I was over at Solveig’s blog with an advent calendar post about, erm, an Advent Calendar. It’s a longish short story which I’ve replayed here since I’m having problems with links. Please visits here (if I can get it to work!) for more of her lovely posts…
‘What is it, Mum?’ Emily Smith, fourteen, looked up from her book.
Gilly, her mother, said, ‘A parcel from Uncle Augustus.’
‘Who is Uncle Augustus?’
‘I don’t really know. Someone on your father’s side. Do you remember the man you said looked like Gandalf? At Ben’s funeral?’
Emily nodded. She had wanted to speak to him, but there hadn’t been a chance on that awful day.
Gilly went on, ‘He said he’d be in touch with a little something.’ She pulled open the letter attached to the parcel.
‘What’s he say, Mum?’
Dear Both. I’m so sorry to miss you this Christmas,but I’ve had this curio for a while, waiting for the right home. Perhaps Emily can find out its secrets.
Emily moved to her mother’s side as she ripped off the paper. In moments they were staring at a dark wooden box, two feet square and six inches deep. On one side there were twenty-four little knobs in three rows of eight but none moved.
Gilly said, ‘It’s like an advent calendar but with one square missing.’ She left Emily trying to work out how it opened.
Three days later, on the first of December, Emily woke with a start; her alarm said just after midnight. Had she heard a noise? Lying in the dark, straining to hear, she realised she was extraordinarily thirsty. She needed a drink and soon. Pulling on her dressing gown, she crept down to the kitchen.
As she gulped the cold water she leaned back against the sink. Uncle Augustus’ present sat propped against the back door; it looked like her mother intended to throw it out. Emily put down her cup and went to retrieve it.
It was as she picked it up she noticed that, just above the first knob, a gold “1” had appeared. It looked like fresh paint. Emily smiled. Her mother had worked out the secret and painted on a “1”. She wondered what was inside.
She had no intention of opening it then and there, but a surge of curiosity made her run her finger down the “1”. Immediately the drawer sprung open. Inside was a small wooden brick on which was written: Make a wish
Emily’s smile broadened. ‘Get you, Mum. My bodyweight in chocolate, of course.’
She had barely said the word “chocolate” when she heard thumps outside the kitchen window, like someone was throwing something against the glass. Nervous now, she pulled up the blinds. Rectangular packets hit the glass and bounced onto the flower bed and lawn just outside the kitchen.
Surprised rather than frightened, she hurried to the back door and threw it open. Something caught her on the cheek and dropped at her feet. It was her favourite bar of chocolate. All around dozens of bars of chocolate lay and more fell from a murky, weirdly lit sky. It was quite literally raining chocolate bars.
Emily didn’t stop to wonder how her mum had arranged this or the damage the bars were doing to the sodden lawn and flower beds. She knew she had to start collecting her prize. A flash of light drew her gaze to her right: the wheelbarrow. Of course.
It took her a sweaty forty minutes but, eventually, she had collected them all. She thought about bringing the barrow inside, but it was then she saw the mud on her slippers and pyjamas and the damage done to the garden. ‘Oh god, I’m in so much trouble,’ she said to herself. Quickly she wheeled the barrow to the shed, pushed it inside and covered it in an old blanket. Somehow she’d sort out a better home tomorrow.
Back inside Emily washed as best she could and changed into clean pyjamas. The dirty clothes and slippers went in the washing basket. She’d worry about them in the morning too. Exhausted, she glanced at the bedside clock; it said three am. Tomorrow was going to be awful.
‘Emily? Come on sleepy. Time to get up.’
Emily felt as if she hadn’t slept and peered at the clock. It said seven thirty but surely it couldn’t be already. Just then she heard her mother scream and swear. Feeling sick she grabbed her dressing gown and hurried downstairs.
Her mum stood at the kitchen window staring into the garden. ‘Someone’s vandalised our lawn. Why would anyone do that?’
Emily thought about the chocolate bars and the box. She wanted to say something but didn’t know where to start. The best she could manage was, ‘I’ll help you tidy up, when I get back after school. If you like.’
