Two-sentence holiday fiction: Amazing short-short stories from amazing writers

Lauren Groff, Elliott Holt, Maggie Shipstead, Peter Orner and three dozen great writers offer new holiday originals

Published December 25, 2013 11:41PM (EST)

Clockwise from top left: Lauren Groff, Owen King, Elliott Holt, Porochista Khakpour    (Lucy Schaeffer/AP/Michael C. York/Rebecca Zeller/George Stilabower)
Clockwise from top left: Lauren Groff, Owen King, Elliott Holt, Porochista Khakpour (Lucy Schaeffer/AP/Michael C. York/Rebecca Zeller/George Stilabower)

Here’s the tree, spine-needled and glitter-globed in the corner of the room with a velvet skirt. The surprise is the red-suited stranger, curled beneath the boughs like a child, and just over his heart, a wound: the hoofprint is too perfectly placed not to be deliberate, threads of golden hair left behind like tinsel.

Ramona Ausubel is the author of the novel "No One Is Here Except All Of Us" and the story collection "A Guide To Being Born"

Dear (My dearest) Mr. Franklin (Brian),

You may recall (you always call me Pam) I live near one of those streets lined in twee shops, like the artisan butcher, or the vintage eyeglass store (you never see me) with the barber's pole out front, on which I was browsing (thinking of you) when I happened to notice (obsessively researched their whereabouts on the Internet) these in the window and remembered (never forgot) you mentioned you liked ("would go to the ends of the earth for") them (at last year's industry cocktail when you wore those slacks you never iron properly and said, "Pam, since the divorce I hate, hate, hate the holidays").

Best regards (Love), the copyrighter on the Colgate account (yours, devoted), Miss Stein (Nicole)

Marie-Helene Bertino is the author of the story collection "Safe As Houses" and the forthcoming novel "2 a.m. at the Cat's Pajamas"

Fa-la-la-la-la, she thought. And she thought it loudly, so that it drowned out the ranting of her Uncle Phil, who "wasn't racist because he hated everyone."

Kelly Braffet's latest novel is "Save Yourself"

The year the head elf lost the naughty list was a good one for little Adrienne, aged 5, puller of hair, biter of friends, and tantrum throwing champion. Everyone was deemed nice, and so it was a true Christmas miracle to receive the pony she was told Santa would deny her.

Cecil Castellucci's new novel, "Tin Star," will be published in February

It's possible, he cried finally, closing the book and setting it aside, Because twelve months a year, slave-driven little men work 60-hour weeks nailing together a host of shit in his factory, plus he orders some stuff online—these warehouses are huge, you couldn't conceive—and the way it all fits in his sleigh is MAGIC, and how he gets to all those houses in one night is MAGIC, and all you have to do is rip open the goddamn things, because he doesn't even ask for gratitude!

Liquid amber sloshed from his raised glass onto her fingers, gripping the sheets; she didn't find its taste as bad as you might think.

Katie Chase's fiction has appeared in the Missouri Review, Narrative and Best American Short Stories

It's Christmas Eve and Saint Nicholas is the patron saint of thieves. So I've got my Louisville Slugger and the rape whistle from the Neighborhood Watch Safety Fair and this year I'll keep the TV on to help me stay up because you never know what he's going to do.

Bridget Clerkin's fiction has appeared in McSweeney's

"The Skirt"

It had been in her family for years, made by the grandmother of a grandmother or some such, no one was sure anymore, sometimes stories of the maker were embellished just like the skirt itself, trimmed with long-dull sequined Santas, stars, and snowmen. It had been a loved and cozy welcome under the tree for decades of gifts, and then somebody had the bright idea to give the kids a kitten for Christmas.

Elizabeth Crane's latest novel is "We Only Know So Much"

"Xmas Morning in Connecticut: Just After the War"

I awoke to the cold of the maid’s quarters having displaced my brother’s hired help, all too eager to tear open presents and get the hell out. As my nephew Dashy descended the grand staircase in his Batman onesie, toting a baby machine gun under one arm and a toy cash register in the other, I knew that this Christmas, we would all receive exactly what we deserved.

