Are your emotions bubbling? The holiday season can be incredibly emotional, and for some, a romantic time of year. In the spirit of the season, this short is not a mystery, it’s a sweet little romance, Whisperings style, and I think you’ll figure it out before Tiff does. ‘Tis the season, and I wanted to give her a very special Christmas present.
THE MIDNIGHT CHOIR
Royal inhaled through his nose. “Is that a new perfume? It is intoxicating.”
“Think you’re funny, mister?”
“And you are so beautiful tonight.”
He stared into my eyes, making my legs feel like rubber bands, even though I knew his dreamy expression had to be an act. Despite Royal’s insistence I am the most glamorous woman on Earth, I am far from beautiful on a good day and looked like a plague victim this Christmas. “Beautiful? Do you really want me to slap you?”
“How can you be so irritable when tomorrow is Christmas Day?”
“I can be irritable at the drop of a hat. It’s one of my specialties.”
“Of all the holidays, nothing evokes memories quite like Christmas. When I was a boy, Christmas was magic and the feeling has never faded.”
Royal adores Christmas. I hugged him around the waist. “Tell me about it.”
“It was much the same as in every home, I imagine. Mother baked and the aromas filled the house. A fire blazed in the hearth, the tree glittered almost to the ceiling. My mother sang as she worked – she had a wonderful voice – and always Christmas carols at this time of the year. Father often joined in. I can see them, his arm over her shoulders as they sang a duet.” He snorted out a small laugh. “I piped in with horrendous renditions of popular seasonal songs. They bore it with remarkable fortitude.”
I wondered if his brother Kien sang along with him, if their relationship was better when they were small, but I didn’t ask. Royal never mentioned Kien and I didn’t want to sour his good mood. “I’ve never heard you sing.”
His arms tightened around me. “Consider yourself fortunate.”
“You can’t be that bad.” I canted my head. “Come on, Royal. Let it all loose.”
“Perhaps tomorrow.” He pecked a kiss on my forehead. “But you cannot hold me responsible for what it does to your hearing and sanity.”
“It’s a deal, as long as it’s not Jingle Bells.”
“I would not dare.” His eyes sparkled as they gazed into mine. “But I am reminded of another song as I look at you.”
“Yeah? Which one?”
He stepped back. “I’ll see you later.”
“Royal?” I frowned as he turned away. “What song?”
He waved over his shoulder and continued down the path to the street.
“Royal?” I called, annoyed now.
“What’s he whistling?” Mel asked.
My entire head felt stuffed with cotton wool and I had to concentrate to hear his tootling.
Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer.
“Thanks a lot, Royal!” I yelled.
He climbed into his big red pickup and drove off.
“Ass,” I muttered as I went in the kitchen and plucked another tissue from the box. I blew my nose with a terrific honk and tossed the tissue in the trash can.
I headed upstairs, still muttering.
Jack sailed down as I went up. “We wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas, we wish you a merry Christmas and a happy new year.”
“You know I hate that song,” I said with a scowl.
“One of many.” He sighed dramatically, then warbled in a sing-song voice, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year.”
“That one too.” I dragged my aching body the last couple of steps and went in the bathroom. This cold had me totally bummed. I rarely got sick and to be laid low with a common cold, at Christmas, felt like karma knew something I didn’t. If not karma, then my old pal Murphy’s Law had stepped in again.
Jack and Mel were home for Christmas. Their wanderings had not taken them far as yet; getting anywhere specific took a long time, and returning just as long, so they had not ventured out of Utah. It seemed I just got accustomed to being alone when they popped up again. Having them around at Christmas cheered me, but feeling as I did, I just couldn’t raise the enthusiasm to . . . enthuse about their being here.
I peered in the mirror and wished I had not. I looked awful and stank of the menthol gunk I put under my nose to keep my nasal passages clear enough to breathe. Lank hair, dry chapped lips, red nostrils, weeping eyes. I looked pasty, too, and that takes some doing when your skin is already as pale as mine. Sinus pressure down one side of my face and jaw hurt worse than toothache.
“The decorations look lovely.” Mel said, sounding way too merry.
