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A Stranger at the Door

Over the past four decades, Nina Kiriki Hoffman has sold adult and young adult novels and more than 350 short stories. Her works have been finalists for the World Fantasy, Mythopoeic, Sturgeon, Philip K. Dick, and Endeavour awards. Her novel The Thread that Binds the Bones won a Horror Writers Association Stoker Award, and her short story "Trophy Wives" won a Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America Nebula Award.

Nina does production work for the The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. She teaches writing classes through Wordcrafters in Eugene and Fairfield County Writers' Studio. She lives in Eugene, Oregon.

For a list of Nina's publications, check out: ofearna.us/books/hoffman.html.

Eleven-year-old Chiara was setting the table with the good silver and the red and green napkins for the big holiday meal, the one all the relatives came to, when someone knocked on the front door.
Her aunts and uncles and cousins were all in the house already. The men and most of the boys were in the living room watching sports, yelling occasionally. Chiara had never understood sports. People aiming to hurt each other was what she saw. Grunting and attacking, all because of a ball that meant nothing. You couldn't eat it and you couldn't spend it, so why care?
Her mother, her grandmother, a couple of her older cousins and two of her aunts were in the kitchen, helping get the meal together, or getting in each other's way. Grandma would curse the younger women and girls if they did anything she didn't like, but it was in Italian, which they all pretended not to understand.
The kitchen was noisy and giving out tasty smells that made Chiara's stomach growl. Turkey roasting in the oven, cider mulling on the stove, cloves and cinnamon and apple, cookies baking in the other oven, chopping and chaos and Christmas music on the radio.
Half of the girls and one of the boys were upstairs, visiting Chiara's twin sister Mirella's room. Mirella collected Barbie dolls, which fascinated the other girls in the family, and also Cousin Gennaro. Chiara suspected Mirella had other things in her room she showed to the cousins but not to Chiara. Chiara had no interest in dolls. She thought they were creepy.
Someone knocked on the door again and Chiara waited to see if the kitchen people or the living room people would respond, but nobody did. She set the last spoon on the twelfth Poinsettia place mat and went down the hall from the dining room to the foyer. The broad front door had a peephole in it that was too high for her to see out of, so she just swung the door open.
The man standing on their Welcome Christmas doormat was old and short -- just Chiara's height -- and he had pointed ears. He wore a red Santa hat with white fur around the bottom. Gray curls showed below the edges of the hat. No beard, though, and he was skinny. His eyes sparkled in nests of wrinkles. He wore a fuzzy green vest over a long-sleeved red shirt, black pants, and shiny black boots that reached up to his knees. The boots had pointy toes that curled up.
"Hello," Chiara said.
"Hello, Chiara."
"How do you know my name?" she asked.
"I know everyone's name," he said. "It's my nature and my job."
"What's your name?"
"Robin," he said. Which seemed like a strange name for an elf.
"Are you here to visit my mama? My dad?" she asked.
"Who's at the door, Chiara?" called her mother from the kitchen.
"I'm here to visit you," said Robin. "Will you invite me in?"
Chiara had read books about vampires. Sometimes your only protection was not inviting them into your house. They couldn't come in without an invitation. She wasn't sure that would work on elves. She was scared that she'd answered the door alone in the first place. "Mama?" she called. "Do you know a man named Robin?"
Her mother came out through the kitchen doorway, drying her hands on a towel tucked into her apron at the waist. "What? Oh, you."
"Hello, Antonia."
"Robin." Mama's face had the look of someone facing a cop or a priest when there was something to hide.
Robin smiled. It was a twinkly smile.
"Your grandfather said I would always be welcome in this house," said Robin.
"And so you are," Mama said. "Chiara, let him in, and see if you can squeeze another place setting on the table. Use Grandpa's chair." She went back into the kitchen.
Chiara stepped away from the doorway and watched the elf walk into their front hall. He glanced both ways, then turned toward the dining room. "Come on," he said, and she shrugged and followed him.
"Do you want some water? Eggnog? Cider?" she asked. Dinner wouldn't be ready for another half hour, and he was a guest who hadn't been made very welcome by her mother.
"No, I'm fine," he said. He looked at the table, crowded with place settings -- her oldest cousin Bobby had brought a girlfriend this year, unexpectedly, so they'd had to squeeze tighter. The girlfriend was in the kitchen being quiet.
"I don't know where -- " she said. "I guess I can get out a TV table and sit in the corner and you can sit in my place."
"I'm not staying," said Robin. "I told your great-grandfather I'd keep an eye on the family after he died. I'm really here to see you."
"Me?" she said.
Robin pulled out a chair and crawled under the table. "Come on," he said.
Chiara got on her hands and knees and crawled after him.
Under the table it was dark and crowded with chair legs except down the middle, where there was space to sit, hunched up. Robin sat very close to her. His warm breath smelled like peppermint. "Have you ever gotten what you want for Christmas?" he whispered.
Chiara thought about last year's Christmas. She'd gotten Barbie dolls and a play kitchen and a really pretty dress. All she'd wanted was a puppy. "No," she whispered. She'd asked for a puppy or a kitten again this year, but her father was allergic, so she was pretty sure it wouldn't happen.
"Do you know what you want aside from a baby animal?" Robin asked.
"No," she whispered. "I don't want girl toys. I don't want boy toys. I don't want clothes that trap me into being who I'm not."
"Hold out your hand," said Robin, and Chiara held out her hand.
He put something into it the size of a robin's egg. It was warm.
She looked at it. It glowed golden, and then melted into her palm. Tingles shot through her, strange and exciting. She felt fizzy.
"Merry Christmas," Robin whispered, and vanished in a spray of gold and silver sparkles.
She wasn't sure what he had given her.
Christmas morning, she noticed her ears had tiny points at the top. Something fizzed in her fingertips.
Later, after a big breakfast, her parents and Nonna sat on the couch. The twins' brother Baldo played Santa, passing around presents from the mound under the tree, and when each of them had a present, everyone unwrapped and then they all admired each other's gifts and accepted appreciation where appropriate.
Chiara opened a present. It was a mermaid Barbie Mirella had given her, knowing Chiara would give it back. Chiara's fingers fizzed. A taste of maple syrup crossed her tongue, and buzzing sounded in her ears. She glanced at Mirella. Her twin was talking to Baldo. Chiara stroked the doll, which she had taken out of the box, even though Mirella said that made it worth less right away. She closed her eyes and stroked the doll with her fizzing fingertips. It changed in her hands as she caressed it. It felt softer, and its shape shifted.
Her fingers stopped fizzing presently. When she opened her eyes, she was holding a plush mermaid kitten with blue fur, darker blue stripes, and smiling golden glass eyes. She hugged it.
It purred.
She peeked at her father and he smiled at her. No sneezing.
"Thank you for the present," Chiara said. "I love it."
Her family smiled at her, then glanced at each other, eyebrows up. Small shakes of their heads. They didn't know who had given it to her.
"Thank you, Robin," Chiara whispered, touching her ear.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, September 23rd, 2022

Author Comments

One of the Wordos Workshop prompts for our 2021 winter holiday short-short reading was "a stranger at the door."

My friend Mary Lowd gave me a gift very much like one of the ones in the story. Thanks again, Mary!

- Nina Kiriki Hoffman
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