“I don’t date.” I shrugged as Dylan opened the trunk of a cab before heaving my oversized duffle bag inside. He pushed my bag deeper alongside my sister’s.
“Ever?” he asked, twisting his head to face me, and hope swirled in his eyes. His thin lips parted as if he had more to say. He’d been asking me out on a date since the first day I’d moved into my apartment in Compton, California. Dylan was a nice guy, and I’d seen the way other women flirted with him. But us not dating had everything to do with me. I didn’t have time. My priority was my sister. Putting food on the table. Nothing else. Plus, we were moving away, so what were his intentions? A long-distance relationship? That wasn’t going to work. Though I figured after me turning him down for so long, he thought this might be his last shot.
“Ever,” I answered, dusting my hands on my worn jeans, the holes in my knees frayed and my pleather boots scuffed through at the toe from years of wear.
“So what will you do when you arrive?” he asked.
I shut the trunk with a thump, the sound echoing through the early morning street where the sun barely peeked over the ocean of apartment buildings. Cars were parked alongside the curb, crowding the place. “I’m going straight to the airport.” Not change my mind and come back here because sometimes it was easier to accept the devil you knew. “I’ll call you as soon as Britta and I land in Austria.” Just saying the word felt surreal. I wasn’t sure if the knot in my gut was excitement or fear at leaving this country for the first time.
Dylan dragged me into his arms, and I hugged him back.
“Thanks for seeing Britta and me off. You’ve always helped us,” I said, remembering when we’d moved in. Britta and I had a backpack between us. Dylan had brought dinner to welcome us to the building, and he’d been my friend ever since and had even occasionally checked in on Britta when I’d worked late at the pub.
“Gonna miss your door slamming and loud music.” He broke away, clearing his throat, and shrugged.
I’d gotten used to having him as a neighbor, but this wasn’t the first time we’d picked up and moved our lives, and not getting close to anyone always made it easier. But I’d let him into our world because he lived alone.
“Me too.” I patted down my T-shirt and wasn’t sure what to say. “I hate goodbyes.”
He chuckled. I’d miss his laughter. “Just promise me one thing, Nickie. When you’re making millions on the distillery you inherited, I better get a first-class flight to Austria.”
“It’s a deal!” I smiled, determined to keep my word.
With a comforting grin, he walked away, his hands deep in his pockets. My sister waved to him from the backseat. He strolled toward the apartment building that had flaking paint on the walls. Trashcans sat on the sidewalk waiting for collection. The railing on the front steps had rusted and someone had patched it up with duct tape. Like the rest of the neighborhood, it seemed as if it was barely holding itself together. And I wouldn’t be here when it came apart at the seams.
If everything went according to plan, Britta and I would never need to live in a rundown location again, and I had every intention to help out Dylan however I could. God, I was already tearing up about leaving him. My only real friend. But I wouldn’t miss the drive-by-shootings or the break-ins. No cop cars lighting up our place in the middle of the night when the police busted yet another drug den.
Britta shuffled out of the taxi and stared at Dylan, then me. “You know it’s gonna be just you and me for a really long time,” she said, pronouncing her ‘s’ as a ‘th,’ but today her lisp wasn’t strong. “Then when I meet someone,” she continued, “it’s gonna be just you.”
I smiled, pulling up the scarf around her neck to protect it from the brisk breeze sweeping through the streets, then held her by the shoulders, staring into her eyes. “You’re only twelve and that won’t happen for a long time. Until then, I’m not going anywhere.”
“Dylan’s nice, and he’s the best at building an epic blanket fort.”
With a quick hug, I nudged her back into the cab. “I’ll take that into consideration. Now get in. We have to go.” I climbed into the backseat with her and buckled up, waiting for Britta to do the same.
Nerves danced through my stomach like they did each time we moved location.
“Ready to go, miss?” The driver started the engine, and the motor roared to life.
I took one last look at the place we’d called home for the past two years. The front steps where we’d sat and eaten ice cream on those scorching hot days while the neighborhood kids had played tag on the street. That leak in my bedroom where I’d kept two buckets in my room to avoid damaging the flooring so I wouldn’t lose my deposit. The late nights I’d get home from work, passing the working girls and pimps on the street corners, hating that Britta lived here.
But that was all behind us now. I prayed it was behind us.
“Yes, we’re ready to go,” I said.
My sister smiled and nodded. “I’ve been praying that in the next place we live in, the ice cream van will come down our street and not drive past.”
“Me too!” I wrapped an arm around her shoulders and pulled her against me. I hoped I wasn’t making a mistake with this change of lifestyle because I’d given notice to the landlord and someone had already taken our place.
* * *
“Wanna hear a joke?” Britta’s joyful voice chirped as she stared out of the passenger window of our rented hatchback. A winter wonderland of the Austrian Alps surrounded us, snow layering pines, the wind shaking their branches. Brilliant white drifted down against the dark, mossy trunks. The trees glistened like winter decorations that belonged on greeting cards.