Amber Dermont is the author of the novel "The Starboard Sea" and the story collection "Damage Control"

Every year around December you come back to me in dreams, except you’re a man now, tall like your father, dark like your mother, with a fly Miami accent and a low fade, an amateur boxer with a dope left hook, the king of blacktop ballers, tattooed and lean-muscled and sweaty, a barrio legend with a boy of your own, and sometimes you can’t believe just how much your boy looks like and moves like the boy you were, and how you wish I was still around so you could say, Look at my boy, Nena, just like Papi, and brag about your identical jump shots. And every December I wonder if you’ve told him about our nights, reckless and faded and full of music, how you wrote all those lyrics about growing up poor and Afro-Rican and fatherless, how we took the streets, terrorized the neighborhood, and maybe there are tears in your eyes, and maybe there aren’t, when you tell him how you loved me, how I loved you, how that was not enough, how when the holidays come around and the whole hood is blasting those aguinaldos and Mi Burrito Sabanero, you remember those two kids we were, how we lied to each other, promised to be together forever because we didn’t know any better, because we were only fourteen, because we needed to believe that there was someone.

Jaquira Díaz's fiction has been published in Ploughshares and the Kenyon Review

It took two hours into the holiday office party before she slipped off her heels—heels she had just purchased during her lunch break at the DSW around the corner (her boss Diana passive-aggressively scolding her during their Morning Touch Base for not displaying proper holiday enthusiasm)—and though she couldn’t really budget for them, and though they were a seven and a half when she really wore an eight, she bought them anyway, those red satin kitten heels decorated with a tiny gold acrylic bow on the toes, to show that she was a team player, to demonstrate her excitement for all things holiday-related, to express that no Diana, she really did care about this job.

Except somewhere along the way, after the second (or was it third?) cup of rum-laced eggnog that Diana insisted that they drink (It’s my mother’s recipe. You may say you don’t like eggnog but trust me, this one’s different), somewhere after the gorging on the sweaty cubes of cheese that had sat out on the kitchen countertop all afternoon, somewhere after Greg from two cubicles down brushed up against her backside—his hands briefly traversing down the slope of her back like he was spreading butter across warm toast, causing her to spill the rest of Diana’s mother’s cocktail across the cheap satin of the shoes—did she realize that she was done with it all: the endless Mariah Carey Christmas carols blasting from Diana’s monitor, the White Elephant party that continued to drag on for far too long, the ironic reindeer sweater Greg wore every single day of December and with that, she chucked the soiled shoes under Diana’s desk and padded out into the hallway—away from the party—her ratty, old sneakers leading the way.

Megan Fishmann's fiction has been published in FiveChapters

Both Destinie Gomez and Elba Acevedo had brought in tres leches cakes, and Damarian could tell that Destinie was getting dumb tight because even Destinie's boyfriend, Kareem, was saying how much better Elba's was. Damarian couldn't care less about tres leches, but the possibility of a girl fight--he prayed for the signal: one of the girls taking off her earrings and handing them to a friend--made him think that maybe Urban Academy's annual holiday feast wasn't going to suck after all.

Xeni Fragakis won The Moth GrandSLAM Storytelling Contest

In the end it was her fault, not her assistant's: she'd told him the wrong filename and misread his hesitation, snapped, Of course it's the right picture (she was aware the baby's eyes were closed); snapped, Of course send it to the entire Christmas spreadsheet, all two thousand, God, what's so hard about that? Now, all over the country, people were opening their mail and saying, Holy! and Take a look at this!, and Best brag-letter of all times, and Whoa, kiddo, this one doesn't go on the mantle, and Heck of a way, sweetiepie--this from her ninety-eight-year-old grandmother--to bring joy to the world.

