by Elizabeth Zelvin
Here is another Christmas short story for your holiday reading, this one from mystery writer Elizabeth Zelvin! More to come between now and Christmas. This one has a fantasy and a bit of a mystery twist. It has never before been published.
The new kid in town, the only Jewish girl in my class, and as far as I could tell, the only shape-shifter—high school was hell. On top of that, my parents seemed to be the only Democrats in the county. President Eisenhower was considered a shoo-in for re-election. Even though I begged them not to, my parents stuck a Stevenson bumper sticker on the car. I got to say, “I told you so,” when they got five parking tickets on Main Street within a month. But it didn’t give me much satisfaction.
They tried to get me to wear a Stevenson button to school. “And get branded as an egghead on top of everything else?” I said. “You might as well paint a target on my back.”
“Bessie,” Mom said, “don’t you think there’s something wrong with a society that’s afraid to be led by a man with brains?”
“Moral courage is never an easy choice, Bessie,” Dad said, “but you’re old enough to think about what choices you need to make to become the kind of woman you want to grow up to be.”
“I want to be the kind of woman who didn’t die of mortification before she graduated high school,” I said.
They wouldn’t leave it alone until I snarled, showing them a flicker of fang and claw. Then they stopped nagging, and I didn’t have to wear a Stevenson button to school. They weren’t afraid of me. They knew I would never hurt them. But my powers made them uneasy. Shifting was for the ‘goyim.’
Unfortunately, I couldn’t make the kids at school shut up as easily. I was still figuring out my magic, but I already knew I couldn’t silence classmates who got a kick out of jeering at the girl who was different. You try being Bessie in ‘cow country.’ It was a small town, and a lot of the kids lived a mile or two away on outlying farms.
The Hudders were particularly mean. Abel Hudder would call me Bossy, and his cousins Duane and Buddy would egg him on, saying, “Hey, Abel, are you stupid? You got her name wrong. It’s not Bossy, it’s Daisy.” Or Clover or whatever cow names came into their tiny brains.
Abel’s sister Trixie, who was in my class, was just as bad. My last name was Hurwitz, so we always got stuck sitting together, and we were assigned adjacent gym lockers. She chewed gum constantly, and she would pop it whenever the teacher called on me. Or she would knock over a bottle of ink onto my notebook. I got even by making up limericks in my head, using words like “cud” and “udder,” but I never risked reciting them aloud. Other kids they’d bullied made jokes about inbreeding, but not where the Hudders could hear them. All the Hudders were handy with their fists and not above biting. I could have shown them a thing or two about biting. But my shifting had to be kept secret. Like all the farm kids, the Hudders could shoot. They boasted about rat-free barns and home-killed squirrel pie. They would have loved to bag a cheetah.
Things changed when Elvis burst onto the scene. Transistor radios weren’t allowed in school, but that didn’t stop kids who had them from sneaking them into their lockers and listening when they got the chance. The girls talked endlessly about which song we’d heard first: “Heartbreak Hotel,” “I Want You, I Need You, I Love You,” or “Don’t Be Cruel.” We argued about whether it was really love when you fell in love with a star. Girls who had transistor radios became popular. It got easier to get to know girls I’d never really talked to.
Trixie didn’t have a radio. I would see her scowling from behind her locker door as a bunch of giggling girls pretended to swoon over “Hound Dog.” One day, I had a flash of telepathy. For a second I could feel her feeling the same kind of hurt at being excluded that I’d felt at the beginning of the year. I remembered what Dad had said about choosing what kind of woman I wanted to become. So I smiled at Trixie and nudged two of my friends aside to make room for her.
After that, she didn’t join in when the Hudder boys made fun of me. By Thanksgiving, we were friends. We were both good at basketball and hoping to make the team next year. She was taller than me and had an amazing hook shot on her good days. I never saw her eating lunch in the school cafeteria. I figured the Hudders were poor. The older boys had to work the farm alongside Mr. Hudder and Trixie’s Uncle Wyatt. Trixie did a lot of babysitting without getting paid for it. When I told her Mom and Dad gave me fifty cents an hour to watch my little sister Jessie, at first she didn’t believe me. Minimum wage for a grownup worker was a dollar an hour, Dad said. Trixie had never even heard of minimum wage.
As Christmas approached, I expected to be the only kid not chattering about presents under the tree. Chanukah was early that year. We’d lit the first candle the night before Thanksgiving, and I’d already had the eight presents my folks always made sure were extra special, so we wouldn’t feel left out. But I noticed that Trixie slunk off by herself when these conversations started, and dared me with scowls and sarcasm to ask her what was wrong.
Then we heard that Elvis was coming to the area. He’d be giving a Christmas concert thirty miles away. The whole school was wild to go and hear him.
“A Christmas concert—really, Bessie?” my mother said.