Her mum smiled and kissed her on the head. ‘That’s a lovely thought. Let’s worry about it later. We both need to get a move on.’
Emily forced down breakfast. She wanted to have a look in the shed but there just wasn’t time. She would have to be patient.
Emily didn’t get back from school until after it was dark; there was a house meeting and then her bus was cancelled. She was just pulling on her gumboots when her mother appeared from upstairs. ‘What are you doing, Emily?’
‘I said I’d help with the mess.’
Her mother tutted and turned back to the kitchen. ‘That’s a lovely idea but it’s too dark. Come on, what say you we make pancakes?’
Emily looked longingly at the back door and, reluctantly turned to follow her mother.
The next morning Emily could barely sit still and eat some toast. She had to look and see if that chocolate was real. Finally her mother went upstairs to find her umbrella and clean her teeth. As soon as she had shut the door to the kitchen, Emily raced out of the back door and down the garden.
She pulled open the shed door and gasped; inside the wheelbarrow sat where she had left it. She yanked away the old picnic blanket she had thrown over it and goggled; there it was, her bodyweight in chocolate. On top sat the box. Emily glared at it.
Outside her mother’s “really not happy voice” floated down the garden. ‘Emily Smith, what are you doing?’
Emily, however was staring at the box. The Number “1” had gone; instead the second knob had “2” by it. She touched the drawer and it sprang open. Another wooden brick with Make a wishon it appeared. She could hear her mother’s squelching footsteps getting very close. She glanced at the brick. You might make her friendlier, she thought.
‘Wowza,Ems. You got chocolate? Sick.’
Emily frowned and gawped at her grinning mother as she dropped to her knees and dug her hands into the barrow’s contents. Her smart wool skirt sunk into the mud that had fallen off the tyre when Emily had hidden the barrow the night before. ‘Mum? You sound weird.’
‘Hey,it’s Gilly, silly.’ Her mum giggled. ‘Gilly-Silly. That’s soooo neat. BFFs right?’
‘I just came to say we need to get going but, hey, what say you we have a duvet day? Just us girls and this chocolate feast? Laters, we can go get our nails done at the new nail bar and then go and buy those sick shorts you saw Thursday?’ She tore off the wrapping paper from a bar. ‘This is my all time fav choc. Did you know?’ She tried to say something else but her chocolate-filled mouth prevented any coherent sound.
Emily tugged her jacket. ‘Mum you’re getting filthy. We need to get going.’
Her mother shook her head violently. ‘Chocolate. Need chocolate. Now, now now. Choc choc choc…’
‘I have to get the bus, mum. You going to be ok?’
This time there was a vigorous nodding. ‘Choc choc ch…’ which turned to mumbles as more chocolate was stuffed into her mother’s mouth.
Emily backed out slowly. Her mother had begun ripping open wrappers at random and and cramming in yet more chunks.
‘Stop it, Mum.’
Her mother spat the contents into her palms and sneered at Emily. ‘Boring. Bet I can eat more than you.’ She glanced at Emily out of the corner of her eye before she planted her face in her hands and started slurping up the regurgitated gloop, brown liquid oozing out the sides. Gilly wiped her face, smearing it everywhere and then reached out with her chocolaty hands apparently intent on making palm prints on Emily’s school uniform.
Emily turned and rushed away. She had to be at school. She’d call her mum when she had break. Make sure she was alright.
When she called her mother didn’t answer so she rang her neighbour who sent Emily a text.
Your mum is in the garden shed. She sounds happy.
As soon as she got back from school, to a dark house, Emily shot down the garden with a torch and pulled open the shed door. It looked like there had been a chocolate explosion, in the middle of which her mother lay on the filthy picnic blanket, groaning. She was surrounded by wrappers.
It took Emily an age to half carry, half drag her mother indoors; on the way she threw up over the roses and giggled and then vomited again over a tub of pansies. Emily made her some hot water and lemon, pulled off her filthy clothes and helped her to bed, where she lapsed into a deep sleep. Emily asked her neighbour if she thought her mum was ok and was told she looked like “she might have had too much of a good thing” and to leave her alone with lots of water and a bucket.
