Welcome to the December 2023 edition of First Monday Free Fiction. I forgot to post last month’s edition, because I had too much on my mind.
To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.
December is dominated by the holiday season, so of course this month’s free story is a holiday story. The story in question, Christmas Eve at the Purple Owl Café, is actually one of my most popular stories ever and has sold more than six hundred copies as a standalone e-book (and even more in collection form). Not bad for a sweet little Christmas romance I wrote in only a few hours. And now you get to enjoy it for free.
So join Katie and Jess (and Herbert and Renate) as they celebrate…
Christmas Eve at the Purple Owl Café
Katie trudged through the wet, slushy snow, thoroughly pissed off.
It was December 24, Christmas Eve, shortly after seven o’clock and the streets were deserted. The Christmas services were over until midnight mass and all the good burghers were in their homes, eating roast goose or fondue or potato salad and sausages, whatever the respective family tradition dictated.
Katie would like to think that at least some of them were still at the tree admiring, carol singing, poem reciting and present unwrapping part of the evening. Though that would be naïve. For sometime in the past twenty-five years, the gift-giving part of Christmas had been moved forward from Christmas Eve after dark and after church was over, if your family was the religious type, or even after dinner, if your family had a sadistic streak, to the early afternoon, because it would be torture on young children to keep them waiting for too long. Oddly enough, no one had ever cared about that back when Katie was a kid and watched the Waiting for the Christ Child afternoon special on TV — the very same special with the very same seasonal cartoons every single year, too — on tenterhooks, just waiting for Santa to drop off his load of presents.
But these days, kids simply couldn’t be expected to be patient anymore and Waiting for the Christ Child hadn’t been on TV in ages. Instead, the radio stations began blaring out nothing but Christmas songs — and not the American ones that were a tad corny, but at least fun, but the dull and solemn German Christmas songs that sounded like funeral dirges — from two o’clock on Christmas Eve on in what Katie liked to call “the terror of festive contemplation”. Because obviously, dull Christmas music would put those hyperactive little rugrats to sleep early.
God, she was started to sound like one of those old crotchety “Back in my day” folks. Even though it was precisely because of those old crotchety folks that Katie was out here in the cold with the wet snow gradually soaking through her boots instead of eating roast goose with her parents and extended family.
Flurries of snow were blowing into Katie’s eyes, so she pulled the hood of her coat deeper into her face. All in all it was a typical North German Christmas, windy and wet. Only that for once, the wet was snow rather than rain. Just her luck that tonight had to be the first white Christmas in ten years or so.
Up ahead, Katie could see the lights of the Purple Owl Café — a winking neon owl and a sign in slanted fifties script — through the driving snow, a lone beacon of warmth and friendliness and civilisation in a city that had gone dark this Christmas Eve. For the shops had already taken down their holiday lights, the Christmas market was closed and even the street lamps had gone dark, for why waste energy on street lamps when hardly anyone was driving anyway?
The Purple Owl Café had a lengthy and varied history. It had started out sometime in the fifties as a youth hangout, where you could hear that newfangled rock ’n roll music and even dance to it. In the sixties, it became a club for beat music fans. By 1970, it was a hippy club, complete with psychedelic black light paintings on the walls. By the mid seventies, it was a punk joint. Then it turned into a disco by 1978 and stayed that way throughout the eighties. By the early nineties, it had turned into a grunge club and alternative music venue. Finally, around the turn of the millennium, it became the premier lesbian joint in town.
But throughout its illustrious and chequered history, the Purple Owl Café had always been one thing, namely a sanctuary for all those who either had no family or couldn’t face another Christmas Eve with them at home.
The tradition of Christmas Eve parties at the Purple Owl Café had started sometime during the rock ’n roll or beat era, when absolutely nothing in the city was open and the streets on Christmas Eve were quieter than the world after a nuclear holocaust. There’d been opposition against the Christmas Eve parties back then, from the churches, the police and the good and upright burghers who simply couldn’t tolerate even the slightest hint of deviance from the way things had always been.