Lauren Groff's latest novel is "Arcadia"

Before the tree fell, and your mother's vintage ornaments shattered, and you told your nieces to keep the dog away from the broken glass, I said, "It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas." We righted the tree and untangled the lights, we swept up the ornamental shards before they could penetrate any tender feet or paws, but we couldn't quite recapture the shiny feeling that our new marriage would always proceed with comfort and joy.

Elliott Holt is the author of the novel "You Are One Of Them"

She came late to the annual holiday party at the offices of Bingham, Lourdes, and Hind--Hind was her husband, Lourdes her lover--bearing an elaborate gingerbread house, a meticulous replica of her own home: here is our front door, ajar; here are the knives in our kitchen, the separate beds where we sleep. The house was trimmed with red licorice, Lourdes’ favorite, and it was built as an invitation to him, a signal that the time had finally come to carry out their plan: here is our front door, ajar; here are the knives in our kitchen, the separate beds where we sleep.

Leslie Jamison is the author of the novel "The Gin Season" and the forthcoming essay collection "The Empathy Exams"

Jim had the most gorgeous ears but made minimum wage, so he sold his ears for an iPad to give to Della, his true beloved. Except Della also worked for minimum wage and had sold her scrolling index fingers to buy Jim, her sweetest love, a pair of Beats by Dr. Dre.

Randa Jarrar is the author of the novel "A Map of Home"

Like all parties, it held its own standards of usual and unusual and it was hard to judge: the big on the young, the small atop the old, the gorgeous entangled with the grotesque, jeans and jewels, fire with ice, liquid plus smoke, the dousing of laughter, the dappling of gossip; children in velvet frocks and leather shoes propped on pillows, with punch glasses poised on their laps; attractive older women in stilettos, brandishing vegetable sticks at each other, chortling forcefully; a group of bespectacled foreigners arguing in another tongue, or maybe just conversing; young men swaying around a grand piano which an elderly man with closed eyes played; one old woman napping on the lap of three whispering young men, all lazing on a divan; cats and dogs perched bored on bar stools; groups of old blonde servers carrying trays full of pastry shells and empty champagne flutes; a fat woman bellowing what was perhaps opera; impeccable men with hands in chaos, fishy fingers wreaking havoc, bubbly, plastered; gorgeous girls mishandling antiques-artifacts-heirlooms-invaluables, at their mercy: wayward silverware, crystal carnage, and ashtray revolutions with cigarette cremains exploding on upholstery, trickles of wine veining the quaking peaks and plateaus of shocked crotches, nut mix hailing on rug hides and pet headtops, confetti trails leading to somebody’s sick in the tub, frosting on railings, saltwater pearls disengaged in an alabaster sink, privilege undone, broken class, everywhere, celebrants alike, all ahem-ing and excusing and woah-ing and pardoning and fuck-ing, before falling all over them and themselves.

It was her last holiday season.

Porochista Khakpour is the author of the novel "Sons and Other Flammable Objects" and the forthcoming "The Last Illusion"

"Regional Theater"

The red Volvo at the bottom of the ditch had a Christmas tree strapped between the ski racks and a pillar of smoke rising from the crushed front end. A man was wobbling around in the snow by the car, cradling his elbow, wearing a Fu Manchu of blood that started at his nostrils and streaked down past his jawline, but as much as we would have liked to help him, even though it was a regional theater, if you arrived late they wouldn’t let you in to sit down until the first scenery change.

Owen King's latest novel is "Double Feature"

You came to my door at midnight and said you didn’t believe in God or Jesus, but Santa Claus: a man as eccentric and moneyed as Batman, sliding down chimneys with gifts, all in the name of Christmas cheer. I took you to bed then, thinking of Santa’s big buckled belt; the pretenders at the mall wear synthetic ones, don’t they?

