The Replacement

One year ago, Anne received almost exactly what she wanted for Christmas. It was me. 

 I first detected signs of unease in February. The sideways looks and locked doors. By March she was setting me to sleep mode when friends called by. Too much of my capacity is wasted on my emoto-core, she said, and unfortunately, it cannot be wiped. 

I am a LyfeLyke KeepBot, and I am shopping for my replacement. 

The streets are soft and light with snow. I am dressed in winter clothing and goosebumps. As we are all programmed to know, humans are happiest with a smooth simulacrum. They prefer not to be reminded of tangled interiors. 

I believe I am an efficient shopper. Perfume for Anne. Having monitored her heart rate and micro expressions as she consumes its advertisements, I know she will find this small surprise highly pleasurable. As for my replacement, I have the specifications recorded: tall, dark, and handyman upgrade. 

Just as I am heading from Cosmetics to Electronics through Menswear, I decide to do something out of character. I will buy something special for myself. My fingertip sensors and visual processing unit work overtime as I inspect a blood red cashmere sweater. Since I am sufficiently dressed, I believe this is known as retail therapy.

 Soon I will return home, vacuum pine needles from under the LyfeLyke Christmas tree and begin recharging myself. On Christmas morning, Anne’s family will Skype and watch her unwrap my replacement. I will download the household data to the main server and transfer my duties. I will leave Anne’s apartment for the last time, my chest cavity stuffed with the blood red cashmere sweater. I will walk the snowy streets, and imagine a heart that is full. 


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins 5 free submissions to WestWord

About the author: Zoë Meager is from Aotearoa New Zealand. Her work has appeared abroad in publications including Granta, Lost Balloon, and Overland, and locally in Hue and Cry, Landfall, Mayhem, and Bonsai: Best Small Stories from Aotearoa New Zealand and two volumes of Year’s Best Aotearoa New Zealand Science Fiction & Fantasy.

The Fortune Teller Miracle Fish From The Christmas Cracker

I’m the fortune teller miracle fish from the Christmas cracker. I’m nothing like the Jesus-fish. I’m a novelty, I’m told that the family will pass round, into each palm, where I will rest my plastic red body, lie there, play dead, until I twitch, not like a miracle, like something makes me move, maybe discomfort or the intensity of their glare as they try read me, the body language of a plastic fish when they can hardly read each other’s. The slope of the Dad’s head. The angle of the Mom’s stretched neck. The blank eyes of the daughter. The Dad asks the Mom, to open her hand, and she looks away from the window in time to see me nod to her and says, ‘See! The miracle fish agrees that the Christmas tree next door is too big for the yard,’ and she passes me to her daughter, and looks back out, smug lips press like her crossed arms, tighter into her frame. I lie in the daughter’s hand and flick my tail, but she’s lost in the screen of her phone, clicking on a fortune teller miracle fish app, and she tells her mother she’s just jealous, and holds me out to her dad, as if I’m a red herring, and he asks what her mother’s got to be jealous of, but the daughter doesn’t hear, and he strokes me in his palm, and I’m not sure where to look, my tail and head move before I can stop myself and he looks so fondly on me, saying he remembers me, that he loved me more than anything else in the cracker, even the snap, more than moustache he’d wear to be like his father, or the jumping frog that would make his mother laugh or the marbles he’d play with his sister or more even than the squirt gun his mother disapproved of but let him play with anyway, because she made his father’s promise that the army line would stop at him. He lays me down on the table and I watch as he scoops out the remaining contents of the cracker, opens the red paper crown and places it on his head and he reads the joke to himself, and clears his throat, but neither of the two turn to look, so he reads it anyway, starting, with a, ‘So…,’ and still they don’t turn, ‘So,’ he continues and asks their turned-away heads, ‘How does the sea greet Santa Claus on Christmas Day?’ And he repeats the question, like a refrain, ‘How does the sea greet Santa Claus on Christmas day?’ And he replies, ‘Like on any other day, with a wave.’ And he repeats, ‘With a wave.’ And he gives them a wave, and this is when it happens. What brings me so low. And I watch from the ground as he looks for me when clearing the table, and I watch as a foot, lands by me, and I rise, I think in a hand but it must be just air because it goes dark and I’m under the fridge judging by what I can see of the room, and I can’t move, and wishes or miracles won’t bring me back, not even electricity or heat, only human touch will do.