“Yeah. Nice.” I shut the bathroom door and stripped off my sweater. I didn’t even have the energy to tell her to get out.
She clasped her hands. “Royal got them up in a flash.”
He did, with the help of a little demon speed.
Stripping off the rest of my clothes, I put on an old gray T-shirt, pink pajama bottoms, big fluffy gray slippers and pulled on my thick pink chenille robe. Dumping the clothes in the hamper, I went to my bedroom. Mel followed me.
I took the jar of petroleum jelly from the bedside table and dabbed a little around my sore nostrils. Yep, my nose shone brighter than Rudolf’s.
“What do you think, Mac?” I asked my little dog, who snoozed in his red and black plaid dog bed.
He lifted his head and I swear he looked me over with consideration. Then he lurched to his feet, turned a circle and lay down with his back to me.
“That bad, huh?”
After knocking back a dose of sniffling, sneezing, coughing, stuffy head, fever, so you can sleep medicine, I went downstairs and turned off the house lights. I wanted to sit in the living room, with only the warm orange glow from the wood burning stove and the tree’s twinkling colored lights dappling reflections on the walls. I flopped on the couch and snuggled into a big pillow.
Like last Christmas, Royal and I would stay the Eve and Christmas morning at my house, then go to his apartment where he’d spent the afternoon cooking a veritable feast for our supper. As sick as I felt, my mouth watered at the thought of what Royal’s culinary expertise would produce.
He refused to tell me what he was doing tonight. A year ago I would have thought he performed some duty as enforcer for the High House, which he couldn’t talk about. With the Gates closed, he no longer reported to anyone, but still policed the Gelpha community. Someone had to do it, and it fell to Royal and two other enforcers. However, he told me what he was about, and sometimes I went with him. So, if I discounted Gelpha business, the single most likely reason for his secrecy must be gift buying, for little old me. Like a lot of men, he no doubt left it till the last minute.
I felt warm and drowsy as the medicine kicked in.
My name, whispered in my ear, brought me back to the surface. I had been out for three hours. Three hours was not enough. Groggily, I rubbed my eyes. “Royal?”
“No, it’s me,” Jack said.
I squinted at the mantle clock. “What time is it?”
“Eleven-fifty. Tiff – ”
“Royal didn’t come back?” I swung my legs off the couch.
“No, he did not.” Jack fisted his hands on his hips. “Now will you listen to me? We have a problem.”
Uh oh. He sounded serious. “What’s wrong?”
“Come see,” Mel hissed.
With a groan, I hauled my butt off the couch and followed them to the kitchen. They stood tight to the big multi-paned windows. I didn’t have to press my nose to the glass to see what bothered them.
It was bitterly cold outside and chill air leaked through the old window frames. The night sky was clear, spackled with so many stars the orange glow of Clarion’s lights could not quench all of them. Facing my house, nine figures stood in a line in the middle of the street. Away from the street lamps and house decorations, they were all but shapeless in heavy winter outerwear, with hats or hoods pulled over their faces. I saw only the suggestions of noses, mouths and chins. They were perfectly motionless.
“How long have they been there?”
“I don’t know,” said Jack. “We noticed them a few minutes ago.”
They were staring at the house. They couldn’t see Jack and Mel and I doubted they could see me, but there was no mistaking the focus of their attention.
I hastily backed into the room. An icy chill which had nothing to do with the temperature washed over my back and I shivered.
I tried to think it through, not easy when my entire head ached. “Carol singers?”
“At five to midnight?” Jack said.
Not carol singers, then. Why did I even suggest it? “Folk who are up to no good don’t as a rule stand in the middle of the street.”
“Who’s going to see them this late?” said Mel.
“Only because Jack and I woke you.”
“But if they want to break in, they wouldn’t stand outside for god knows how long first.”
“They are looking in here, aren’t they?” Jack asked.
“Sure seems like it.”
“Maybe they’re not humans,” Mel said in a hushed voice. The fingers of one hand went to her mouth as if she meant to chew her nails.
Not human. My wide-eyed gaze shot to Mel, then back to the street. Otherworldy?
