This story is by Christy Bailey and was part of our 2016 Winter Writing Contest. You can find all the Winter Writing Contest stories here.
Pete looked around yet again at the frost coated trees that surrounded them trying to grasp on to something familiar. Anything. The bend of a tree, the slope of the ground, the smell of a fire.
“We can’t just stand here,” he told his younger brother. “If we keep walking we have to come out somewhere.” He looked over and saw that Fred had unzipped his jacket and slipped his hands inside next to his skin. Pete blew out a deep breath that billowed large in the air and took the knit hat from his head. “Tuck your hands in it.”
“What happened to you?” Fred asked when he spotted the dried blood at Pete’s temple.
Pete’s hand went up to the wound on his head as if just remembering something.
“You didn’t drag me out here to find a Christmas tree did you?” Fred asked thinking about the tree and ax they had had to leave behind hours ago. “He’s drinking again.”
Pete shrugged in response. He reached up again and fingered where the blood had dried in his hair. He had forgotten about it. “He had a gun.”
Fred stood up. “He shot at you?”
“No,” he said dismissing the idea with a wave of his hand. “He just hit me with it, but I didn’t want to hang around.”
As the sun faded further into the horizon, the icy snaps of twigs from under their boots gave way to the sound of wind whistling past their frozen ears. The wind began to violate them, haunt them. One large gust forced Pete to turn his face away, and his eye caught a flash of movement. He froze.
“What is it? A deer?” Fred asked.
Pete gritted his teeth. “Must have been.”
“I can’t feel my hands no more.”
Their way grew darker and darker. They chased the light. In what seemed like only minutes the glow of the forest snuffed itself out and the boys found themselves moving forward into darkness. I t owned them. It crept into their ears and their eyes and choked them. They stood arm in arm, unable to move forward. Then, a haunting off balance sound startled them into a blind run. He cried out as they tumbled down an embankment.
“I think we may have fallen into a creek bed,” Pete said to his little brother.
“I can’t walk no more,” Fred said. His warm breath fell welcomed onto Pete’s face.
“I know.” Pete cringed at the desperation in his little brother’s voice.
Their foreheads touched as one leaned into the other, but their bodies were too numb to feel it. They tried to grasp hands, but their fingers wouldn’t work.
“I’m sorry” Pete whispered through the dark. He put his arm around his brother and pulled him close as sleep overcame them.
Burning, clawing ache invaded his mind. Pete imagined his fingers black and rotting. His eyelids felt heavy and weighted but through the thin skin, light filtered through. He peeked through slits to see a small fire burning. On the other side of it, a figure watched them. His instincts told him to stand, but his muscles are stiff and refused to budge.
A deep, strained voice buzzed Pete’s ears and left ripples in the night air. It penetrated the fog that had settled over his brain while he slept. He saw the man scoop something out of the fire and pass it to him. Pete looked at the warm cup offered to him with confusion.
“Hands working yet?” the man asked.
“A little,” he croaked.
He managed to wrap his stiff burning hands around the warm metal and inhaled the steam rising from within. Soup. He nudged his brother and passed the mug into his clumsy hands, trying to help him close his fingers around the warmth.
“Pete?” Fred asked.
“Ssshhh,” he replied and turned to take another offered cup. He tried to sip, and the cup rattled against his chattering teeth.
The man’s long beard shone gray in the firelight, and he had bushy eyebrows that cast strange shadows on his forehead. He wore a long weathered jacket that may have once been red a very long time ago. A broad belt made of animal skin held it closed and on it were what looked like keys. Hundreds and hundreds of tarnished brass keys. Pete’s stomach, awakened by the hot soup, tightened at the sight of him.
“Did our Dad send you?”
“The same father who did that to you?” he said pointing to the matted, bloody mess on Pete’s head.
Pete set his jaw and held his hands to the fire. He watched the man as he placed more wood on it. Something he wore around his neck clacked together as moved.
“What’s that around his neck?” Fred asked his brother.
“Antlers,” the stranger answered.
“Antlers?” Fred asked softly.
“When a reindeer dies it’s not to be taken lightly.”
Pete and Fred exchanged confused looks.
“You have a lot of keys,” Pete added.
The stranger looked down at them and ran his hand along the dangling metal at his belt. As they fell they tapped against each other and made a jingling sound that fell flat and made Pete’s ears ring. “I need to open a lot of doors.”
Pete swallowed hard and put his arm back around his brother. The man reached behind him and pulled forth a large burlap bag and pulled it closer to the fire. The boys watched as the frayed rope holding it closed fell open to reveal all different sized packages hiding within. His mittened hands pulled out a brown wrapped gift and offered it to Fred. Fred looked over at Pete as if asking permission and after receiving a small nod, he accepted the package. The stranger reached his arm back inside to the dark depths of the bag and pulled forth another wrapped parcel for Pete. The weight of it shocked Pete as it landed in his hands and he longed to give it back.
“Remember this, boys. Sometimes we are given what we want, but sometimes we are given what we need. Keep that in mind.”
“Can I?” Fred asked gesturing toward his gift.
The old man nodded. Fred untied the red string that held the thing closed and unfolded the thick paper to reveal new gloves and a hat. Pete grimaced at the simplicity and innocence of the gift. His own felt heavy in his hands. Complicated.
Fred slipped the thick fur lined gloves onto his hands and the hat onto his head, pulling the flaps down over his ears. He looked up at Pete with satisfaction, his cheeks red from the fire.
“Open yours, Pete,” Fred said.
Pete looked down at his hands and the package that had been placed there. “I’ll wait,” he said.
“Open it,” Fred urged.
“Leave him be. It’s his to do as he wishes.”
The man rose to his full height and walked around the fire, and Pete found himself eye level with the giant belly that rested above the man’s belt. The stranger placed a hand on the older boy’s shoulder and Pete’s nose filled with a smell that reminded him of olive trees.
“Use your gift wisely, boy.”
Pete nodded slowly, unsure of what to say.
“Best be getting on,” the man said. “Moon’s out so you should be able to find your way.”
Pete considered things to say to the stranger. Questions to ask. But, in the end, he chose to say nothing. They climbed out of the creek bed, and when they reached the top of the gully, they looked back and found the man, his bones, his keys, and his bag gone.
The clouds had parted enough so that the half moon shone down and on their walk back home Pete could see the outline of Fred as he walked just ahead of him. He had been holding the gift tight against his chest, and the knot that held it together pressed painfully into the flesh above his heart. He slowly pulled the package away from him and looked down at it. His arms ached with the weight of it. He considered placing it on the ground and covering it with leaves so no one would ever find it but he couldn’t make himself let it go. Deep breaths blew in and out as he pulled away the various strings that held the package closed. He tucked each strand of red twine into his pocket. The stiff brown paper surrounding the gift did not easily fall away. The cold had hardened it, but with effort, he managed to peel away the layers one by one. He let the pieces fall to the ground. The metal felt like ice in his hands. He did not stop walking as he slid the gun into the pocket of his jacket.