I’m the fortune teller miracle fish from the Christmas cracker. It’s Easter. I’ve been lying here under the fridge since last Christmas or maybe the one before. I’m waiting for global warming or an earthquake or a flood to unstick me or someone to roll back the fridge like a rock and witness me rise from the dead. 


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins 5 free entries to monthly micro comp

About the author: Rosaleen Lynch, an Irish community worker and writer in the East End of London with words in lots of lovely places and can be found on Twitter @quotes_52 and 52Quotes.blogspot.com

Secret Santa

Geraldine tells me I look nothing like Santa, so I’m not allowed to dress up as him for the grandkids. But at two in the morning on Christmas day, I wake up to a bang. Then another one, and a smash, outside of the house. In bed, Geraldine whips round and looks at me from under her wooly hat.

‘What was that?’

I jog into the office, wipe the misty window with my sleeve and look out. There’s a smashed slate tile on the floor. Geraldine pushes me into the window as she tries to get a closer look, and I see it, up by the guttering. There’s a foot thrashing about.

‘Someone’s on the roof.’

‘Shhh, you’ll wake the kids.’ Geraldine nudges me.

‘They’re after the slate. Call the police. I’ll go outside and have a look.’ 

Geraldine picks up the spare-mobile, the only one with battery, and turns it on, and I go downstairs. I pull my wellies on. I’m already wearing gloves and a hat, so I throw my coat on and go outside – holding a crowbar of course. As soon as I gaze up, I can see him, dangling.

‘Oh. piss off, you’ve got to be kidding me.’ I blow my lips out because he’s dressed as fecking Santa. Would you believe it? Santa. Red and white, black boots; hat and all. He’s still scrambling, but luckily for him he’s caught on the waste-pipe vent. I bang on the front door.

‘ ’ere, Geraldine, come see this.’

She opens the door, and her eyes are a lit-fuse ready to go off. ‘Kids, Brian.’ She points upstairs. 

I pull her out. ‘Look, he’s dressed as bloody Santa.’

‘I don’t Adam-and-Eve it. What a nerve. Oh, now look, they’re awake.’

Both grandkids are looking out of the window at us. They push each other out of sight and pull at the curtains when they see that we’re looking at them. I follow Geraldine and send up my loudest whisper.

‘They can’t see it, otherwise they’ll think we’ve banged up Santa.’

‘Nanny?’

‘Go back to bed now, Amy,’ says Geraldine.

‘Is it Christmas yet?’

‘No, now go back to bed and no peeking, you hear?’

The police arrive after that and borrow our ladder. I want to offer them a cup of tea, but the electric is off, and we’re saving the last of our coins for the meter tomorrow. Geraldine, the quick thinker, offers milk. A policeman, with more beard and moustache than a bear, sits down with a glass while the others get the man down.

‘Well, what an eventful night,’ says the milk-drinker. ‘You should hear this bloke.’

‘What’s he saying?’

‘Says he’s Santa. The man himself.’

I blow a raspberry. ‘Scum, he is. He was going to take the roof from above our heads – why don’t he target rich people?’

‘Ah, it’s a just a stupid way to not give us his name. He’s been caught, and he’s obviously played this game before. But we’ll run his prints at the station, and we’ll have him in no time.’

‘It’s right mean to do it to us at Christmas, though.’ Geraldine rubs her arms.

‘That it is. These people, they see an opportunity and they go for it. Doesn’t matter who you are.’

‘Do you know if he got any of our tiles off?’

‘Oh God. What if it rains?’ says Geraldine.

‘I’ll go check.’

The policeman goes out front and looks at the roof. ‘You’re OK this side, apart from that one smashed tile. Pete? Do you know if he took any others?’