She made herself toast and went to bed early.
Emily slept badly and once again woke with a start just after midnight. Something made her go to her mother’s room. Glancing in, she could see her mother clutching the advent calendar box to her chest. She wondered how it had got there because the last time she’d seen it it was in the shed. As she eased it out of her mother’s grasp, she saw a gold “3” was glowing from the third drawer. She touched the number. Clutching the Make a wishbrick, she said, ‘I want my old mum back.’ She stared at Gilly. After a moment her mother began snoring. Emily sighed; Mum was back all right.
Gilly looked awful at breakfast. ‘I had the weirdest dreams, about you and me and chocolate.’
‘Shouldn’t eat cheese late at night, Mum.’ Emily forced a smile and promised herself she’d leave the advent calendar alone.
Her mother blinked several times. ‘Do you know why my suit is filthy?’
Emily couldn’t meet her mother’s gaze.
All that day she thought about the calendar. She awoke again, at just after midnight and saw the box had appeared at the end of her bed. She refused to go near it. The next night she got up and looked at the drawers. The “4” of the night before had gone but the “5” had appeared and it seemed the gold paint was even brighter. The urge to tap the number and make a wish was so strong. Could she think of a wish that it wouldn’t misconstrue? She forced herself to ignore it, sticking it in her sock drawer at the back.
The next night, when she woke at midnight – it was getting so she felt like she hadn’t slept so sure she was that she would wake – the box had somehow been placed by her bed and the “6” had replaced the “5”. Seeing it she had to look away; it was so bright it burnt her eyes, like if you look directly at the sun. She just knew she couldn’t let it get any brighter so she went to the bathroom and splashed water on her face. As she did so, she saw, with horror, a large spot had erupted on her chin. That would do it. Turning quickly, she went back to the box, tapped the number and held the Make a wishbrick. ‘No more spots,please.’ She added, ‘On my face.’
She touched her skin as she returned to the mirror. The spot had gone,but her face felt odd. She soon saw why and reeled back. Instead of her usual pale complexion her face was covered in red and white diagonal stripes. Tears sprung to her eyes. She hated this calendar. She hadn’t asked for stripes so why did it choose stripes in place of spots?
The next morning, her mother was horrified when she caught sight of her and asked her if she’d used some new cosmetic that had caused such a bizarre reaction. Emily told her she had and asked to stay off school, which her Mum agreed to, reluctantly. She wanted to take Emily to the doctors, but Emily made her promise to wait a day.
She drifted off into a strange sleep and woke as if poked at midnight. The “7” glowed softly. Emily hurried to tap it, took out the Make a wish brick and wished her old face back, spot and all. Her fingers touched the zit on her chin; never had she loved any blemish as much as she did this one.
By now she was certain it was dangerous to leave the wishes. But if things went wrong she hated waiting a day to be able to correct it. For brick “8” she woke at midnight but ignored the box, setting her alarm for 11.30 pm, nearly a whole twenty-four hours later. Sure enough, the “8” still glowed. Taking a deep breath, she tapped it, took the Make a wish brick and said, ‘Please make me happy.’
For the next thirty-two minutes she felt she would explode. Laughter couldn’t escape quickly enough. Her throat hurt and her eyes ached as she tried not to wake her mother. She saw the “9” appear and laughed louder. Somehow she wrestled the box to the floor as hysterics overwhelmed her and threw her against the table. Almost by accident her finger touched the number, the drawer opening and a Make a wish brick tumbling out. She wished herself back to her old self and immediately fell asleep.
The next day she woke with a start. Everything ached, and bruises were beginning to show on her arms. She stared at the box, once more perched on the table. Leaving it seemed to intensify the results, but asking for anything was a disaster. What was she going to do? Once again, she left the box alone; then, at 11.50 the next day she tapped the “10”. Taking a deep breath and holding the box as well as the brick, she wished her room to be decorated for Christmas. Instantly everything started to be wrapped in gaudy paper with lights emerging like snakes and twisting round her chair and table and then her legs. Baubles and tinsel were next. She gripped the box hard, and trying to swell the growing panic and she was covered in more and more decorations, her finger pressed against the eleventh drawer. As soon as she felt it pop open she wished her old room back to how it was. She was in bed and falling asleep before the last of the glitter and paper had retreated. She was at her wits end and exhausted.
