Chapter Six: Conclusion Hopscotch
“Yippie ki yay, motherfucker.”
For whatever reason, the universe conspired to have that festively iconic line be the first thing Juniper heard when she finally got home after a long day of rehearsal and work. Technically, she could hear the muffled sound of the TV playing when she came in the front door, but “yippie ki yay” was the first distinguishable line her brain managed to pick out.
Whatever. It fit her current mood perfectly, so close enough.
Theodora was still mad at her by the time rehearsal finished, although she had toned down to silent fury. Then, when she got to the recording studio, (late, of course,) the only microphone worth a dime broke in the middle of her least favorite song, and the idiot who hired her didn’t bother to tell her about it until she sang through the whole piece. So not only did she have to figure out how to fix the finicky thing, she had to perform that stupid song all over again. And that wasn’t even mentioning the ripped seams and tears in what felt like half the production’s wardrobe that she’d have to find either the time or someone else to mend.
And now, as the cherry on the sock flavored sundae, she now found her roommate and her mistletoad of a brother passed out in front of the TV, in no state to receive the earful she’d been preparing all day.
So yes, universe, thank you. Yippie ki yay, indeed.
Had she been in a better mood, she might have considered the scene before her cute. Their heads had lolled towards each other, their tight curls tangling up with one another’s. A few tufts stuck up in Juniper’s line of sight, adding a slight fuzzy effect to the lower portion of the screen.
The TV was in the middle of Die Hard’s climax. Good movie. It was one of the overlaps in her and Myrna’s tastes. And she especially liked this scene. Just the whole concept of duct taping a gun to oneself played dead straight. Good stuff.
Realizing she had spent enough time staring in the general direction of the flashy light-box, she figured she was too out of it to properly get angry, even if Myrna had been awake. As long as she brought it up in the morning, she would let sleeping dogs lie.
The bundle of costumes was starting to inch their way out of her arms. She tried to shift them into a better position as she shuffled over to her bedroom door.
Or, at least, over to what she assumed was her bedroom door.
Kneeing the door open, she reached with her elbow for the light switch. It was further away from the door than she remembered. Stepping further into the room, she stubbed her toe. Hard. Against something that shouldn’t have been there. It hurt.
Losing her grip on the bundle, she threw her hand out to steady herself against a nearby dresser. Instead, her hand hit empty air and she slammed her hip into the corner of something else that shouldn’t have been there.
Sweet caramel nougat. Now that hurt.
At this point, the clothes had abandoned ship and lay in a heap on the floor. She stood there, sucking in Myrna-worthy curses in quick sharp breaths as she waited for the pain to subside. Having had quite enough of today, she slammed her palm against the wall, forcefully sliding it around until she finally found the stupid switch. After squinting against the sudden light, she made an unsettling observation.
This wasn’t her room. All of her stuff was replaced with boxes. And this was the cleanest it had been in years.
…wait, weren’t these Bernard’s boxes? Where was all her stuff? Had Myrna kicked her out? Was her stuff dumped into the snow outside
The apartment layout had an open kitchen leading to a sunken living room, with one hallway leading from the front door and connecting the remaining rooms on one side. Down at the end of this hallway was a window overlooking the impossible river winding through the snow banks behind the inn. At the moment, it also gave a spectacular view of the burning Yule Log at the center of many drunken festivities crashing around in a wide radius. If her stuff was outside, there was no doubt the rowdy crowd would already have their hands on it, and the window was the fastest way to check without leaving the apartment.
It didn’t take her very long to reach and throw open the window.
Elficer Ralph Parker wheeled his bicycle through the snow piled up around the building to reach the source of the noise complaint that had called him out here.
To say he was not happy would be a massive understatement. Not only had this noise complaint call become a yearly tradition at this point, but the Hollow Tree Inn was also a fair distance away from his police outpost and it just so happened to be a particularly frigid night. Especially if your method of transportation was as open and inviting to the chill as his stupid bicycle.
He had lost count of how many times he’d been dispatched to deal with Hazel’s little Christmas party, so the sudden debauchery on display as he rounded the corner had lost its impact. Yes, there was a large and varied group of inebriated magical beings doing what magical beings tended to do when inebriated. Most notably, being as loud as possible for no other reason than it was possible. So, nothing had changed much since last year.
