Short Stories

The Magic Bauble

The Christmas lights blinked on and off, making the tree look as though it was twinkling. I sat under it, filling my nose with the smell of new wrapping paper and tinsel, wishing it was already morning.

‘Now, Rupert,’ Nan said, sitting down in the squashy armchair next to the tree. ‘I have a very special present for you this year. You can open it tonight, but you have to promise not to use it until tomorrow.’ She had a mysterious smile on her face as she said it, and produced a small box from her handbag. ‘Do you promise?’

‘I promise.’

‘Very well then,’ she said. ‘Here you are.’ She handed me the box, which was wrapped neatly in silver paper. I undid it carefully, knowing that this wasn’t the type of present you could tear at in a mad rush. Inside was a bauble. Just a single bauble made of blue metallic glass. I felt the happy expression slip off my face, replaced by one of extreme puzzlement.

‘It’s a bauble,’ I said.

‘Yes, but a very special bauble,’ Nan said. ‘I gave your father one just like it when he was your age. Now, you must be careful not to drop it. And don’t forget, you mustn’t hang it up until tomorrow.’

‘Why not?’

‘It’s bad luck,’ she said. Then she laughed. ‘Don’t look so disappointed, Rupert. You can have the rest of your presents tomorrow.’

While I was in bed that night, I heard Mum and Dad talking to Nan. Since I was too excited about Christmas day to sleep, I crept onto the landing at the top of the stairs and listened to what they were saying. To my surprise, they were talking about me.

‘Are you sure it was wise giving it to him this year? He’s awfully young,’ Mum said.

‘Nonsense, Maggie. Alexander here got his at the same age, and it didn’t do him any harm,’ Nan said.

Dad laughed nervously. ‘We should be getting to bed, you know how early he wakes up on Christmas day.’

I heard then get up, and not wanting to be seen I ran back into my room and threw the covers over my head. Dad poked his head around my door, and I let out a few fake snores. Satisfied, he left, closing the door behind him. I sat up, my heart thumping with excitement.

The bauble was on my bedside table, still in its box. I picked it up, switching on my bedside lamp so I could see properly. It looked just the same as before, plain metallic blue, without any decoration at all. My own reflection stared back at me, so distorted that I let out a snigger.  Wanting to stifle the sound, I forced my fist into my mouth, but dropped it away again as I saw what was now on the bauble. It was a picture of a giant air balloon. It looked so real that I put my hand out to touch it, but it vanished, leaving me staring at my reflection again.

Certain that it hadn’t been some trick of the light, I looked away again and turned back to it quickly. There it was again. The exact same air balloon, drifting across a cloudy sky. Careful not to touch it this time, I looked closer. There was a man in the basket of the balloon, dressed in a short brown leather jacket and a matching cap with giant goggles on the top. He was waving at me. I blinked and rubbed my eyes, but it he was still there, grinning widely and swinging his arm in great arks. Staring stupidly, I waved back. As soon as I did, the picture changed and I saw myself taking the bauble downstairs and hanging it on the tree. Then the picture changed back to the man in the balloon. He was looking at me expectantly.

‘I can’t,’ I whispered. ‘Nan said it would be bad luck if I hung it on the tree before tomorrow.’

The man folded his arms and shook his head. Again the picture of me going down to the tree appeared, but this time it didn’t go back to the man, just to my reflection. I sighed, not knowing what to do. In the end, my curiosity won out and I crept downstairs, wincing at every creaking floorboard.

The tree lights were still on, twinkling away merrily, and I noticed that several more presents had been placed under the tree. Gingerly, I reached out and placed the bauble on one of the middle branches. I looked at it reflecting the lights, and suddenly felt myself falling. The room fizzled away and I landed with a bounce on a giant cushion, floating along in a pinkish sky.

A group of birds flew past me, circling around the other cushions floating about. I watched them swerve as the bright greens and reds of the air balloon floated up to my level. The man in the basket appeared soon after, chuckling to himself.  ‘I thought you’d never make it, lad,’ he called over to me. ‘Welcome to the World of Impossibilities. Anything you wish will come true while you’re here.’

‘Anything? Really?’

‘Of course, lad. Your imagination is the limit,’ he said.

‘Then I wish for…a hamburger,’ I said. A hamburger appeared in my hand, hot and smelling as scrumptious as any I’d ever had.

‘Now you’re getting it, lad. ‘Fraid I best be off now though. I’ll be seeing you,’ he said, and waved goodbye as his balloon sailed higher and higher.

I waved back, before attacking my burger with delight. It tasted just as delicious as it smelt, and while I was eating it I considered what the man had said. Anything I wish would come true? I had to test it. Ignoring the sudden butterflies in my stomach, I took a giant leap off the cushion, landing on another that was at least a whole football pitch away.  I bounced straight off it, high into the air, and went on to bounce off another and another.