“So he’ll sing a few Christmas carols,” I said. “You let me go to Woolworth’s, and they pipe in the same music. If you wanted Bach and Beethoven, we should have stayed in New York.”
A couple of the younger teachers organized the outing. A few senior boys who had their own pickup trucks agreed to drive everyone to the show.
“I’m not going,” Trixie said. “I can hear Elvis on the radio any time. He’s not gonna get me off the farm, is he?”
She tried to sound as if she didn’t care, but she wasn’t that good a liar, not about Elvis, though she had a great poker face and was good at dealing cards. I wondered if maybe she had a little sleight of hand magic, but if I asked, she’d want to know how come I had such a good jump shot when I was such a shrimp, a question I didn’t want to answer.
“Trix, is it money? Let me treat you. I have my allowance and my babysitting money. You can’t miss Elvis. It’s once in a lifetime.”
“Hudders don’t take charity.”
I didn’t push it, but I went to see Miss Halsey, who was the nicest teacher in the school. She made up some story about anonymous scholarships, and when the time came, Trixie had a ticket, and so did her brother and cousins.
They’d picked up the farm kids first. Trixie held out a hand to pull me into the truck. She was wearing a bright red sweater cut low in front and even tighter on her than the ones she wore in school.
“Hey, Trix,” I said. “Are you planning to run away with him?”
“Are you calling my sister a tramp?” Abel was looking for trouble as usual.
“Shut up, Abby,” Trixie said. “Ignore him, Bessie. He can’t help running his mouth. It never got hooked up to his brain.”
I liked being Trixie’s friend much better than being her target.
Elvis was amazing. My mom had dug out her old opera glasses. They were probably the only pair in Cow County. We passed it from girl to girl, giggling. He had a sweet pouty face, like a parakeet that crosses your path right after you’ve swallowed a love potion. When we zoomed in on his swinging hips, we giggled even harder. We moaned as he poured out that deep chocolate voice, telling someone—a shifter, maybe?—that he was nothing but a hound dog.
I knew my mom and dad would ask about the Christmas part. I would tell them that “White Christmas” was written by a Jewish guy, Irving Berlin, and as for “Silent Night,” Dad himself said that Jesus and Mary were Jewish. I wouldn’t tell them the most thrilling part, because they wouldn’t understand: a song called “Blue Christmas.” No one had heard him sing it on a record yet—the record would come out next year—and it felt as if he was singing it just for me.
When the show ended, my palms hurt from clapping, and my throat felt raw from screaming. Some of the girls had tears rolling down their faces. I might be young and silly, but Elvis’s music struck a chord with the music inside me, the music that I believed would roll out of me someday when I was ready to sing out. There was more to life, even for a shifter, than being a cheetah running in the wind.
I felt Trixie’s warm breath on my ear.
“I have to get up close. I want to see him.”
“Ooh, let’s all go. We’ll get his autograph.”
Now the whole gaggle of girls was in motion, swarming like a cloud of buzzing flies within the bigger cloud flowing toward the exits. A lot of people headed for the stage door. If I’d shifted, I could have cleared us a path in no time flat. I bet Elvis would have loved to know a cheetah appreciated his music. I cast a bit of influence. The crowd didn’t so much part as ripple, enough for us to squeeze through. When Elvis came out, we screamed with the rest. He was wearing a black velvet suit with his hair slicked back and shiny. His pomade was made of Vaseline, olive oil, and a spicy fragrance. Cheetahs have a good sense of smell. Elvis turned up the wattage on that lopsided grin and waved at the hysterical crowd. He wore four massive rings on each hand, brilliant with jewels that had to be real. The crowd went wild.
“Elvis! I love you!”
“Elvis! Marry me!”
“Elvis! I want to have your baby!”
“Elvis! Elvis! Elvis! Elvis!” they chanted.
A hundred voices begged for autographs, holding out records and programs and even underwear for him to sign.
“Look at his rings,” Trixie muttered in my ear.
I hadn’t realized she was still beside me. I was glad to have somebody I knew to hang on to in that crazy milling crowd.
“Gorgeous. Now aren’t you glad you got to see him in person?”
“Let’s get closer. They must be worth a lot.”
I was more interested in his face, which lit up larger than life as the love of all those squealing fans rolled over him. There was a shimmer to him that I associated with magic, but it might have been Elvis himself. When I told Dad later, saying it was indescribable, he said not quite and taught me two new terms, star quality and charisma.
“Don’t you want to touch them—him?” Trixie said. “Look at those girls with their arms out. They all want to grab a piece of him.”
I couldn’t blame them. Patting his velvet arms or chest would be like stroking a cat. The guards kept pushing them back.
“Gimme those glasses,” she said. “I want to see them up close.”
If I hadn’t given her the opera glasses, she’d have broken the cord pulling them from my neck.