I had never breathed in such crisp air before. When I’d told Britta we were moving to a new location in the Alps, she hadn’t stopped talking about how many snow angels she’d make. While living in California, we’d had a hand-to-mouth lifestyle, meaning we lacked money to travel. Now my chest beamed in my joy because I still couldn’t believe we were in Austria, our tickets prepaid, our new home awaiting us. Dad had once said something about his ancestors being from Austria, but when I’d asked him to say more, he’d shut me down. And we’d never met other family members to find our ancestors.
“So,” Britta asked. “Want to hear the joke or not?”
“Sure, hit me,” I replied as I drove us along a narrow road in the car the lawyer had arranged for me at the airport. We followed the curvy, upward climb, gripping the steering wheel to hold her steady. Even with chains on the tires, I wasn’t experienced in driving in these conditions. Give me traffic and wide roads any day.
“What do you get if you cross Christmas with an apple?” Britta stared my way, hugging the tiny reindeer plush toy to her chest. She’d insisted on bringing the gift I’d gotten her last year for her birthday rather than leaving it in the bags in the back. And as far as I was concerned, she could do whatever she wanted as we were starting a new life.
“Hmm, a holly apple pie?”
“What? That’s terrible. You’re bad at jokes, Nickie.” She grinned, well aware she’d never wanted me to guess the correct answer, so I played along.
“A pineapple,” she declared, then broke into a laugh.
“Ah, that’s a good one.” I glanced her way and smirked. “Are you writing these down in your notebook?”
She nodded, her tiny brown curls bouncing across her shoulders. Her crystal green eyes were a mirror match to our mother’s while I had Dad’s hazel eyes, along with his dark chocolate hair. Mine reached halfway down my back after having it short while growing up. But our mother and father were two people I preferred to pretend didn’t exist, and for years, I’d done a solid job. They were both serving sixty years at Louisiana State Penitentiary for the attempted murder of a drug peddler. Yep, I’d grown up with narcotics in the house, and shady characters who’d paid too much attention to fourteen-year-old me, but I’d give Dad some credit. He’d always protected me against them. That was when he hadn’t been drinking and beating me.
An acute pain tensed in my gut as I remembered how Britta and I had spent days in the room under the stairs so my parents wouldn’t find us when they’d gotten drunk. A shiver trailed down my arms at the memory, the fear that kept me company. The endless tears. I wanted to forget that part of my life, put it down to a terrible nightmare. I’d dealt with that shit, even after seeing them once do weird shit like try to summon something demonic by drawing a circle with rum on the living room floorboards. I promised myself to never waste my thoughts on them again.
After my parents had been imprisoned for attempted murder, childcare protection had stepped in and taken Britta and me away, keeping us together from one foster home to another. I’d always felt lonely, but we’d stuck together, and three years ago when I turned eighteen, I’d become her legal guardian. With the few hundred dollars the from the foster care system, I got my bartender’s license and gained a full time job with help from my last foster parent. I worked my butt off at the pub to rent a small apartment. No other family had stepped forward to claim Britta, so the court had ordered her under my protection. I’d wanted only the best for her. To offer her the life I’d never had.
“I’ve collected eighty-seven jokes so far,” she said. “Thirteen more, and I’ll reach a hundred.”
“Are you still thinking of printing them?”
She nodded. “Everyone will be telling jokes this Christmas.”
“Can’t wait to get my copy.” I smiled, unable to remember the last time I’d seen her so happy. She’d never complained once on the long flight over here. Leaving California was the best decision even if we were taking a risk moving to a small town in Austria. It wasn’t every day I found out I had a long-lost uncle, Leon, who’d just left me his whiskey distillery. He was apparently Dad’s step brother. My grandma had fallen pregnant when she was young to a man from Austria who visited the States. The relationship didn’t last. But the lawyer said Leon had moved to live with his biological father in Austria when he turned nineteen, cutting all dies with our family.
This was the change I’d needed, where I no longer worried about our apartment getting broken into, steal my belongings, and hurt Britta and I. Most importantly, where I didn’t get paid shitty hourly rates at the local pub with drunks who tried to either grope me or start a fight.
Now, we’d inherited a freaking distillery!
I buzzed all over with excitement each time I thought about it, my stomach swirling in anticipation. I expected someone to tell me our trip was a massive joke. According to the lawyer, the distillery was making a decent profit.Please, God, let this be our chance to start fresh and make enough money so I can get Britta a speech therapist and tutor to teach her German. Her condition was related to all the messed-up crap we’d gone through growing up coupled with her timidness around others, but this was our time to leave the past behind.
The next song on the playlist hit, and we both broke out into an upbeat Christmas song as the white landscape around us twinkled beneath the sun.
Around the next bend, a sudden blur shot out in front of the car. Fear gripped my chest, and I slammed my foot onto the brakes.
Everything happened so fast. One minute we were singing, now Britta was screaming as the car spun across the road. The biggest deer I’d ever seen darted inches out of the way of being struck by the car.
I spun the steering wheel to control us, but my head whirled with my sister’s cries. Terror raked through me. I pictured us slamming into a tree. Freezing to death out here with no phone reception because I’d stupidly forgotten to buy an international roaming plan for my cell? We’d end up stranded. Eaten by wild animals. Frozen to death.
