst to Tomas or Amelda, lights now flickered in all the windows of the Christmas House.
“Tomas! You’re going to want to see this.”
At the stunned note to her voice, Tomas leaped off the couch and followed her through the door, stopping dead at the sight laid out before him. It was a kitchen, the table running down its centre groaning under the amount of food lying on it. He saw steaming mince pies, a whole roasted turkey, platters of roasted potatoes and a dish of green beans. Off to the side sat frosted Christmas cupcakes, a bowl full of candy canes and at least ten crunchy bread rolls. On the stove, bubbling away happily, was a large pot of what smelled like spiced apple cider.
His mouth watered, his hunger surging with the vengeance.
“I think this is for us.” Amerla’s voice was light with disbelief.
Tomas reached out to rest his hand against gently against the wall in thanks. “Yeah, I think it is.”
Tomas sat back against the deliciously soft cushions. He thought his stomach might burst if he tried to fit any more in…he couldn’t remember the last time he’d been able to eat until he was full. Amerla sat on the opposite end of the couch, one hand toying with a loose thread on the quilt that had been left there.
“Tomorrow… ” she began speaking, then fell silent.
“Yeah?” he gently encouraged.
“I was thinking of heading north.”
She was staring down at her hands, so he felt safe in letting out the smile that spread across his face. “Seems like a good direction to go in.”
“Tomorrow is Christmas, though. I think we should stay here one more night.”
Around them, the bells chimed.
That quicksilver smile lit up Amelda’s face again. “I’m okay with that.”
The squirrel scampered across the roof of the Christmas House before swinging down one of the drainpipes towards the ground. It was just after midnight, and the bright Christmas lights adorning the house glowed against the white snow. The squirrel paused above one of the arched windows, looking through the frosted glass in curiosity.
Inside were two young people. A crackling fire flickered in the grate, casting a warm pool of light around the small sofa sitting before the hearth. Empty minced tart wrappers littered the surface, along with two empty mugs and the remnants of a cherry pie.
A young man was in the middle of the sofa, legs sprawled out and resting on the coffee table, head leaning to the side and resting on the girl’s knee, fast asleep. A santa hat was wrapped around her right knee. The girl was curled in the far corner, one hand resting almost close enough to touch the boy’s shoulder, a dark pool of shadow amidst the firelight and the flickering green and red.
Outside, the squirrel turned and headed back towards his tree, the memory of warmth and burgeoning friendship following him all the way back home…