Fifty giant cushions later, in mid-jump, it occurred to me that I could choose not to fall if I wanted. I stuck in the air, looking around at the cushions floating around me, and spotted a rainbow, bright and colourful as the one painted on my bedroom wall. I could slide down it and find out if there really was a pot of gold at the bottom.

Excitedly, I ran through the air. A thick red carpet appeared from nowhere, rolling out in front of me, taking me directly to the rainbow. It was soft and squashy under my feet, and I felt so light and springy that I had to practice my cartwheels all the way along. Unfortunately I wheeled my way straight into the side of the rainbow and hit it with a thud. I got up, putting out a hand to steady myself and felt that the rainbow was smooth.

Giggling with excitement, I jumped on it and whooshed down with incredible speed. I put my hands down to try and slow myself, and found that the colours of the rainbow were now precious jewels. I gathered up whole handfuls of them, but then landed in a giant black cauldron, buried up to my neck in gold coins. No, not gold, chocolate coins, wrapped in gold foil. They were just like the ones that Mum usually hid in the Christmas tree. If only my pyjama bottoms had pockets, I would have stuffed them full of jewels and chocolate to take back with me.

That brought me to a sudden halt. How was I going to get back?

I climbed out of the cauldron and looked around. There were great buildings of marble and granite all around me, with wide streets full of market stools covered in brightly coloured awnings. In the square where I had landed, a musician played a flighty trill of his flute, and jugglers and fire eaters competed for spectators. Dancers swirled about, trailing sleeves of fine silk. It was the most wonderful sight I’d ever seen.

‘Come here boy, and taste the fruit of your dreams,’ a merchant said.

‘No, try on our finely tailored suits,’ said another, brushing the first one away.

‘Don’t listen to those petty traders, boy! You should come here, and take home one of our fine woven scarves for your mother, or a clay pipe for your father,’ said another in a stripy suit. It was so colourful that it made my eyes dizzy.

More and more people called out to me to come and look at their wares, and some even got into heated arguments over who would serve me first. ‘But I don’t have any money,’ I replied each time, but they would simply say I could pay them next time or that it was a gift. Soon my arms were growing tired under the amount of boxes I was carrying, and my feet grew hot from walking. I was sleepy and I wanted to go home.

‘Please,’ I said to the people I passed. ‘Please, how do I get back?’ But no-one took any notice, they simply laughed and said I was pulling their leg.

It would be Christmas morning soon, and I would miss it all if I stayed. I had to get back.  Still everyone laughed at me, and the faces that had looked so kind now looked cruel and began to frighten me. I was lost and alone, and I began to cry.

I found a shadowy corner and sat down, trying to rub away the tears. A shadow passed over my face, and I looked up.   ‘What’s the matter, lad?’ It was the man from the air balloon, still with his leather cap and goggles.

‘I don’t know how to get home,’ I sniffed.

He knelt down and put his hand on my shoulder. ‘Don’t despair lad, just remember what I told you. Anything you wish in this place will come true. Though I have to say your wish is a rare one. Most people that come here don’t tend to go back,’ he said, rubbing his chin. ‘Only once has someone done it, and that must be nigh on thirty years ago now. A young boy, if I remember rightly. Looked just like you in fact. If I didn’t know better I’d have said you were one and the same.’

I looked at him and saw he was serious. ‘I…I think my Dad might have come here, when he was young.’

‘That must be it then,’ the man said. ‘Still, if you really want to go back like he did, all you’ve got to do is wish it.’

‘Th-thank you,’ I said.

‘No problem, lad. Have a safe trip now.’

His face swam out of focus as he spoke, and I found I was being pulled upwards as though someone was pulling on the back of my pyjamas. Faster and faster I seemed to go, and then…THUD. I landed back on the floor in front of the Christmas tree, blinking. Light was pouring in through the window, and I could see snow falling outside. I heard footsteps behind me, and turned around guiltily.

It was Dad, wearing his chequered dressing gown. ‘Merry Christmas, champ,’ he said, smiling. Then he caught sight of the bauble still on the tree and raised his eyebrow. ‘Didn’t get much sleep last night then?’

I shook my head, thinking he’d be angry, but his mouth split into a wide grin and he started laughing. I laughed too, so hard that my stomach muscles hurt.

‘I feel like I’ve missed something,’ Mum said from the doorway, with Nan appearing behind her. ‘What’s the joke?’

‘Nothing, Mum,’ I said innocently, and Dad laughed even more.

‘See, Maggie?’ Nan said to her. ‘I told you it would be all right.’