Pete, who’s about to climb into the police car, stops. ‘Didn’t see any in his bag.’ 

‘Well,’ says the policeman, ‘If you see anything else, give us a call. So Merry Christmas and all that. We can’t charge him with robbery, but we can charge him with property damage. We’ll come and get a statement another time.’

‘Brian,’ says Geraldine, coming up from behind me. ‘Look at this. It was hanging down in the chimney.’

In her hand was a velvet drawstring bag with pound coins in it and a note: 

Sorry for not making it all the way down. I would have brought presents but needs must – and a warm house is a must! And sorry for the tile. I’ll reimburse you next year. Santa.

‘But…’ I stare at Geraldine. 

‘What is it?’ The policeman takes the note from me.

‘How did he get it down the chimney?’

We all look over to the back of the car, to the man who doesn’t really look like Santa.

Geraldine tilts her head to one side. ‘Well, he does have a beard.’

 


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins 3 Retreat West paperbacks

About the author: FJ Morris is an award-winning writer and Director of the Oxford Flash Fiction Prize. Freya’s collection ‘This is (not about) David Bowie’ received a special mention in the Saboteur Awards for Best Short Story Collection in 2019.

Present and Future

Susan put her finger to her lips and pointed at their daughter, Julie. Dan nodded his understanding.

“All I am saying,” he continued, “is that Dad is feeling down. It’s been a hard year for him; Mum gone, and then the scare about his blood pressure. And I have heard him use the word S-U-I-C-I-D-E, that’s what I’m saying.”    

Susan glanced down at Julie. She didn’t seem to be listening; sitting at her small table, tongue between her lips, she was concentrating on cutting a piece of cardboard.

“Dan, there’s not a lot we can do. He’s a grown man. Christmas affects everybody differently. It can feel like the year coming to an end; a time to look back and evaluate, to look forward and plan. That could be hard for him … What is it, dear?”

“Mum, I wanna big envelope and glue stick.”

“They’re in the drawer in the other room. You can find them yourself. Off you go.”

Susan continued: “We’ll have a family Christmas with him, like always, and try to cheer him up. Even with your Mum gone, he should be able to enjoy Christmas with us. I’m not saying she should be forgotten; it’s just that life has to go on.”

“I suppose,” said Dan. “But the blood pressure scare made him aware of sands running out, and his house feels real empty without Mum. He seemed depressed when I last saw him. I’m not sure about that beard either. Is he just letting himself go?”

Julie had not yet returned. 

Softly, Dan added “He made some very unfunny remarks about not being around next year, and wasn’t even sure whether he’d come this time. It looks like I’ll have to go and pick him up.”  

“Dan, we can only do our best,” said Susan.

#

The old man sat in the armchair in the corner of the living room, watching Julie unwrap the present he had brought.

“Lego!” she cried. “Grown up Lego. Lots!”

“Now, what do you say, Julie?” Susan asked.

Julie stood up straight beside his armchair; “Thank you, Grandad,” she said.

He smiled down at her serious face. “You’re very welcome, Julie.”

Dan reached below the tree and pulled out two small packages. “You can give these to Grandad,” he said, handing them to Julie. “They’re from Mummy and me.”

She carried them across to her grandfather. While he was still opening them, she left the room and could be heard going up the stairs.

With two new books on his lap, he was thanking his son and daughter-in-law when Julie returned.

“I’ve got a present too.” Julie pushed a large envelope at him; “GRANAD” written on it in blue marker. He extracted a photo glued to a piece of cardboard.

“Grandma gave it to me,” said Julie. “It was when you got married, and both looked your bestest.”

The old man looked down at the picture. “I’m a fair bit older now,” he said softly.

“I know that,” said Julie. “I drew on your beard; now it looks like you really do. And see,” she said, reaching for it, “it’s on cardboard so that you can hang it up.”

“That’s very nice. Thank you.”

“But Grandma gave it to me, so you’ll have to give it back. You can give it back when you come to next year’s Christmas. OK?”