“No,” I breathed.
Otherworldly, but who? They were not tall enough to be Cousins, but Gelpha come in all sizes. We didn’t know who was here and who was in Bel-Athaer when the Gates closed; maybe a few who didn’t like me got stuck here.
I got my Ruger from the kitchen drawer.
Seeing me armed, Jack and Mel went into a tizzy, whipping back and forth in front of the window. Jack’s voice quavered. “Who are they, what do they want?”
“I don’t know.” I popped the gun’s magazine and checked it before ramming it back in with the heel of my hand. Fully loaded, seventeen rounds. “Just playing it safe.”
But why wait till now to come after me? The Gates closed a year ago. And instead of an ambush, they stand in the street for anyone to see?
“How many people have a grudge against you?” Jack asked.
I tried to recall all the people Royal and I put in jail and prison. “A few, I guess.”
Keeping my eyes on the eerie group in the street, I stepped to the kitchen table and picked up my cell phone.
“The police?” Mel asked.
I held the phone firmly, but hesitated to dial. If Gelpha were out there, they would either disappear when they heard the cops coming, or worse, stay here and put up a fight, one the police would not win.
My muzzy brain decided to kick in. “They’re not Gelpha,” I told Jack and Mel. “They don’t feel the cold like we do, they don’t need to bundle up.”
But if they were regular people with a legitimate reason to be in my street at a couple minutes till midnight, I couldn’t for the life of me imagine why. What to do, what to do? Human or Otherworldy, my neighbors would not be happy about yet another disruption caused by their neighbor Tiff Banks if she phoned the police.
“Perhaps it’s a disguise,” Jack suggested.
He could be right. Should I get my tin of metal filings and start sprinkling?
“Whoever they are, I have the right to defend myself.” I went into the hall where I could see the intruders through the narrow pane of glass next to the door.
The clock in the living room boinged and my bones almost climbed out of my skin.
“Midnight,” Jack informed me.
“It’s Christmas Day,” Mel said after the twelfth stroke.
Right then, a man’s voice, a glorious, rich, soaring baritone broke the night’s silence. “Oh holy night, the stars are brightly shining. It is the night of the dear Savior’s birth.”
Some songs send pleasurable shivers down my spine. It may be the lyrics, or a voice’s incredible purity, or the emotion it projects. This was one of those songs.
“Long lay the world in sin and error pining, till he appeared and the soul felt its worth.”
Mesmerized, I put my Ruger and phone on the hall table, opened the door and went onto the porch, my slippers scuffing a thin coat of frost.
“Tiff, are you crazy? Come back!” Jack shrieked.
“A thrill of hope the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.”
I smiled so broadly, I was surprised my lips didn’t crack. “Shh, Jack, it’s okay.”
Just then the powerful voice commanded, “Fall on your knees,” and I had to grab the porch rail to stop myself obeying.
Other voices blended with the solo, and the singers raised their faces and looked up at the stars. I could see them now.
I didn’t have to call the cops, they were already here. All but one were members of the Clarion Police Choir.
I stood there in my worn old shirt, shapeless robe, fat fluffy slippers, hair and face a mess, nose swollen, and tears sat in my eyes.
The song ended and a deep silence fell over the street. I noticed a few of my neighbors had come outside; they stood on their steps, or porches, or paths, appearing as awed as I felt.
“I want to cry,” Mel whispered. “I can almost feel tears in my throat.”
“Oh my,” said Jack.
The singer in the middle, the baritone, left the others and approached the house. I couldn’t move a muscle.
“Tiff, get inside!” Jack remembered to be scared and whipped a circle around me. “What is wrong with you?”
“Calm down, Jack.” I grinned like a maniac. “It’s okay.”
Only one man knew I loved that song. Only one man knew that if I didn’t see him and his friends in the street, my roommates would, and they would alert me.
My heart sped up when he went down on one knee and pushed his hood back. He held up one hand with a small, square box balanced on the palm, the lid open and something sparkly nesting in black velvet. His other hand rested on his heart.
“Tiff, my beautiful Tiff,” Royal began.