She dreaded the following day. As usual she woke at midnight and spent the next seven hours fretting over the “12” that glowed at her. When her alarm went off and she got up for school, she was tired and nearly desperate. In the kitchen, her mother looked at her with worry across her face. ‘You look awful. Are you going down with something?’
‘I’ll be fine, Mum. I just need to survive until Christmas.’
‘Goodness that sounds dramatic. Shall I give you a lift to school? I need to pop to the shops after anyway.’
While her mother went to their old car to “warm her up”, Emily collected her books and bag. A noise brought her to her bedroom window. Her mother was standing by her car, red in the face and kicking the tyres. Emily went downstairs to find out what was happening.
‘Sorry,love. Car’s kaput. Sounded terminal this time. Maybe we can get a jump from Mr Grumpy next door. You try and get it to start and I’ll go and speak to him. If that doesn’t work, I’m afraid you’ll have to catch the bus. How on earth will we afford the repairs this time?’
Emily sat and stared at the dashboard. Her eye was drawn to the clock and the “12” that stood out in gold. That wasn’t the usual colour. She glanced in the mirror to see if Gilly was coming and there, on the back seat was the box, the “12” glowing brightly. It must have reflected off the box onto the clock. Emily twisted round and tapped the number. If the car was buggered as Mum said, what harm could this wish do, she thought? She held the Make a wish brick. ‘Fix Mum’s car.’ Surely this can’t go wrong?
Emily stared as all the lights came on on the dashboard. The engine started and began idling easily. The windscreen wipers swished once, clearing the remnants of last night’s rain from the glass.
‘You been taking car repairing lessons?’ Gilly stood by the driver’s door, peering inside her car. ‘It even looks cleaner. Come on. Hop out and I’ll drive you.’
As they drove Gilly fiddled with the dials. ‘What did you do? The interior light and heated seats are fixed too. They haven’t worked in ages.’
All day Emily wondered if the car would be ok. When she got home her mother held out a small package. ‘I don’t know how you did it, but that car is like new. You have miracle hands. Thanks, love.’ Inside was a small silver necklace. ‘Early present.’
That night Emily had a mad idea. As usual she woke at midnight. She touched the “13”. This had better not be an omen,she thought. Then, ‘Get rid of Mum’s curly fringe.’ Gilly hated the way her fringe curled, whatever she did to it.
In the morning, Emily waited for her mum to appear. She seemed to be spending ages in the bathroom. When, finally, she came into the kitchen Emily said, ‘What have you done to your fringe, Mum?’
Gilly shook her head. ‘Nothing. It’s… straight. The curl’s gone. I’ve been wishing it away for thirty years and at last someone has listened.’
‘It looks great, Mum. I must dash.’
Emily could barely contain herself. She now understood. Wish for something for herself and it went horribly wrong; wish for others and it worked. She spent the day working out what she might do with the remaining wishes. They couldn’t be dramatic, or people would have too much of a shock. Part of her wanted to wish her dad back to life but somehow, she knew that was going to be a selfish wish and she didn’t dare think how that might come out. Instead she helped her best friend’s mother with her backache, the homeless man with the dog that limped and the shopkeeper whose son had an awful skin problem.
The numbers came and went, and it worked. She actually felt excited. Eventually, the last drawer, number “24” glowed on the box. She knew exactly what she was going to do. It was Christmas Eve, and having hung on all day, as she went to bed, she touched the “24”. Taking a deep breath, she said, ‘Give Mum whatever she really wants.’
Emily slept soundly. On Christmas morning she awoke with a start. She heard her mum in the kitchen singing along to a Christmas song. Grabbing her dressing gown, she bounded down the stairs. ‘What did you get? What was it?’
‘Didn’t you get the thing you want most?’
Gilly looked confused and then smiled. ‘Silly, I’ve got that already.’ She hugged her daughter. ‘You.’