Gus leaned onto the banister and hung his head. “I’m tired, Charlie.”
“Shush.” By Gus’s plaid slippers, Charlie peered through the posts. “It’s almost midnight.”
“And he hasn’t moved.”
Lifting his chin, Gus eyed the bookcase across the living room on the first floor below. On the top shelf, the pointy-eared elf showed white beneath chipped red and green paint, his surprised eyes honed on the hole where as far back as he could remember every December Christmas trees had twinkled.
“He hasn’t moved since mom died.”
Charlie gripped the posts, making them groan. “He did last night and the night before that.”
Squatting, Gus rested his forehead against the wood. “You’re making things up.”
“I’m making up money missing from dad’s wallet? The soot prints? This?”
Gus jerked away when Charlie poked the swollen bruise beneath his left eye. “Don’t.”
“I will when we stop the little bastard from robbing dad. Then dad’ll stop blaming us.”
Charlie returned to his surveillance as the clock on the mantel began a dull chime of twelve. “See?”
Massaging his face, Gus followed his older brother’s pointing finger to the empty spot on the shelf. “Where’d he go?”
Specks of dust dashed across the carpet and Charlie bolted to his feet.
“To the kitchen, come on.” Charlie dashed down the stairs, careful to find all the silent spots on the carpeted treads.
“Dad’s going to kill you,” whispered Gus.
Charlie snorted and disappeared around the corner.
Gus waited at the top of the stairs, but Charlie didn’t come back. Following his brother’s footsteps, Gus rounded the corner and stopped short of ramming Charlie who stood at the kitchen’s entrance, his whole body rigid. Ducking down, Gus peered beneath the arm Charlie had braced against the doorframe and squinted into the dark.
Clutter from dinner, breakfast, and the previous days’ meals remained at the dining table. The coat dad had left behind draped his chair, the one set off-kilter from the rest. Nothing moved in the flickering streetlight coming through the window above the sink or through the front door where their coats hung on hooks like mom had always intended. Drips from the faucet plunked onto half-washed dishes.
“I don’t see—”
Charlie smothered Gus’s mouth when the pocket of their dad’s coat rustled. A heartbeat later, the elf emerged with a roll of bills no bigger than one of dad’s cigarettes beneath his armpit. The elf leapt to the cracked linoleum, landing like a cat, his pointed ears twitching.
Gus froze down into his belly and felt Charlie equally stiff.
The elf, however, didn’t seem to notice. He snickered and darted for the doggie door. With Speck long buried in the backyard, the hinges groaned and the plastic slapped as the flap closed.
“Let’s go,” said Charlie.
“He’s getting away.”
Gus couldn’t fight his brother’s tug. Racing across the kitchen, they worked into coats and snow boots as they might in the morning before barely catching the bus for school. With keys in his hand, Charlie unlocked the two bolts and unlatched the chain.
Gus drew his coat’s zipper to his chin. “Are you sure?”
When he pulled his knitted cap low, Gus caught a whiff of his mother’s perfume on the yarn. Drawing a deep breath, he kept the flowers in his lungs as they slipped out into the cold.
Snow crunched beneath their steps but when Charlie flicked on his flashlight, the elf’s tiny footprints were clear and crisp on the stoop. Another point from Charlie and they started on the little man’s trail.
The elf had gone straight over the yard, through the chain link fence, and turned left at the sidewalk. In front of their neighbor’s house, a shadowy shape skittered. Although the elf kept clear of Charlie’s beam, the tiny imprints he left behind in the snow were unmistakable.
Gus grabbed his brother’s shoulder and yanked his ear close. “He’s heading for the park.”
“I can see that.” Shrugging Gus off his arm, Charlie picked up his pace.
The elf seemed to fly and they were jogging by the time the street ended, their breaths puffs of white mist. They crossed Madison and took the right hand fork to Oak. Houses around them started adding third stories laced with icicle lights, bushes with blinking bulbs, glowing deer, windows showing warm interiors with well-watered pine trees heavy with decorations and waiting for presents.
A chill worked through Gus’s pajama bottoms. He hunched deeper into his cap and, focusing on Charlie’s flashlight and the tiny dents in the snow, he avoided any more envious glances to either side.
The elf led, as he suspected, to the lump of the private kid’s elementary school sticking up against the deep blue sky, flecks of stars, and slivered moon. Tiny prints dotted Sledding Hill, scampering among the ruts leading to the playground. The field beyond lay under untouched snow and, against the backdrop, Gus spied the little man cutting into the woods.
“We’re not supposed to go in there.”
“We’re not supposed to be outside at night,” Charlie traded the flashlight between his bare hands, “or be getting hit either.”
Gus touched his face. The winds had numbed the results of dad’s last drunken swipe. He knew Charlie’s bruises hid beneath his coat at the chest and ribs, earned from stepping in the way and taking the brunt of the grief-stricken blows. He hoped the cold might be helping his brother not feel them, maybe working from the inside out to ease the weeks of fists, of loss, of uncertainty.
Tonight Charlie walked with a sense of purpose, his confidence seeping into Gus like the snow through his pajama bottoms.