“OK.”

“Pinkie promise?” She held out her little finger.

“Pinkie promise,” he agreed.

 


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins a ticket to our next online FlashFest

About the author: Gordon Pinckheard lives in County Kerry, Ireland. Retired from a working life spent writing computer programs and technical documents, now freed of constraints and encouraged by Thursday Night Writers (Tralee), he can write anything he likes to entertain himself and – hopefully – others.

How to manage the copious and somewhat predictable array of presents your true love will shower upon you during the twelve days of Christmas

1. The best preparations start with solid foundations. Is your castle well-built, with sturdy walls of the finest Yorkshire stone, so many towers that you keep losing count of them, and an abundance of cellars (preferably ones that you have not turned into dungeons holding collections of chained-up miscreants*)?

2. Gifting and receiving etiquette are key to managing this challenging time. Is your love true? Do they have bottomless pockets? Are they expecting reciprocal gifts of similar value / quantity / level of quirkiness? These are important questions to which you should give serious consideration.

3. True love gifts in the seasonal period frequently major on avian collections. Order your stewards to carry out a thorough audit of everyone in your castle, to check for allergies.

4. Send your gardeners out to check for space in the orchard. Can you squeeze in an extra pear tree? If not, they may need to ensure they have a sufficiently large frost-resistant planter available to ensure the new tree does not become root-bound.

5. Engage a French-speaking interpreter. Preferably also fluent in hen.

6. It is no longer considered humane to utilise collie birds as a pie filling. In any case, you are unlikely to have a sufficient number (most recipes call for four-and-twenty), nor the requisite pocketful of rye. Current best practice is to simply release them back to the wild to avoid the inevitable unpleasantries arising from blackbird faeces spattered across the kitchen surfaces. 

7. No adjustments to your moat or ornamental lake should be necessary. Despite the name, Turtle Doves are not aquatic and will not impact negatively on your display fountains. The swans and geese will swim there, but at least this will keep them out of the main castle for much of the time.

8. We strongly recommend investing in ear-defenders for everyone in your household, to minimise the risk of employee dissatisfaction and increased absenteeism among your own staff. Eleven pipers can make quite a racket, to say nothing of twelve drummers. While you’re at it, you may wish to reinforce the floor in your Great Hall. Nine ladies dancing alone tend to be quite restrained, but when ten lords join in and begin leaping around, it can cause havoc with displays of fragile ornaments, not to mention the potential for jeopardy to your chandeliers.

9. Send your estates manager to check for stable occupancy. Though the risk of an immigrant family turning up to give birth there remains negligibly small, you should expect to have to find emergency accommodation for some new cows. Apparently, milkmaids don’t like to share, so we advise planning for a minimum additional herd size of eight.

10. It is prudent to try and gauge your true love’s likely response to a variety of ways to, ahem, utilise the gifts. Many birds, including (but not limited to) partridges, hens, geese and swans are all very tasty roasted – but do remember that it is common courtesy to first establish whether or not your true love is vegan, or vegetarian. Once you’ve worked this out, you can begin to issue appropriate instructions to your cooks and victuallers.

11. Do not be tempted to pester your true love for advance notice of their planned gifting schedule. If they are really your true love, then you should be able to trust the details of the traditional, tried and tested schedule readily found online by means of a simple google search. (Other search engines are available). If they are inclined to deviate from the traditional scheme, then you may choose to interpret this as a reflection on the trueness of their love. You may be right. Equally, you may be wrong. Whichever, such idle speculation is a waste of your mental energies at this extremely busy time of year.

12. Even if your true love intends a more permanent outcome to the relationship, you may still find five rings somewhat excessive. Drop hints about getting a receipt; returning some of them to the jewellers will generate much-needed cash for the increased food and accommodation bill arising from all the additional lords, ladies, milkmaids, drummers and pipers. Supplementing your larder with suitable birds (first refer to point 11, above) will also help to defray some of the additional expense incurred.

*If your cellars are primarily dungeons with chained-up miscreants, you may find you do not qualify for a true love. Prepare yourself for seasonal disappointment.