He continued to walk his bicycle through the snow, adjusting his course as people and objects meandered in and out of his path.
The first year he’d shown up had been a complete disaster. To be fair to his past self, it was quite the dispatch to drop on the rookie, sending him out with no backup or warning as to the extent of disorderly conduct that would be on display. Even after the initial shock, there was no easy way of identifying party-goers from waitstaff, much less who was in charge. He bounced between drunken responses to his questions for about thirty minutes before he was finally directed towards Hazel. Every year after that, he made it a priority to locate and immediately beeline for her upon arrival.
She was pretty easy to spot this year, as she had situated herself behind a makeshift bar that served as a more convenient facsimile to the one inside. Elbowing his way through the crowd and their complaints, he flagged her down.
Upon recognizing him, her already sunny smile beamed a bit brighter. She always seemed disproportionately happy to see him, which confused him to no end. For someone with her record that continued to grow every year, you’d think she’d have soured towards the Elficers over time. If this was the case, she did a very good job of hiding it through the many, many years he’d been coming to visit. His gut reaction, as always, was to doubt the other’s intent. And at first, he had no issue trusting his gut, assuming it was all an act to remain as much on his good side as possible. Now, more than a few years down the line, he really couldn’t say what her intentions might be.
She asked him if he wanted a drink. At least, he thought she did. He definitely saw her mouth form the word “drink”. But the sound never survived the trek from her lips to his ears, no doubt pulled from its course by the many surrounding distractions.
He shook his head, gesturing at the lack of verbal communication happening. She nodded in understanding while proceeding to pour him a steaming mug of something-or-other anyway. He tried to refuse it, but Hazel insisted, adding some clarification that was also lost to the crowd. Giving up, he reluctantly took the tankard from her. She gestured towards the tavern, motioning they could talk there. He nodded and attempted to ditch his drink by “forgetting” it, when Hazel helpfully waved him down to hand it to him again before getting sucked back into the rush of activity. He resigned himself to his fate of nursing an unwanted drink for the rest of his time here, awkwardly walking his bike towards the tavern with his one free hand.
The first thing Juniper saw upon introducing her face to the elements was pure white because her glasses had frosted up. As she stood there, breathing onto her lenses to warm them, an oddly listenable chorus of nearly forgotten carols rushed in with the wind. The sheer number of imbibed voices drowned out one another’s sour notes, adding to the atmosphere of a-moment-out-of-time celebrations.
Despite how much all of the elven inhabitants of the inn loved to exaggerate the wanton destruction of Hazel’s annual Yule party, she had to admit that the whole thing was much calmer than this large of a fae gathering tended to be. Hazel’s ability to control a crowd without any obvious action on her part was an enviable skill. But it still didn’t put her belongings in the clear if they were outside.
Everything was far enough away that she was sure, even without her specs, that nothing familiar was lying in any sort of state in the snow below. Thank crumb for that.
She started chewing on the end of her glasses. So her stuff wasn’t in her room, and it wasn’t outside. So it had to be somewhere in the apartment. She just had to figure out where.
To the left of the open window was a closet where they kept spare blankets and towels and linens and things of that sort. It didn’t have enough room to hold all of her stuff, but it was as good a start as any. Inside she found a blobby mess of rectangular shapes. Her glasses were still dangling from her mouth. Upon replacing them, she still didn’t find anything other than the blankets and towels and linens and things of that sort that belonged there. Across the hall was the bathroom, which yielded similarly fruitless results.
She was missing something here. Most likely something obvious.
Okay, time to cover the basics. How many rooms did the apartment have? Not including the living room and kitchen, there should be five: the closet, the bathroom, and both her and Myrna’s rooms.
And doing a quick headcount (door-count?) of the doors revealed that there were…
…six? Since when were there six rooms?
In her dash for the window, she had missed the half-closed door between the closet and what she had assumed was her room. Reaching for the light switch, she found it precisely where she expected it to be, as well as the rest of her mess spread across the room.
She looked back over at the brand new bedroom that had materialized over the course of a single workday.
“Making room.” It was a phrase she had heard Hazel use quite a bit, usually in the midst of dealing with whatever the newest emergency involved with running an inn was. And given that they were, quite literally, at the North Pole, this kind of magic wasn’t unheard of…
But this is a bit more literal than I was expecting.