Another deer appeared out of nowhere, flying toward us with such speed, I screamed. It landed on the hood of our car for a split second, then leaped off.
Our spin slowed. We glided sideways, both Britta and I lurched sideways, held in place by the seatbelts.
A loud thud sounded behind us.
My stomach sunk to my feet. We whipped forward and back in our seats from the impact. I struck out an arm across her stomach and twisted my head round to see that the backside of the hatchback had slammed into a pine. The world stopped spinning, and I stared outside to find we hadn’t fallen over the edge of the steep cliff running alongside the road.
Fuck, that was so damn close.
“Britta, are you hurt?” I cried out, scanning her face, her arms and body, not seeing any bruises or cuts.
Tears crammed her wide eyes, cascading down her blanched cheeks. She cried into her stuffed toy.
“We’re all right, sweetie.” I leaned toward her and drew her closer and kissed her head. “We’re safe now.”
Outside were three of the biggest mother freaking deer I’d ever seen, each with enormous, multi-pointed antlers. They had to be close to fifty inches high. They stood several feet away. These weren’t the small kind I’d seen back home. And I was sure these animals ate Santa’s reindeer. Hell, they had to be at least eight feet in height; they towered over me. Covered in a thick white pelt, the animals had dark shading around their ears, eyes, and nose. If I was anywhere but staring at them in the wild, I’d be in awe at their beauty. They were gorgeous. On the plus side, none of them seemed to be bleeding, so I hoped they were okay, or were they pissed that I’d almost hit them? One of them snorted, wisps of hot air floating from its flaring nostrils, while another dug at the dirt with its front hoof.
My heart banged so hard in my chest while Britta trembled in my arm. Would they ram into the car, their antlers breaking the glass and piercing us? God, that would be my luck. Get stabbed to death before I even reached my new home. Not loving your sense of humor, Universe.
Their eyes remained locked on us, and I had no clue what they were doing. The last animal documentary I’d watched had been on the great white shark. Maybe these deer smelled our fear. I hadn’t cut myself, so it couldn’t be blood. Except weren’t they herbivores?
“Sweetie, hold on.” I pushed my sis back into her seat.
“No,” she cried as she clung on to my arm.
Except when the bigger one with a gray streak across the center of his head stepped forward, I flinched in my seat. He huffed a loud exhale, and hot air streamed from his mouth. In a rush, I shoved the car into drive.
We lurched on the spot, back and forth. The churning sound of the wheels spinning on the spot thrummed through the car.
“Crap!” Please don’t get stuck. Not here.
Britta’s cries grew louder, her grip constricting on my arm.
The deer stared at us, the bigger one tilting its head to the side, and I couldn’t help but think it was such a human gesture. Or did it see us as helpless and was curious how to best attack?
Did these beasts even get vicious with people? Maybe out here in the freezing wilderness we were the enemy?
I slammed my foot onto the pedal, but we weren’t budging. My pulse raced because I was just digging us deeper. I threw the gear into reverse. A horrible metallic sound scraped against my ears as I reversed alongside the tree. We bounced about as the car bunny-hopped while I tapped the gas pedal until we were free of the pine. Shoving the gear back into drive, I spun the wheel away from the trunk and drove us back onto the road. With my gaze locked on the animals, I jammed my foot onto the pedal, and we gunned it past the deer. I pictured them attacking us and trembled.
When I glanced back in the rearview mirror, the trio trotted onto the road, staring our way. Perhaps they didn’t encounter many people in this part of the world. Since we’d entered the mountains, we hadn’t crossed paths with another car. And while I’d put it down to the town being isolated, now I worried I’d made a wrong move and we’d driven god-knew-where.
I grabbed my phone. Still no reception. Yep, we were in the middle of nowhere, and I prayed we’d find a town out here. Hell, what had I been thinking, bringing us out here with no contingency plan?
Reaching over, I held Britta’s hand. “See? Told ya we’d be fine.”
“I think those were real reindeer,” she whispered, twisting in her seat to face me as she wiped her tears with her stuffed toy. Her eyes widened as if she’d seen something, and a coldness struck me.
“What’s wrong?” I turned my head to look around the straight road ahead and in the mirrors. We weren’t being followed.
“I think they were Santa’s reindeer.”
Releasing a deep breath, I needed to get a grip. One encounter with the local fauna and I freaked out. We’d lived across the road from a meth lab and pimps. Now if any place was dangerous, that was it and we’d survived. So our new life would just take getting used to.
“I know you don’t believe me, and I said before I didn’t believe in Santa, but now…” Britta huffed, looking out the window, turning away from me. “They saved us from going over the cliff. Did you see that big one jumping onto our hood?”
I wasn’t sure I’d ever get that incident out of my mind, but I also didn’t want to scare my sister. Especially when the deer had stepped out in front of the car and were the reason we’d crashed in the first place. The look in their eyes wasn’t what I’d call friendly.
But instead, I said, “You might be right.”