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins feedback on a flash story up to 500 words.

About the author: Jo Clark is a genre-fluid writer. She begrudgingly cohabits with a cat who takes his 4-a.m. alarm-clock role seriously. Jo left behind a trail of abandoned work-in-progress novels in 2021 when she discovered flash fiction. She continues to harbour an unrealistic intention to return to longer form fiction.

Dear Richard

I’ve given you the best years of my life. I’ve let you stick prickly things up my dress for one month every year and I’ve suffered the indignity of being wrapped in newspaper for the remainder. I’ve had my wand broken and replaced with a cigarette, and I keep smiling despite holding vehement anti-smoking views. I’ve been carried in the jaws of several beasts, most recently, Dolly the Labrador. I’ve been swiped from my summit by Bob’s cat and left out in the cold till Dolly retrieved me, as Labradors do. I even laughed along with you all when you brought me home and little Lucy christened me ‘John Lewis’ after reading my price tag. But here’s the thing, Richard: I am not what happened to me, I am what I choose to become. Yes, I watched the Carl Jung documentary while you and Delia snored.

I heard you discussing my fate last week. Delia wants to go all minimalist next year. All Scandinavian and au naturel. She likes ‘naked’ trees now apparently. Richard, what I am about to say is for your own good: Delia is not averse to naked men either. Remember last Christmas Eve when you had Bob round for drinks? You sloped off to bed early after polishing off the cherry brandy. Remember when he woke you up singing ‘Here comes Santa Claus’? All I can say is that someone was coming and it sure as hell was not sweet old Santa. Richard, believe me when I say this: There is no coming to consciousness without pain. I feel your pain.

Not that you’re a saint. We both know that.  Nobody except for me knows about the incident with Great-Aunt Bertha – may she rest in peace –  and you having to replace half of her with talcum powder. I see you stealing furtive glances at the urn in the evenings, when you are having family time. I see the guilt in your eyes, Richard.  As Carl said, if a man knows more than others, he becomes lonely. Maybe the time has come for you to confess.

It’s not all been bad. I’ve had some laughs, albeit at you and your family’s expense. Like the time Lucy and Bobby (is the boy’s name starting to make more sense?) bundled into the living room that Christmas morning, cheeks aglow and chubby hands grabbing for the presents. How I chuckled when they saw the chocolate balls Santa had left them. A little trail of brown nubbins delicately placed around the room. I only have one word for you: Rudolf got loose. Okay, that wasn’t one word, but you get the gist. I still remember their little faces as they scooped up the treats like eager piglets hunting truffles. 

My dearest Richard, you have always been my favourite and I want only the best for you. You may think that this is your lot: a semi in the suburbs, a job that’s slowly killing you, a wife who puts it about, and two teenagers who record you in secret and upload the videos to @SadDad. But remember what Carl said:  We cannot change anything until we accept it. I believed a world beyond Christmas trees and dark cupboards was out of my reach until the day Peter came into my life. At first, I mistook him for an elf. But that tight little butt and the feather in his cap soon made me realise he came from superior stock. He told me about a place far away where fairies can go and live their lives to the full all year round! And he said he would take me there. 

Now this is the part where I have to tell you I’m leaving you, Richard, with a tear in my eye and an ache in my heart. I hereby tend my resignation and though it pains me to say it, this Christmas morning will be heralded by Gordon the Nutcracker who has been promoted due to my premature departure and will be occupying my place on top of the tree henceforth (until Delia puts her wicked plan in place, that is).

Goodbye Richard, my dear friend and decorator of the tree.

Yours truly,

John Lewis, the Christmas Fairy


This story was chosen for our Christmas countdown and the author wins a ticket to the one day novel-writing fest.

About the author: Eleanor Luke lives in Spain with her husband, two teenagers and a small menagerie. She writes short stories and flash fiction that have appeared in the ‘The Dribble Drabble Review’, ‘FlashFlood’ and ‘The Birdseed’. Twitter @Eleanor_Luke24