“Wow! They all have gold and diamonds on them, but they’re all different: a bright blue stone, an owl with green jewel eyes, a gold horse’s head with a diamond horseshoe around its neck. Ooh, a square of diamonds around a stone that’s all misty and swirly, like red and green fire. I don’t know what that is, but it’s beautiful.”
“Sounds like an opal,” I said.
Trixie was a touchy friend. Sometimes she didn’t mind if you knew things she didn’t. Sometimes she did.
“Come on, Trix, it’s time to go.”
“No, you come on,” she said. “Let’s go help them break through.” She grabbed my arm and tried to pull me along.
“No! Let’s go back to the truck,” I said. “We’ve seen enough.”
“You go,” she said. “I’ll see you later.”
“Wait! Give me back my mom’s opera glasses. She’ll kill me if they get broken.”
It was just an expression, but Trixie looked scared. She let go of the glasses so abruptly that she would have dropped them if I hadn’t caught the swinging cord. The crowd trying to get past the guards was gaining ground. It might become a riot any minute. Trixie tossed her head and kind of shook her well-developed chest around to settle it more snugly inside the tight red sweater. What did she think was going to happen if she got close enough to Elvis to catch his attention?
“I’m going,” I said. “I’ll meet you back at the truck.”
In the end, we drove back without her. When the pickup pulled up in front of the school to let the town kids out, there was Trixie, lounging against one of the stone lions at the main entrance. When I asked how she’d gotten there, she said she’d gotten a ride in one of the other trucks. But when I asked around, no one had seen her on the trip back. They hadn’t seen the Hudder boys either. And when we listened to the news on the radio the next day, I thought I knew why.
The biggest news should have been the Elvis show itself. But it wasn’t. When the screaming fans had mobbed him, one of them had stolen his favorite ring: the square of diamonds on a thick gold band with a giant fire opal in the middle. It must have been Trixie. Who else could it be? She had light fingers, and that ring had fascinated her. But if she’d still been there when the mob swarmed over Elvis, how did she get back ahead of us? The paper said they’d detained the whole crowd while Elvis made his getaway. They didn’t arrest anyone, but only because the King asked them not to. “Not on Christmas,” he’d said.
The cops who came to talk to us, with the principal and some of the parents present to make sure we didn’t get bullied, seemed satisfied that the timing gave us all alibis. I had another theory. I could have done that run in half an hour in cheetah form. A dozen flying creatures could beat me in a race, a peregrine falcon, a plain old pigeon, and a horsefly among them. But none of them could do it carrying a heavy ring in its mouth. Either Trixie was a shifter, or she’d had help from someone who was. They didn’t have to beat a cheetah—just do thirty miles faster than an old Ford pickup truck with a dozen screaming kids in it.
I didn’t think Trixie could be the shifter. Once we’d become friends, how could both of us not have given some hint? But I’d been so sure I was the only one in town. For a while, I’d gone around talking to every animal I met, every dog and cat and cow I could find an excuse to spend five minutes alone with, hoping that one of them would shift and answer, or at least show signs of understanding what I said. The Hudders had caught me at it once. They thought it was hilarious, proof positive that I was crazy. Or had that just been to throw me off the scent? Maybe I didn’t catch any signs that they were shifters because I did my best to stay as far away from them as possible.
In the end, the only plan I could come up with was to ask her.
“Trixie, did you steal that ring? I’m not going to tell on you, but I want the truth. You did, didn’t you?”
She tossed her head and popped her gum at me, but I folded my arms, set my jaw, and looked her in the eye until she caved in.
“What if I did? Elvis didn’t need it. How did you know?”
In reply, I flashed a hint of tail and whiskers. I showed my fangs in a grin and held it as they faded back to human teeth again.
“I should have known!” Trixie sounded annoyed but not surprised. She’d seen shifting before.
“So who’s the shifter?” I asked. “Your brother? Your cousin Duane? Whoever it was had to be fast—and strong enough to carry you.”
She scowled and popped her gum again.
“Trix, you have to trust me,” I said. “You have no choice.”
“Oh, all right. Abel is a pronghorn. They’re pretty fast. But you can never let on you know.”
“All right, I won’t. But why? You can’t sell it or pawn it. The police of five counties are looking for it, and stealing’s not the way to get a Christmas present.”
Trixie spat her gum out.
“You think this is about Christmas presents?”
She grabbed me by the shoulders and shook me, her face so close to mine that I could feel the heat of her reddened cheeks and forehead.
“If I tell you, you have to swear you’ll never tell a soul.”
“I won’t! I promise!”
“Swear! Because if you ever do, I’ll hunt you down.”
“Trix, okay. I swear. I won’t tell a soul.”
“It’s not for me! I did it for Abel—so he could get away.”