On her way to retrieve her costumes, a particularly noticeable gust of wind blustered in through the still open window. It drew a wave of goosebumps across Juniper’s skin and a small shuffling noise from the couch. Myrna had half woken up, pulled a pillow on top of her like a very stiff blanket, and had fallen asleep again in a manner of seconds.
Yeah, leaving a window open to the harsh North Pole climate did a number on the overall temperature. She went over to close the window and pull out two of the thicker blankets from the closet. Taking them to the living room, she set one down on the floor while she floofed the folds out of the other. Gingerly removing the pillow, she tucked Myrna into a snug half burrito. Then she flung the other blanket in Bernard’s general direction before calling it a day, retrieving her costumes for the final time, and heading to bed herself.
This exact situation was why Ralph tried to avoid large parties if he could help it, even in the rare instances that he was invited. The smell wafting up from his mug reminded him of honey-flavored cough syrup. Spiked honey-flavored cough syrup, but cough syrup nonetheless. He was not a fan.
He’d put up with it at first because it was an excellent hand warmer. That had dissipated a while ago, leaving him with only the tavern’s fireplace as a source of heat. The reason he hadn’t simply leaned back and placed the strange smelling tankard on a vacant table was precariously balanced in the chair right beside him. Every once in a while, some of Hazel’s employees brought in another fey that had failed to hold their liquor. He hadn’t quite figured out why they put some in a distant corner and then others on the floor before the fire, because he didn’t care. Still didn’t. But about ten minutes ago they had dumped a particularly floppy individual in the chair right next to him. Where a gentle breeze was likely to knock them over on top of Ralph. He was not happy about this. Having a complete stranger drool onto his uniform was one indignity he was not willing to put up with tonight. He was willing to put up with holding the mug. So he did.
It wasn’t all that bad, though, waiting inside for Hazel to return. He was warm, had a drink (if he dared to try it), and a semblance of entertainment with a bickering couple seated a few tables away. They were engaged in the type of argument that absorbed its participants to the point where they dismissed such petty distractions as potential eavesdroppers.
Given what he’d been able to piece out through the muffled noise and lack of context, he was pretty sure this was about a workplace dispute. Someone or other had apparently stepped on important toes by taking a position he was neither qualified nor in line for, while still technically keeping their nose clean.
The point of contention was whether they should do anything about it. The woman was adamant that something must be done now, no matter the cost. The older gentleman agreed with her but wanted to haggle the price. Protocols exist for a reason and it would be wise to keep their own noses clean. Proceed with caution and whatnot.
It was bizarre how engrossing he found the whole thing. If this was the appeal behind reality TV shows, he could sort of understand why people liked them.
Oh great. Another drunk. A wave of noise washed over the room, momentarily drowning out the argument. It resumed shortly after the door squealed shut.
A chair thunked into existence beside him, causing him to jolt forward, spill some of his drink onto his pants, and the rest onto the floor. “Jingle balls,” he muttered. Now he’d be stuck with the smell all night. He glared at the wet spot above his knee as he frantically scrubbed away at it. “Big, bouncy rubber balls.”
Without moving his head, he could see the floor end of a cane out of the corner of his eye, hovering a few inches away from his face. Upon turning his head, he could also see that the cane was holding up the previously precariously balanced figure. Swiveling around in his seat revealed Hazel’s smiling countenance as the bearer of the cane.
“Sorry for startling you, dear,” she said, as she nudged the slumbering fey to tumble in the other direction. “Reflex reaction, you understand.”
Ralph nodded, pretending he did indeed understand.
“Oh dear, you’ve spilled your drink,” she said, prodding at the puddle with her cane. Even before she looked up, she had flagged down a waitress out of nowhere. “Can you bring a towel? And a fresh tankard for the young gentleman?”
“Wait, no, I-,”
“What’s wrong, dear?” Hazel said, taking a sip of her own mug.
Ralph sighed, finally placing the empty mug aside. “I…didn’t care for it.”
He expected Hazel to look hurt at this. She didn’t. Instead, she got that fleeting, analytical sort of look. It made him far more uncomfortable than it should have.
“Did you try it?”
“Did you actually taste the krupnik?”
“Then how do you know you don’t like it?”
