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The Neighborly Thing

by ANNA FISCHER - December 18, 2020

Seb trudged through the ice and the snow, nose nipped raw by the blistering winds which tore playfully at his threadbare coat. The red scarf his uncle had knitted last December itched his neck. Glancing up at the threatening sky, he was grateful that the snow was not falling now. Seb wanted to get home as soon as possible. Uncle Markus was under the (very impertinent) impression that Seb needed to “get out more” and “learn to socialize with real people, not just the wood carvings on the workshop bench.” He wasn’t exactly sure how he’d accomplish that by running errands.

“Sebastian!” a cheery voice called to him. Seb turned to see a man in a white shopkeeper’s apron peeking out from behind his shop’s open door. A halo of wispy white hair donned his rosy complexion.

“Jacques,” Seb’s smile felt like a grimace. “Good day to you.”

“Merry Christmas! And good morning is more fitting. What are you doing out here so early? How is that uncle of yours?”

Seb fidgeted in the cold. “ Markus fares as well as always. I’ve come for some flour. Is Honora’s open?”

Jacques laughed like a bell tolling across a monastery. “Afraid not. How about you come inside and warm yourself and I’ll lend you some flour?”

Seb was in no state to disagree out of politeness and hurried inside past the man and into his shop. Jacques kept a quaint bookstore filled with dusty old maps and dictionaries, journals of the town's seemingly ancient history, accounts of kings long forgotten…and a small wooden shelf topped with a row of fantastic stories.

Rushing to the fire, Seb passed all these without a second glance. Frostbitten fingers were licked by the hot air of the flames, and slowly, he began to feel whole again.

“Thank you, Jacques.” Seb swallowed his pride. “Is there anything I can do to repay the favor?"

Jacques laughed once more, joy rolling off of him like a snowball down a hill. “You are a strange thing, aren’t you, Sebastian.” The man studied him for a moment. “Yes, there is something you could do. Do you know the Clemens?”

Seb shook his head.

“Their house is at the end of the lane– white brick and a crimson front door.” He set the sack down and reached for a book on the shelf. “Would you take this to them? I keep forgetting to do it myself. I believe Nikki is your age now. This book is a Midwinter gift for him.”

Jacques winked and handed the book to him.

It was green leather bound with beautiful gold cursive script. Seb nodded and held the book tight in his gloved hands. “I will return for the flour.”

Jacques waved a goodbye and Seb was thrust back out into the blistering cold.

The Clemens’ house wasn’t hard to find. It was just as Jacques had said, faded white against the freshly fallen snow and a bright red door. Seb took in a deep breath, stepping forward to knock—


Seb jumped back immediately. Almost dropping the book and the sack of flour, his eyes caught sight of a silver flash. His brow furrowed and he moved to see past the white fence surrounding the house.

A silver knife reflecting the morning sunlight was held in the too-soft grip of a bronze haired boy. “HA! Take that!” The boy lunged forward as if to stab some invisible figure in front of him. “And THAT!”

Seb bit his tongue, huffing out a silent laugh. “Uh…” he swallowed and moved towards the boy. “Excuse me–”

In that instant, the blade he had wanted to laugh at was pressed cold against his throat.

Seb let out a mangled cry and his attacker drew back, keeping the blade pointed towards him in the space between them.

“Who are you?!” the attacker demanded.

Seb held his hands out in defense, the book still tightly held in his right. “What is wrong with you? Just came to deliver this book. A gift, apparently.”

The boy’s wrist slacked. “Jacques?”

Seb coughed, bile rising. “Yeah. Now how about letting me go?”

Nikolaus looked at him and winced. “I’m sorry.” He slid the knife into the thick leather of his belt. “I, um, got caught up. In imagining.”

Seb scoffed and held the book out to him. “Next time wait ‘til I have my own sword. Or… kitchen knife. It's the neighborly thing.”

The boy studied him. “Are we neighbors? I haven’t seen you at school.”

“I don’t go. I live just outside the village.”

He hummed softly in response and took the book from Seb, reading the cover. His face seemed to light up as he read what the loopy cold letters spelled out.“Have you read this one yet?”

Seb hesitated. “No.”

“Maybe I could lend it to you sometime… to make up for the….”

“Brutal attack?” Seb offered.

The boy flushed. “Oh come on. I didn’t even draw blood.”

Seb shrugged, moving his feet in the snow. He was starting to shiver again. “Thanks, but no thanks. Promise not to swing that thing around at innocent people and we’ll call it even.”

To his surprise, the boy laughed. “Alright,” his pale cheeks were tinted pink, “I promise. You’ve got to read this one though— it's got dragons in it.”

“Mm…. Thrilling.” Seb adjusted the sack of flour in his arms.

The boy gaped at him. “It is thrilling. Dragons, pirates, beautiful elves, sword fights—”

“Oh, no,” Seb tsked, “don’t let the swashbuckling go to your head. That’s what got me here.” Young eyes met briefly and they erupted in giggles.

The boy leaned against the house, studying him. “Do you like to read? I probably should have led with that.”

“I like stories. When they are entertaining.”

He grinned at Seb’s answer. “Are you cold? We can sit by the fire and you could tell me some of your entertaining stories.”

“Entering the house of the enemy? Wouldn’t dream of it…” he trailed off uncomfortably.

“Nikalous,” the boy offered.

“Seb.” He narrowed his eyes, clenching his jaw so his chattering teeth wouldn’t be so evident.

“Are you going to try to slash my throat again?”

Nikalous winced. “You’re never going to let that go, are you?”

“Considering we’ve known each other for only a few moments and how that has been the most memorable moment between us… nope.”

Nikolaus was grinning now. “Start storytelling, neighbor.”

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