Crossing the untouched field, they trekked into the shadows thrown by spindly branches reaching out like bony arms. The flashlight showed the bounding steps of the elf who’d made a far easier route up the slope, around downed trees, and by rocky juts covered beneath the knee-high white.
Charlie alternated pointing the light at where they walked and keeping track of their prey as they made their way deeper into the woods.
When they neared the top of the hill, Gus dared to look behind them. The world had blended into grays and blues, the school vanished, snowy field gone, no sign of Christmas lights, neighborhood streets, or their house that had once been a home. A tremor ran from his frozen toes through his curls and, when Gus turned back around, he fumbled for a grasp of Charlie’s puffy coat.
He gasped and clutched his brother’s arm instead.
On a granite mound before them stood the elf, one hand on his hip, fingers around the roll of cash he’d planted like a staff. “It’s about time you two lads found some courage.”
“Excuse me?” asked Charlie.
“You’ve seen me what? Three times, now?” The elf waggled at Charlie with a mitten-warmed hand. “Took you that long bein’ unfairly punished to finally decide you might follow?”
Gus frowned. “What are you talking about?”
The elf rolled his eyes, their whites as clean as the surrounding snow. Slouching against the roll, he scratched at his forehead, reminding Gus of his teacher when he kept messing up the same math problem. Unlike Mr. Lyman, the elf’s mumbling sounding like the oldest priest at church back when they still went. He spoke though in those strange words as if someone listened in the dark.
Gus glanced around, searching for the elf’s friends. Nothing but bare branches arched overhead. He inched closer to Charlie anyway, his bump knocking words out of his brother’s mouth.
“Why are you stealing our dad’s money?”
The elf’s half grin gleamed in the moonlight. “What else could I take that would have you chasin’ me? Not like you two have school work, presents, even old toys you still care about.”
Charlie stomped his foot, making a squishy thump in the snow. “Don’t you know how much trouble we’ve gotten into because of you?” Gus flinched when Charlie snagged his chin and tipped his puffy face at the elf. “Look at this.”
“Aye,” said the elf, “I know.”
“I see from my spot, just like you’re seeing me now. I’ve seen what’s been goin’ on for weeks. Seen your ma gettin’ sick. Your da too. Seen what he’s doin’, how he leaves, how he hits, how he cries. How you two are sufferin’. I see it all. We all do.”
Gus hunched and peered at the shadows. “We?”
“You think I’m the only one of my kind?” The elf chuckled, a tinny musical sound. “No, no, we’ve been watchin’, waitin’. And now I have enough.”
“Enough?” asked Charlie. “Enough for what?”
“For the toll o’ course.” The elf patted the staff of cash. “Two of you cost twice as much.”
“I thought you said the money was just so we’d follow you?”
“Two birds, one stone.” The elf kicked a lump of snow, the mound rolling along the hill and growing fat before bursting against a tree trunk.
“Toll to where?” Gus shuffled back when the elf’s mouth spread into a smile as bright as his eyes.
He thumbed over his shoulder, at the opposite side of the hill. “Come and find out.”
“I guess I’ve come this far.” Gus pulled down his knit cap and plowed another step through the snow. Charlie’s hand slammed into his chest, stopping him in his tracks.
“Where do you think you’re going?”
“What does it matter?” Gus shoved away his brother’s arm. “What could be worse than where we are now?”
“I can think of a few places.”
The elf clucked his tongue. “You are the sad one, Charlie, the angry one.” Straightening beside his cash-staff, the elf laid a hand upon his heart. “I promise you, lads, where I lead is a better place than where you are now. I also promise, if you don’t like it, if you wish to return, I will pay your way myself.”
Gus nudged Charlie’s side. “What have we got to lose?”
“What about dad?”
“Who knows when he’s going to show up again?”
Charlie’s gaze dropped to his snow-covered boots. His teeth glistened when he bit his lip and Gus heard hard swallows scraping down his throat, the ones that came at night when Gus guessed Charlie didn’t think he could hear. Placing his hand on his brother’s shoulder, Gus met the elf’s patient gaze.
“You swear if we don’t like it we can come back?”
“On anythin’ you like.”
Gus held the tiny man’s eyes. Options drifted through his mind like weighty flakes, the precious items left in his life mounding into a squat pile. One landed on top and Gus needed two tries before he could speak again.
“Promise,” he gulped and wished his voice didn’t sound so shaky. “Promise on our mother’s memory you’ll bring us back when we ask.”
With his hand over his heart, the elf bowed without breaking the stare. He spoke in the same churchy language, the words echoing against the trees where each twig, branch, and bit of bark seemed to take note. Something in the tone struck Gus in his bones and he sensed the promise being made, as snug as his mom used to tie the laces of his sneakers.
Finding his breath again, Gus tugged at Charlie until his brother lifted his head.
“I heard.” Charlie scrubbed his nose and peered back up at the elf. “We’ll come.”
The elf’s serious face melted like ice in sunlight. His smile returned and he spun the roll of cash over his arm before hoisting it into the air.
A gust kicked up, swirling loose snowflakes and wrapping the cash-roll in a glittering cloud. When the winds faded, the elf brushed his empty hands and his grin stretched.
“Your toll’s been paid, lads, time to follow me.”