“Well, uh…” He was getting strong flashbacks of repressed childhood dinners. He felt reluctant to give the actual reason but couldn’t come up with a better one on such short notice. “You see, um…it smelled really weird.”
“Well that’s a silly reason not to try something,” she said, holding out a fresh mug that seemed to materialize out of nowhere. “Go on. Have a taste.”
He softly pushed it back towards her, shaking his head.
“Now dear, I’m not sure if you’re aware,” she said, gently resting her hand on his shoulder, “but it’s generally seen as impolite for a guest to refuse refreshments so callously.”
He sighed, “Ma’am-,”
“It’s ‘miss’, dear. My husband’s been dead for quite some time now.”
He paused, not sure what to do with this information. “Look, I’m just trying to do my job.”
“As am I,” she said, shoving the drink into his face. “Only a sip, dear. I made it myself. And I can guarantee it’s much better when it’s warm and it does wonders for the chill.” When he still didn’t take it, she added, “If you don’t like it after the first sip, I won’t bring it up again. I promise.”
“Fine,” he said, taking the cup. He figured one sip couldn’t hurt. And even with his limited experience with her, he knew Hazel meant it. It’s not like he could avoid smelling like it anymore. What harm could it do? He tentatively swallowed a tiny mouthful.
This was a mistake. While he was obviously expecting some alcohol, given the smell and the general effect it had on everyone else, he wasn’t expecting anything near its moonshine potency. And of course, given the unexpected burn and his natural reflex to something that unpleasant, a fair amount of it tried to escape down his windpipe, ensuing in quite the impressive coughing fit.
“Oh dear,” Hazel said, removing the devil substance from spilling distance and gently rubbing his back. It was a nice gesture and all; he just wasn’t sure it actually helped.
He was aware of several pairs of eyes drawn to him with the speed only outbursts like coughing fits could pull off. The small part that was still socially aware made it known it was very uncomfortable with this, especially since the couple he had been eavesdropping on were no doubt gawping at him right now. That, and he heard the door open, meaning even more people had arrived and were no doubt watching.
“WILL YOU BE ALRIGHT, YOUNG ELF?”
Normally, his response in this type of situation (where speech was hindered in one way or the other) would have gone thusly: A quick glance up to establish eye contact, followed by a curt nod to show he wasn’t at Death’s door or anything drastic like that. However, glancing up to find you were, if not at his door, at the figure of Death himself, it tended to put a damper on the certainty of his health. If it wasn’t for his diaphragm still seizing up in failed attempts to save his lungs from the foreign substance trickling down his throat, he would have believed he had died right then and there.
“Dear? What’s wrong?” Hazel said, drawing his attention back to her and her own mug of that horrible drink she’d forced him to try.
…Wait a minute.
His eyes darted between it, Hazel, and Death, all while his brain linked the three in various objectionable conclusions. The general consensus seemed to land on the side of leaving immediately and seeking the assistance of the closest hospital as soon as possible.
So he did.
“Well that was unnecessary,” Hazel said, wiping the krupnik from her face with the towel Tonna had finally brought out. “I think I may need another one, please.”
“Need any help, Hazel?” Mother Nature asked, moving aside to let Tonna pass. She and Father Time had gotten a good view of the elf’s scramble to leave, as they were coming over to greet Death at the time.
Hazel brushed it off with a quick handwave. “No, no, it’s fine,” she said, moving her drying efforts to her clothes, before giving up on them and dealing with the floor.
“I APOLOGIZE,” said Death, “I DIDN’T MEAN TO STARTLE HIM.”
“Oh, don’t worry about him. He’s always a tad jumpy,” she said, standing to deal with the now uselessly damp towel bundled up over one arm. She used her free hand to gesture towards the table the other two had claimed. “You three can get back to your discussion, and I’ll make sure some refreshments come your way.”
“I believe we’re set for the time being,” said Father Time, answering for all of them.
“Alright then. Now if you’ll excuse me-,”
“ACTUALLY, IF YOU WOULDN’T MIND,” Death interjected, “I WOULD LOVE A MUG OF SOMETHING WARM.”
She smiled. “Right away, dear. Now if you’ll all excuse me, I need to change my dress.”
“OF COURSE. IT’S GOOD TO SEE YOU AGAIN, HAZEL.”
“You too, dear.”
AN: Yes, Die Hard is a Christmas movie. Fight me.