Edan Lepucki is the author of the forthcoming novel "California"

It was the year you left, the year the dog died, the year of bad haircuts, bad denim decisions, bad backs, the year of too many pears, notes left on notes, that goddamn wood stove, the year I threw your laptop in the snow, the year we got a new dog, the year you came back. At midnight among friends we began again while the dog barked at an unfull moon that neither waxed nor waned.

Kelly Luce is the author of the story collection "Three Scenarios In Which Hana Sasaki Grows A Tail"

"An Unsent Dispatch from Terra Australis"

Dearest Ann: On Christmas Eve, I miss you more than I thought possible. It is colder than God promised, here at the bottom of the world.

Carmen Maria Machado's fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, AGNI and The American Reader

King Herod pushed the old man's head into the chart of the heavens, and said, "Well undo it all then, before it's too late." The old man tried (and he failed, and he failed, and he failed) to unravel the stars.

Rebecca Makkai is the author of the novels "The Borrower" and the forthcoming "The Hundred-Year House"

There were two of us brown girls. She was Mexican, I was Indian, and we took turns playing Mary in all the Christmas pageants throughout elementary school.

Nina McConigley is the author of the story collection "Cowboys and East Indians"

"Mary’s Christmas Redux"

Because the party is reaching a chaotic din, because this isn’t even her house—not yet, not really, because this is Todd’s house in the Hollywood Hills, because Todd went ahead and hired the white rapper who calls himself Wize Man and who is now spitting out Christmas carols by the bar, because she is either nursing an acute anxiety or a mild stomach bug, or both, and because Todd—they haven’t even been together long enough for her to be numb to this paltry name—is as curved as candy cane over some bespeckled blonde, wholly unaware of her, let alone his son who arrived from the mother’s house only hours before this Christmas/New Year’s charade of a party began (it actually being New Years, but since the kid spent Christmas with his mother the post-divorce-redux is in order, because what kid doesn’t like a cocktail party, because what seven year old isn’t all for cocktails if it also scores him an iPad and an iPhone, and some other guilt motivated purchase the next day), because if she hears one more person refer to Todd as Hot Toddy, because she hears someone counting down, 10, already counting down, and she can’t get to the front door fast enough, 9, Mary skirts the browning tree, knocking a half filled flute of champagne from the Noguchi side table, 8, making a bee-line for the balcony, desperate for a breath of smoggy air, 7, and a cigarette, when the kid slides out behind her, 6, the kid that isn’t hers in the house where she isn’t sure she belongs, his eyes big, and brown, and wet, 5, looking at her and then down onto the lights, 4, the blanket of lights unfurled below them, 3, white and red and green, and he says to her, 2, this kid, with a smile as sincere as a first fallen snow, his hand right alongside hers on the railing, 1, he says, “Isn’t it all so pretty from here?” And Mary can’t help but agree.

Kate Milliken is the author of the story collection "If I'd Known You Were Coming"

Later she would remember all the details, sharp as miniatures caught in a shaken snow globe: the old plastic tree, balding beneath strings of tinsel but defiantly ablaze with light; the Nat King Cole wafting from the speakers and threading into her mother’s hum; the glint of firelight on her brother’s braces as he threw back his head, laughing, for once; the hot honey-water her father kept sipping, touching his fingers to his neck, as if somehow he could feel the tumor blossoming there, saying, “It’s nothing, nothing—just this sore throat I can’t seem to kick.”

It was the last Christmas they’d have like that, but she didn't know that yet.

Celeste Ng is the author of the forthcoming novel "Everything I Never Told You"

In the last years of his life he got back in touch with his sister. Never in person, only on the phone, and he only wanted to listen then, not talk, listen.

Peter Orner's latest book is the story collection "Last Car Over The Sagamore Bridge"

"Snow fell, and he began to remember things as if they were happening now: his father, at his place near the sink, drying the dishes; his mother, stretching the phone chord to the bathroom to talk to her sister across the country; his grandmother, fiddling with the radio, calling up holiday music and asking his sister to sing along. It wasn’t quite joy, he thought, that flooded him—that feeling belonged to other people (his son, upstairs, asleep; friends he hadn’t seen in a long, long time)—but it was close."

