Despite her arms aching, her mouth tasting faintly of tape and the floor littered with ribbon and brightly coloured paper, Renee couldn’t help but think the marathon gift wrapping session was a resounding success.
Creeping across the dark lounge room floor, Dan hefted his bag of pilfered wrapped gifts, making a beeline for the front door.
Halfway there, a crunch was followed by excruciating pain in his foot. “What the fuck was that?!” he swore loudly, then clamped his lips shut, wincing. Lifting his socked foot, he saw the shattered glass of a viciously spiked Christmas light fitting. Why did I take my shoes off for this? he cursed himself silently, paused hyper-aware in the lounge.
A light switched on.
Despite the frantic, forced cheerfulness of the blaring lights and cacophonous carols, Leo and May couldn’t help but think that the homeowners were trying just a little too hard in the name of holiday spirit.
Walking along the busy street lit with lights and draped in tinsel, they watched on as a young girl approached an elderly homeless man doddering along the street, pushing a trolley with all his worldly possessions. As they watched, the young girl helped the man push his trolley onto the curb, then lean up to press a quick kiss to his whiskered cheek. Waving a cheerful ‘Merry Christmas’, the little girl ran to catch up with her family, disappearing into the crowd. Seemingly stunned, the old man stared after her, a hand raised to his cheek.
May leant in close to Leo, hugging herself to his side. “That’s Christmas spirit right there. Just that kid and a kind deed. Can we go home now? These carols are giving me a headache.”
“A long time ago in Bethlehem, so the Holy Bible says…”
Quiet carols fill the gaps between the sounds of frantic baking; the hum of the oven, the metallic tap of trays against bench tops. The warm smells of cinnamon, ginger and chocolate fill the kitchen, from cooling racks of gingerbread and shortbread, and the bain marie filled with melting chocolate, ready for dipping.
Swaying gently to the carols, her Mrs. Claus apron dusted with flour and streaked with chocolate, Ryley is entirely happy. Incandescent, even, she mused, licking a bit of peppermint-spiked chocolate from her thumb absently as she stirred the quickly melting chocolate.
Deftly dipping and twisting truffles in the melted chocolate, Ryley hummed happily with the music. Christmas was her favourite time of year, and Christmas baking consumed much of the holiday season, to her eternal delight. Nothing says Christmas like hampers of homemade Christmas baking, she decided, slipping the first completed tray of truffles into the fridge.
Except homemade hampers of Christmas baking wrapped and be-ribboned just waiting to be opened. Which reminds me, I need more cellophane…
Christmas morning, her son asked, “Mum, how come Santa uses the same wrapping paper as us?”
Her heart sank. What now?
Feet braced, she rappelled down the side of the ancient structure, descending into the shadow.
“Switching head lamp on, entering the structure now lads,” she murmured into the comm unit, enclosed in her breathing apparatus. The poisonous atmosphere of the abandoned Earth was thick and unforgiving; in the absence of humankind, it had choked any remaining life on Earth hundreds of years ago. It wouldn’t do to waste this opportunity.
While most humans had forgotten their birth planet, moving on and out into the stars, some few had kept the history alive, and here Anna was today, rappelling into the rusted steel structure collapsed by the dried up harbour. Trying to find a hint, a murmur of the lives left behind when the ships had abandoned their choking planet.
Anna peered into the dank shadows quickly surrounding her, light bouncing off the eroding walls, the colourless mire of dust and decay settled at the bottom of what remained of a once grand opera house. Admittedly there were better sources of information than an abandoned landmark – and yet Anna couldn’t help but be inspired by her great grandfather’s video logs, stories of Earth. Stories of his country, its people.
And so here she was, eyes straining beyond the HUD on her face mask, to the faded grand seating of the opera house, the huddle of skeletons she could make out in the orchestra pit.
Unhooking herself, she murmured, “I’m in. Having a look around – if I go off comms, you know the drill. Half an hour, and if I don’t tug on the line, follow me down.”
Ignoring the crackling acknowledgement, she turned in place, making deep footprints in the dust on the floor of the stage, peering out at the once opulent space. Narrating her progress, she made her way backstage, eye lighting upon ancient equipment once at the cutting edge of theatre, at mouldering costumes abandoned or turned into nests for long dead animals. Bizarrely, she came across an abandoned balcony set piece, a corpse leant over the balcony dressed in the delicate whisps of a once opulent dress.
Walking around the balcony set, she stopped. Glowing yellow eyes were picked out in the darkness before her, the sound of rasping breath reaching her through her external mic.
“Uh, guys? I might…need some assistance down here,” she said, backing up. The shadowy figure matched her, step for step.
Crackling was the only response.
“I love you.”
Her heart swelled at his confession, sitting on the sand, both drenched from the ocean. On the beach staring into the sunset, she thought; this is the beginning.
When she woke at the home the next morning and he was gone, she wasn’t worried.
When her messages went unanswered and phone calls met a disconnected number, she was confused.
When a week, then a fortnight passed with no word and silence from his suddenly absent family…she worked it out.
Sitting on the beach that night, she’d listened to what he said. What he’d meant was;
Below the surface of the water, she watches the humans beyond, floating on strange implements like clumps of kelp, albeit in a colour and shape she had no name for. Certainly there was nothing of its like in the ocean she called home.
Their images rippling from the lapping of the water above, the mermaid watched enviously at their sunlit antics, her tail sweeping through the briny water. She’d heard so many stories of their land-bound kin and their bizarre ways, tales of her parents’ coming-of-age forays onto land, wild stories of inorganic monsters, strange many-legged fish, of their own ocean companions imprisoned behind glass and gawked at by human children.
How she wished she was old enough to see for herself; it was still two full migrations until her own coming of age.
Sparing one last glance at the humans, perching now to plunge into the ocean around her, the mermaid turned tail and disappeared into the depths. Just two more migrations, and then I gain my legs.
It couldn’t come soon enough.
The shutter clicked, her happy smiling family caught forever in an instant, husband and children grinning with their arms flung around each other. She lowered the camera, her sleeve falling over the ring of bruises around her wrist.
Things were never as perfect as they appeared.
You always knew when it was Christmas in the Bennett household; throughout the month of December, the kitchen pumped out a supply line of Christmas themed baking, the scents of mint, cinnamon and melted chocolate permeating the air.
The piles of dishes, of bowls covered in chocolate, whisks covered in batter and flour all over the benches…was something that Abby could do without, however.