Flash Fiction Holiday Blog Hop – “Promise”
40 writers, one picture.
Thorny, Kris and L.C. came up with the idea for a bunch of us to write holiday flash fiction for the same prompt. You can find links to all the other writers in the blog hop on this InLinkz page. The stories will appear between Dec 1 and Dec 7. (The exact timing is each author’s own choice.)
We each wrote a short piece, 500-3000 words, for this picture – a bit of fiction including a winter holiday, a “bad boy”, and some kind of gift. Naturally, mine went 2992 words 🙂 Not so much “flash” but still short for me. I hope you enjoy it. Then, during the coming week, go see what 39 other talented writers did with the same prompt.
Six years is a long time.
It’s long enough for a little girl who liked piggy-back rides to grow up. She’s standing by that poinsettia display and smiling at some scruffy guy in a high-school hockey jersey. He’d damned well better be treating Ben’s little sister right. By which I mean, respecting her and not touching anything more than her fingertips. God, she must be fifteen now.
It’s long enough for a new headstone in the graveyard. They told me at the grocery store that Ben’s mom had died. I went there first. I thought I might talk this out with her, but when I stood there and looked down at that stone – Beloved wife and mother – all I could do was wish I’d once said how much she was a mom to me too. In the end, I gave her the roses and just walked away. They were cheap flowers, six bucks a dozen at the grocery store. They’d be frozen and dead in an hour. But she’d loved the yellow ones. Back when I knew her, six years ago.
Which is also plenty long enough for Ben to have moved on.
He’s behind the counter, showing some woman the timers for holiday lights. He looks damned, fucking good. His hair’s really short, but other than that he’s hotter than ever, filled out a bit in the chest and shoulders. He’s laughing, teasing the woman, getting her to add a silly ornament to her order. This is the busy season at the nursery gift center, and the scent of the pine wreaths, the gingerbread of the craft ornaments, the musty earthiness of the poinsettia pots, hits me in the gut. This was everything, once.
I don’t know why I’m here. Why I came back.
I don’t belong.
I wasn’t going to ever stand here in Weaver’s Nursery and Crafts again.
When they let me out of prison, I had plans to head some other way. To Seattle, or maybe L.A., somewhere warmer and gay-friendly. I’d figured I’d work in Fargo for a while, save enough for the bus and a bit in my pocket, and go start a new life. But when I finally had the fare and stepped up to the kiosk at the bus station, there were carols on the radio and somehow my fingers tapped in “Tallbridge, ND.”
I’m stupid sometimes. And those are my good days.
Behind me, I hear a laugh that tugs at my memories, the faint echo of something I once knew. I turn and look. An unfamiliar man with a full beard is bending to listen to the babbling of a small boy. After a moment he swings the boy up on his shoulders. The kid giggles, crowing like a rooster, and tugs on the guy’s hair. “Go, Daddy! Horsie!” And when the man tips his head around, holding the boy’s legs secure against his chest, I suddenly see it. Holy shit, that’s Ben’s big brother. With a beard and a kid and I guess a wife. Ben’s an uncle. I hope his mom lived long enough to see the rugrat born…
A voice behind me says, “Can I help you?”
I don’t turn. I don’t even breathe.
Ben says patiently, “Is there something you’re looking for?”
I say as gruffly as I can, “No.” Then I add, “Thanks,” because I’m back in the real world and it wouldn’t kill me to be polite.
I’ve changed in six years too. I know my voice is deeper, and I don’t look the same or stand the same as when I was the hot, bad boy on the block. Back before I got a bit of the attitude beat out of me.
But all it takes is two little words from me, for Ben to whisper, “Donnie?”
I want to walk away, but my feet are glued to the floor right there beside the damned teddy-bear-ornament tree. My vision sparkles. I think my fingers are numb.
Ben eases around from behind me, moving like someone stalking a deer. When his face comes into view, his eyes are huge. Maybe he’s the Bambi. “Donnie? Is that you?”
I drag in a breath, and snap, “Well, I ain’t fucking Marie, right?”
“Not unless you’ve changed teams.”
There’s this moment when our eyes meet, and it’s almost like six years didn’t happen. It’s me and Ben, together, with me supplying the attitude and the straight lines, and Ben doling out the punch lines and the smiles. For a moment I almost grin back, but then I hear the little kid laugh behind me and I remember that time didn’t really stand still. I look down. Ben still has feet the size of canoes in his work-boots. “I was just going.”
Fast as a snake, his hand flashes out to grab my sleeve. I hit his grip off my arm, just as quick and harder than I mean to, my other fist coming up. Ben steps back, his empty palms held out. “Sorry! God, Donnie, I’m really sorry, just don’t go yet. Please!”
I whirl away to hide the water in my eyes. I almost hit Ben. First time I saw him in years, and I about punched him. “I’m the one that’s sorry. It was a reflex, that’s all. Just, um, don’t grab me.”