Ethan Rutherford is the author of the story collection "The Peripatetic Coffin"

The child--eleven years old and the only child in her extended family--still seemed to believe in Santa, and this had caused the adults to divide into two acrimonious factions: wholesome Christmas cops who guarded the child's faith with a zealous sense of sacred duty and a band of grumps who were irritated both by the pressure to participate in the charade and by the child herself for failing to see through it. So it came to pass that, early on Christmas morning, the child, who did not really believe but knew adults found innocence charming, watched from an upstairs window as her father, who had spread enough round black droppings from God knows where across the snowy lawn to suggest a visit from eight reindeer, and her uncle, whose lawn it was and who was finicky about things, came to blows beside the mailbox.

Maggie Shipstead is the author of the novels "Seating Arrangements" and the forthcoming "Astonish Me"

He was never sentimental about these things, being a Jew. Still, Wilshire Boulevard, with its plastic Santas and strung up sleighs, its gaudy "snowflakes" shedding tinsel in eighty degree heat: these things made him weep.

Matthew Specktor's latest novel is "American Dream Machine"

"After the Hold-up"

I found a seat in a pizzeria in a dim and fading town, a chair by the window where I could watch the ferry come in, rain slipping down the outside of the glass and on the radio a woman singing O Holy Night, to this day the only Christmas carol I can stand—“Fall, on your knees…”—and I’d kept my fedora on in case of overhead cameras, but even with the brim pulled low I could see that the storm was worsening, the ocean dark and rough, and nothing to do but call my sister again, because we’d sat here together and waited out so many rainstorms in the years before she left. “Don’t open presents without me,” I told her, “wait for me, I found some money and I’ll be there by morning.”

Emily St. John Mandel's fourth novel, "Station Eleven," is forthcoming from Knopf in 2014

"Christmas, West Texas"

In the diner out on the arid void of west Texas, the waitress sloshed a little something into my coffee, then her own, pointed to the window and said, “This day last year I seen a UFO, right there over that far mesa.” The place was empty save for another man, older than myself and slightly more alone (at least I had the attention of the waitress), and I was sure for a quick quarter-moment that I caught sight of a brilliant alien flash in the distance—though it could have been something else, something small and close, an impossibly lost fleck of snow glinting off the diner’s neon just before winking into nothing.

Ian Stansel is the author of the story collection "Everybody's Irish"


Not an hour before Midnight Mass my grandparents would suck down three Kool cigarettes each, enough nicotine to get them through the rites ahead, while we waited in their Long Island ranch for them to leave so we could sleep. In Budapest, December 1943, when they were still Jews as we were again now, I do not know what brand cigarettes they smoked.

Daniel Torday is the author of "The Sensualist"

In Marrakesh, this December, at the Hotel La Mamounia -- a phalanx of artificial Christmas trees -- bright red, almost blood-colored, a replica of the Moroccan flag.

Outside, at the Jemaa el-Fnaa, there was the stench of horse urine and fried fish -- and the bulb-lit darkness echoed with ragged, improvised, hand-drum orchestras, and all she could think about was sadness, and money.

Pauls Toutonghi's latest novel is "Evel Knievel Days"

Since it's a Russian tradition to have a tree on New Year's Eve, not Christmas Eve, I usually pick a discarded one off the street on December 26th. It often has strangers' relics, like a child's face framed in dry macaroni.

Lara Vapnyar's latest novel, "The Scent of Pine," will be published January 7

By David Daley

David Daley, former editor-in-chief of Salon, is the author of the national bestseller “Ratf**ked: Why Your Vote Doesn’t Count” and “Unrigged: How Americans Are Battling Back to Save Democracy.”

MORE FROM David Daley

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