“Why does he need to get away?”
“Shut up! Let me tell it. My Uncle Wyatt, he—he’s bad. He’s like that song. He ain’t nothing but a hound dog, a hound dog that goes after little boys. He didn’t bother his own boys, but he—he got at Abel until Abel got his powers when he was eleven. Then he could fight back, and Uncle Wyatt left him alone. But now my little brother Petey is six, the same age Abel was when Uncle Wyatt started in on him. Abel says he’ll kill him if he touches Petey.”
“Wait—started in on him?” I had only a vague idea of what she meant, but I felt scared and disgusted. My little sister Jessie was six.
“I thought you were so smart!” For a moment, the old contemptuous Trixie who didn’t have friends looked out of her eyes. But I knew it wasn’t me she was mad at. “If you don’t know, you should. Go to the library. Read a book. You think everyone’s house is like yours, where it’s safe to be a kid and everyone believes in Santa Claus.”
“We don’t believe in Santa Claus,” I said. “We’re Jewish. I’m sorry, Trix, I’m trying to understand. Would Abel take Petey away?”
“No! He’ll kill Wyatt. But he’ll get caught! I don’t want him to spend his life in prison. I thought if I could give him the money, he’d go away instead. We’ll figure out a plan to keep Petey safe. Mama’s always been scared of the Welfare coming in, but maybe that’s better than cops knocking on the door and locking my brother up. Especially for putting down a hound dog that deserves it a hundred times over.”
It was a problem too big for me to solve, especially if I couldn’t tell Mom or Dad. But the very next day, Wyatt Hudder broke his neck falling off a ladder while he was trying to catch a chicken that had fluttered up onto the roof and wouldn’t come down. No one suggested it was anything but an accident. In the world of shifters, you never know who your friends are. Maybe I’d been wrong about how alone I was. I hadn’t tried talking to any chickens.
So the only problem left was Elvis’s ring.
“You can’t keep it, Trix,” I said. “You’ll have to give it back.”
“I can’t,” she said. “They’ll know I stole it.”
“There’s a reward,” I said. “No questions asked.”
“Yeah, right,” she said. “They won’t have to ask questions. They’ll take one look at me, and that’ll be it. You have to go.”
“You’re respectable,” she insisted. “The way you dress. The way you talk. You can tell them any story, and they’ll believe it. Besides, I don’t want a reward. Now Uncle Wyatt’s dead, Abel doesn’t have to leave, and Petey will be okay. Hudders don’t take charity. You can have it.”
But I didn’t want the reward either. That is, I didn’t want to turn the ring over to some lawyer who’d look at me as if he’d like to crack me open and shake my secrets out of me. I didn’t want him to hand me an envelope and tell me to run along. I wanted to give Elvis’s ring back to him myself.
I couldn’t make myself into anything but a cheetah. Some shifters have a choice. I don’t. Too bad I couldn’t be something small like a ferret that could creep into Elvis’s fancy hotel. But I could command inattention. So once I’d reached the city in my best cheetah stride, I shifted back to a high school girl with a ring in her pocket who no one noticed as I made my way past the registration desk in the lobby and up to Elvis’s suite. There were bodyguards at the door. I didn’t think I could make them not notice me at all at such close range. That’s why I had borrowed Trixie’s red sweater. It didn’t fit as tight on me as it did on her. But with my mother’s makeup on and a black skirt I’d outgrown last year, I could pass for someone Elvis might have invited up to his suite.
“The King’s expecting me,” I said. “He’ll be awfully disappointed if I don’t show up.” Okay, maybe I used a little magic.
Elvis was really pleased to get his opal ring back. He didn’t ask a single question about how I’d gotten it. Before he put it back on his finger, he held it up to his face and kind of stroked his lips with it. Sexy, and not even on purpose. He was surprised when I refused the reward. Then he looked at me as if he really saw me. He asked me about myself, and I admitted I sang, played guitar some, and that I was trying to write songs.
“I tell you what,” he said. “Some folks down in Memphis are putting on a song competition. The grand prize for the best song is that I’ll sing it onstage. We’ll fly the winner and his whole family down to Memphis for the show. Second prize is a bunch of gear worth one thousand dollars, and the third prize is a signed guitar I’ve played myself. How about that? If I make sure you win that signed guitar?”
I stuck my chin out.
“What if I win the grand prize? What if my song is the best?”
“Then I’ll invite you to come up and sing it with me on the stage. Is that reward enough for you?”
“I guess so. If I win, I get to sing with you, and you introduce me to your—” I got stuck there. I had no idea who was in charge of Elvis’s songs.
Elvis laughed out loud. Then, quick as a wink, he shifted.
You can find other Christmas and Christmas mystery short stories in our Terrific Tales section, with more to come over the next week.
Thanks for a great story!