“I won’t.” His voice is soft and slow. “I just want to talk to you. Please, a few minutes, an hour. I want to know you’re okay.” He adds, “I’ve missed you so fucking much!”
Ben was always braver than me. I mumble, “Yeah.” Me too.
There’s a pause, like he’s deciding what’s safe to ask a wildman like me. I stare at the tree. There’s a big teddy underneath it with this round little mirror on its stomach. I can see a warped view of Ben, half his face, looking at me, his gaze steady but his lips pressed uncertainly. After a moment he says, “When did you get out?”
“You didn’t tell anyone?”
I shrug. I didn’t want anyone to see me walk out those prison gates as an ex-con.
“What did you do?”
“Looked for a job. Found one after a while.” Crappy job, cleaning public bathrooms along with a couple of illegal aliens, and a guy who was usually stoned. Right at minimum wage. “Saved a little money.” Mostly by squatting rather than paying rent, eating at free kitchens. My pride went, somewhere in that long, hard first year. I was all about making it through whatever worked now.
“I’d have come—“ He stops, clears his throat. “No. It was your choice. I have to respect that.”
I choke a laugh. “Sounds like something your mom would have said.”
“Yeah. It was. After I woke up in the hospital and got to where I could think about things besides the broken bones, I tried to get in touch with you. A bunch of times. And I know Mom tried too, right from the beginning. They always said you didn’t want to see us, wouldn’t take our letters.”
“No point.” I hadn’t wanted what happened after I was arrested to touch them. Ben and his mom, his sister and brother and dad— they were special. Clean. By then I was pretty damned dirty.
“Of course there was a point!” In the little bear-tummy mirror I see Ben run a hand over his close-cut hair. “Well, anyway. At some point, Mom said we had to respect your choices. She said I could send a letter now and then, so you’d know I hadn’t forgotten. But it was up to you to decide if you wanted to write back or let us in.”
“I’m sorry. About your mom.” My throat tightens so much I have to force the last word out, like a grunt. How classy.
But Ben actually steps a little nearer. “She thought about you a lot, even at the end. She would say she hoped you were all right, or she wished she had enough time to wait for you to get out.”
“Fuck. Don’t tell me that.” I blink hard, because if I wipe at my eyes, he’ll know. “How old is the munchkin? Your brother’s brat?”
“He’s two. We have a few pictures of her holding him as a baby.”
Figures Ben would understand why I asked. I nod, a bunch of times. “Well. That’s good. I should go.”
“Can’t we talk? I want to know what you’re doing next. Where you’ll be staying. I want to tell you about my life and the stupid shit I’m doing.”
“I don’t need to know about your shit.”
“You were all up in my shit once,” he murmurs.
“Donnie!” He mimics my tone, then softens again. “We were best friends and boyfriends and more. That didn’t go away for me because you were driving drunk and got in an accident. Or even because you pled guilty to a bunch of charges and served time. I was drunk in the same damned car, remember?”
“I pled guilty to fucking criminal vehicular homicide, Ben. Not just DUI or open bottle.” Well, those too, although the open can of beer in a moving vehicle had been his. The hand down my pants when I hit Mrs. Johnson’s car had been his too, although it was my idea. I wonder how much he remembers. Probably not much, given that he was in hospital for what I heard was a couple of weeks afterward.
“You’re all healed up, right?” I ask. I had nightmares sometimes, about what I’d done to Ben. Even after I opened one of his mom’s letters, just to know for sure, and she said he was good now.
“Yeah. Everything healed fine. It’s you I want to hear about.”
“I did time. I’m a con. I did sh—stuff inside that I’m not fucking proud of. You don’t know me anymore.”
“I want to.”
“The hell I don’t. You get to speak your mind, but you’ve got to respect my opinion too. I’ve been waiting to see you again, Donnie.”
“I call bullshit. You gonna tell me there’s been no-one else in your pants in six years?” It’s fucking stupid that I hold my breath in some illogical brainfreeze of hope.
Stupider that I feel the breath leave my chest when he says, “Of course there has. I’ve dated a couple of guys, messed around with a few more.”
“Me too,” I growl. “Without the dating part. So—”
“Donnie. None of them were you. Not one of them stopped me wondering what you were doing, how you felt, what was happening to you, pretty nearly every day.”
That what-was-happening shit is stuff I’m never gonna tell him. But his words are a little fire in my cold body. “Oh.”
He moves closer. “I want to get to know you again. So we’ve both changed? That doesn’t mean we won’t find we’re still able to be best friends.”
And more? My whole body comes alert at the thought, but I force any idea of sex back down. I know better than to show interest at the wrong time or to the wrong guy. And as right as Ben had been once, he’s dead wrong now. But it’s been a long time since I’ve had a real friend. “I could maybe hang around for an hour.”
“Good! God, that’s great. And… just wait right there, okay? Don’t move. Promise?”
“Um. All right.”
“That’s a promise?”