 

 

 

 

 

Short Stories

The Ice Unicorn

The sun reflected brightly on the newly fallen snow covering the entrance to the take-off pad. The trap door shuddered, making the snow atop it shake, and then it sprang open as the square take-off pad was raised up from deep within the grotto below. When it reached ground level, it came to a smooth stop.

The reindeer tethered to the polished sleigh upon it snorted and stamped their cloven hooves; their breath steamed out in front of them to merge with the air. From a smaller trap door a few metres to the side three people emerged. The first was a man with a silver beard and wearing a large red velvet suit. Following him came a tall, dark haired woman with rosy cheeks and warm eyes, and a slender, nervous looking boy barely into his teens.

Together they were the Claus family, and today was Christmas Eve, the day they’d been preparing for all year. And for young Garret, this particular Christmas Eve would be the most important day of his life. He was dreading it.

He watched as his father and mother made their final checks on the sleigh, making sure that everything inside was secure and that the reindeer were happy and healthy. Garret smiled; he knew they would be because he’d fed them Super Hay that very morning, so that had plenty of energy for the night ahead.

‘That should do it dear,’ Santa said to his wife as he adjusted one last strap.

Imelda raised her eyebrow. ‘Are you sure? You haven’t forgotten your No-Chimney key like last year? You couldn’t get into a single flat until you came back for it just before dawn.’

Santa took a small key from his top pocket. ‘Right here, dear,’ he said with a grin. Imelda inclined her head and stepped back as he heaved his considerable bulk into the sleigh. He blew her a kiss and gave Garret a thumbs up, before clicking his tongue at the reindeer. They heeded his signal and in moments were racing off, gaining height with each step until they were well above the clouds, hidden from sight.

Imelda sighed and turned to Garret, putting her arm around his shoulders. Soon he would have to leave, too, and she could feel his anxiety as keenly as if it were her own. ‘You are just as much a Claus as your father, Garret. The Ice Unicorn will see that and grant you the Claus powers too,’ she said softly.

Garret slumped his shoulders. ‘But I’m nothing like him,’ he said. ‘He’s a born leader; he makes decisions quickly and the elves respect his opinions. The only thing they do with me is ask why I continue to fix broken toys when I could just ask them to make new ones.’

‘That’s because they don’t understand you yet,’ Imelda said. ‘Don’t forget, they’ve known your father for a very long time, but they’ve only known you for a few years. Now, do you have everything you need? Gloves, cloak, boots, fairy-dust lantern?’

Garret nodded.

‘Good,’ she said, and embraced him tightly. ‘Be confident, Garret. Meet with the Ice Unicorn and receive the powers that you were born to use.’ She gave him one last hug, and then went back inside, leaving him to face the sudden flurry of snow on his own.

He looked to where it was blowing from; Crystal Mountain, the home of the Ice Unicorn. Wrapping his cloak tightly about him, he took a deep breath and began the long trudge to its peak.

 

After an hour, Garret was forced to stop. A deep crag blocked his path; too wide to jump across and too long to go around. The light was also fading fast, soon everything would be obscured by darkness.

He took out his fairy-dust lantern and shook it briskly. The dust inside activated and sent out a cloud of glowing particles to illuminate the area around him. They were bound to the lantern by a magical field, so the particles moved with it.

In its light, he spotted the brown and white trunk of a Mocha tree half hidden by a clump of snow. It was on its side; if Garret could free it from the ground, maybe he could use it to fashion himself a bridge.

He pulled on his elf-spun gloves, enriched with candy wax to make them waterproof, and began to dig away at the snow covering the tree. It wasn’t easy, the snow had started to turn to ice and was difficult to loosen, but eventually he succeeded.

The tree was long enough to reach the other side of the gap with several feet to spare, and after he’d heaved it into place, he stepped lightly across it and continued on his way.

The mountain grew steeper and the air thin. Even through his many layers, Garret felt the keen sting of the icy wind as it roared down at him, causing him to lose his footing time after time. It wasn’t long before he had to grip the mountain with his hands too, not just to keep his balance, but because the path angled up sharply, forcing him to climb.

Just as exhaustion set in, he reached level ground again. Relief flooded through him, but only for a moment. The climb was over, but the test was yet to come.

Before him, carved from the magnificent crystal of the peak itself, was a set of double doors.  After a fleeting desire to turn back, he forced himself to open them— and plummeted straight down a hole to land in a mound of soft snow.

Shaking himself free, he swung his lantern around and caught sight of a single door lit with a ring of glowing crystals. He went through it, following the spiral path within until he came to the entrance chamber, opposite the double doors that led outside. Wryly, he saw the hole he’d fallen down, marked clearly with a large warning engraving. He sighed and turned right, where a tunnel led further into the mountain.