In the mirror, I see him hurry away. Like a dummy, I just stand there. It’s my chance to leave this place that will never be home again and get lost, but I don’t, because I promised Ben and I never once broke my word. Well, not to Ben.
He’s back in a moment. “Here.” He moves up against my back, slowly, but not stopping until I can feel the heat of him through the cheap denim of my jeans.
“Here. A Christmas present.”
I don’t move, deliberately speak rough. “I ain’t got nothin’ for you.”
“Don’t be dumb. I don’t need any. Put out your hand.” He’s close enough for me to feel his breath on my neck, his chest against my shoulder as he sneaks an arm around me, holding something in his closed hand.
I don’t want to take anything from him. It’s too much. But it’s been six years since I got a gift. Unwillingly, I raise my arm, open my hand. He drops something into it, a cool metal shape with a tangle of bits. I look more closely.
The basic part is a Swiss Army knife, a good one with all the attachments. I know the very one. The week before everything went to hell we’d been online, looking at catalogs, picking out good shit. I’d seen this, with everything from a saw blade to a pair of tweezers, and wanted it. I turn it in my hand. It has a little loop at one end, to hang it by. Attached to the loop are a bunch of random things. I stare at them.
Ben whispers, “You said the knife was perfect. That a guy could get out of just about any tight spot with that. I bought it for you, the first year, when I thought I could still visit you for Christmas.”
I snorted loudly to cover the ache of that. “Dumbass. Not like they’d let you give a guy in prison a knife.”
“I know. But I thought I’d show it to you, a picture maybe, like a promise. And give you that.” He reaches slowly into my palm, and ticks one of the little charm-things with his finger tip.
“What the hell is that?”
“A four-leafed clover. A real one, inside liquid plastic. An Irish one. They promised on the website. For luck.”
“You believed a website? It’s probably from China. Probably a mutant Chernobyl clover.”
“Chernobyl’s in northern Ukraine, not China.” He flips another of the charms. “That was for your nineteenth birthday. It’s Navajo, sterling silver, with a sun and an arrow for luck.”
“It’s been five years. This one is Chinese.” I hear the smile in his voice. “A jade coin.” He taps another. “A rudrakesh nut, a new penny, the nail from a horseshoe, preserved rosemary.” He leans in, his head alongside mine. “I made the little cover for the rosemary from a stamp case. Then here—an actual ancient scarab.” He lowers his voice. “A freaking mini rainbow unicorn, because I saw it when we were ordering ornaments for the store last year…”
I close my fingers over the whole thing, forcing him to pull his hand back. “No rabbit’s foot?”
“Not very lucky for the rabbit, is it? Nope, no dead feet.”
“Oh.” I could feel all the little edges and corners pressing into my palm. “Thanks.”
“Merry Christmas, Donnie. I’m glad I finally was able to give it to you. Whatever comes next, that’s how much good luck you deserve.”
“I don’t fucking deserve anything.”
“How much luck I want you to have, then.”
Wouldn’t that be something different? I slide the knife with the charms into my pocket, but I don’t step away or turn.
Ben’s voice is like smoke in my ear, soft, almost unnoticeable. “Will you stay? At least for a while? Let me get to know you again and make sure you’re going to be okay? You’re welcome at the house—” He must feel me shudder because he goes on smoothly, “—or you could use the room behind the office here. The heating still sucks, but at least the floor has a carpet now. The couch is still the same one.”
I’ve got some damn fond memories of that room, both the couch and the ex-concrete floor. I’d even slept there sometimes, when my dad was boozed up and I didn’t want to go home. It’s a cold little space, meant as an employee break room, musty, sparsely furnished, not a place people usually want to linger. But there’s a bathroom next to it, and a big window onto the open space of the tree-nursery, and the couch is long.
“No commitment. You call the shots. Just give me a little time to spend with you.”
I’ve slept in far worse places, and none of them included Ben. “All right.”
He leans in and I feel the brush of his stubble along my cheek. There might have been a touch of lips in there, but soft enough I don’t have to notice. So I pretend I didn’t. But I can’t help leaning back against him. In that crazy-bright, sparkly shop with the carols playing non-stop and voices all around us, for a second it’s just him and me. His solid strength at my back, his face against mine, his arm around my ribs where it hasn’t been safe to have anyone for so long. I lean, and breathe, but I don’t close my eyes.
“I’ve missed you so fucking much,” he repeats softly. “Whatever happens next, having this, right now, is the best Christmas present I could ever want.”
I take a breath, and man up for once in my sorry life. “Mine too.” I don’t know what might push me to go, or when. My head is in a crazy place these days, but for Ben I’ll try. Maybe I can listen more to him than my fears. “I guess I could hang around.”
“That’s a promise?” For a moment he sounds younger, six years, ten years, fifteen, that first day of fourth grade.
“Promise,” I say, like I did that day when I hauled him up out of the dirt and sent Bobby Tyler running. From that first day, Ben saw a hero where everyone else saw trouble. “For you, I’ll try my best to stay.”