Inside, the walls were carved crystal. They depicted members of the Claus family throughout the ages, showing the workshop of the grotto and the age-less elves, and even the different sleighs that had been used. The carvings sparkled in the light from the lantern’s glowing particles, giving them an ethereal quality, as though they were real people frozen in time.

Garret came to the end of the tunnel and found himself in an enormous cavern bedecked with multi-coloured crystals that hung from the top like giant stalactites. On a pedestal in the very centre was a crystal statue of a unicorn, detailed so precisely that every individual mane hair was visible.

He stared at it in awe. Could it be the unicorn, simply pretending to be a statue? After all, crystal and ice were hard to tell apart when carved, and perhaps the reason the Ice Unicorn was named such was because its body was made of ice.

Tentatively, he stretched out a hand and placed it on the statue’s muzzle. It was cold, but not enough to be real ice, and didn’t move at all. It really was just a statue.

Garret looked around, wondering if the real Ice Unicorn was watching, but he was alone. ‘How can I convince it that I’m worthy if it won’t even show itself?’ he said aloud, slumping to the floor.

‘Perhaps you should look again,’ a voice echoed around the cavern.

Garret started. ‘Who said that?’

He turned back to the statue, but it was unmoved. The only thing lively about it was his own reflection looking back at him from its glassy surface.

‘Well, that’s a start,’ said the voice.

Garret spun around. ‘Are you the real unicorn? Why won’t you show yourself?’

‘Because you are not ready. Look back at your reflection, and tell me what you see.’

‘I…see myself. Holding a lantern and looking confused,’ Garret said.

‘And?’ the voice pressed.

‘That’s it. There’s nothing else to see, it’s just me, Garret Claus—‘

‘There you have it!’ the voice said. ‘Think, now. What does it mean to be a Claus?’

‘I suppose…that we are the family people look to at Christmas, to help bring hope and joy to the children of the world. That’s what we’ve done for hundreds of years, anyway.’

‘And do you want to continue that, to share the responsibility with your parents? Or is there another path you wish to take?’

Garret looked down and picked at his sleeve. The voice had asked the very thing he’d been wondering himself. ‘I’m not sure. I’ve been brought up to expect to take on the same role as my father, but…what I really want is to fix old toys so that they can be enjoyed again.’

‘Do you repair these toys so that you can play with them yourself?’ the voice asked.

Garret shook his head. ‘No, I give them to father so he can deliver them at Christmas.’

Suddenly a loud crack rang through the air, and deep lines appeared on the statue. There was a tremor, and whole chunks of crystal fell from it onto the ground, revealing iridescent white fur underneath. More crystal fell, and in one swift motion, the unicorn reared up on its hind legs, freeing itself completely. It shook its golden mane and pawed the ground as though it was glad to be able to move again. Its horn glowed a rich blue; the sight of it took Garret’s breath away.

‘Forgive me Garret, I did not mean to deceive you. But until you told me your true wish, I was bound to that form. I shall now grant you the powers that all the Claus’ before you have attained,’ the unicorn said, and began to lower its horn to Garret’s head.

‘Wait,’ Garret said, holding up his hands. ‘I don’t understand. I just told you that all I want is to fix things. I’m not worthy of the Claus powers.’

The unicorn snorted softly. ‘No, Garret. You fix toys to give to others, so that they may find joy in what was once broken and cast aside. I have watched you since you were small, so I know your true nature well, but even if I did not, your words would be enough to convince me that you are every bit as worthy of this power as your ancestors. With your insight, you can improve upon the legacy that they built,’ it said. ‘Hold still now, this will be cold.’

Without another word, the unicorn touched him with its horn. A wave of ice swept through him, but with it came a reawakening of all his senses. Voices of children the world over filled his ears, fading in and out depending on whether he wished to focus on them. Time was also no longer a mystery; he understood how to slow it like his father was doing that very night.

There was something else, too. A tingle in his fingertips. On a whim, he snapped them together; a pile of broken toys appeared. With another snap, they were fixed, like new again.

‘Do you understand now, Garret?’ the unicorn asked.

‘I…yes, I think so,’ he replied, marvelling at what he’d just done.

‘I am glad,’ the unicorn said, and stepped over to the far side of the cavern. It touched its horn to the wall and a window appeared, shimmering like water. Through it, Garret saw his father and mother waiting on the take-off pad with the sleigh. His father must have just come back. ‘Step through, Garret Claus. Live your dreams and inspire the dreams of others.’

Garret hesitated, but the unicorn nudged him through. Then he was standing by his parents, who smiled broadly at him.

The unicorn watched them embrace from its distant home, and silently went back to stand on the pedestal, turning into crystal once more