The opposition had faded over the decades, as had the Purple Owl Café’s reputation as the only place besides the railway mission where you could go for a hot drink and a bit of conversation and companionship on Christmas Eve. Now there were kebab houses and Chinese restaurants and Vietnamese noodle bars open on Christmas Eve and clubs offering dance nights to those still on their feet after their families had gone to bed.
But through it all, the Purple Owl Café remained stalwart, opened its doors to anybody — regardless of age, gender, religion, skin colour or sexual orientation — who had nowhere else to go on Christmas Eve.
Tonight, Katie was one of those who had nowhere else to go. It was a new sensation for her — after all, Katie had spent the previous twenty-three Christmas Eves with her parents and extended family, sitting around the tree, singing carols, reciting poems, exchanging presents and eating roast goose with potato dumplings and red cabbage.
And every single of those twenty-three years or at least the last ten or so, Katie had dreaded those holy night get-togethers with the whole family. She’d dreaded the poems and the carols and the presents she had neither asked for nor wanted and the goose — because truth to be told, she’d never liked goose — but most of all she’d dreaded the conversation with the extended family.
She’d dreaded the sexist jokes from uncles who seemed to be mentally stuck at a time when dinosaurs ruled the Earth, the complaints about “all those damn foreigners ruining the country” from great-aunts who’d once come as post-war refugees from Eastern Prussia and Silesia, the groping hands of aged lechers and the pitying looks of prim and proper aunts who kept asking why she wasn’t married and having babies yet. And most of all, she’d dreaded Uncle Günther who inevitably had to expound at great length on his political views, which were only slightly to the left of Hitler. And no one ever said anything to shut him up, even though his tirades made everybody uncomfortable.
Until this Christmas, her twenty-fourth, she’d decided she’d had enough. After all, she was twenty-four years old now. She had a graduate degree, her own flat and a good job. She was, finally, a real and proper adult. And she didn’t need to put up with relatives who annoyed her, relatives who made her uncomfortable, relatives who made her dread Christmas Eve itself, when it should’ve been the happiest night of the year.
So she’d told her parents in no uncertain terms, “No. I’m not going to put up with people who make me uncomfortable or outright hurt me anymore. Either make them stop or uninvite them or you can have your family Christmas Eve without me.”
Her Mom had first accused her of having PMS — because every genuine grievance or anger that a woman ever felt was obviously the result of PMS. Then she’d called Katie a hate-filled bitch who didn’t understand the value of family, while Dad had declared that one simply had to tolerate family, whether one actually liked them or not.
And when Katie had replied, “No, actually I don’t have to tolerate anybody,” her parents had told her she could either celebrate Christmas with the whole family like every year or all on her lonesome.
And this was how Katie had ended up orphaned or at least quasi-orphaned on Christmas Eve. So she did what everybody in the city did, when they found themselves alone and with nowhere else to go on Christmas Eve. She headed to the Purple Owl Café.
Katie had learned of the café’s reputation at university from one of the outspoken lesbians in her class, though she’d never actually been there herself. It was like that with all of the clubs in town with a shady or dodgy or glamorous reputation. Katie knew of them all, though she’d never visited a single one of them. She simply wasn’t the sort of person who went to that sort of place.
But apparently her new found resolve not to put up with relatives who annoyed her anymore had also turned her into a more adventurous person, the sort of person who’d go to a Christmas party in a joint known as a lesbian bar, though she had few inclinations of that direction herself.
Okay, so Katie had sometimes insisted that she was lesbian at university, mostly to get guys who wouldn’t take no for an answer to back off. Women usually did accept “No thanks” as an answer, so there had never been any burning need for Katie to insist she was straight.
As it was, she actually suspected she was bi — sort of — since hardly anybody was one hundred percent straight on the Kinsey scale.
But the full truth was that so far, she’d had very little interest in intimate relationships with either sex. Relationships were complicated and time consuming, plus you tended to get your heart broken. Besides, Katie had always been just fine on her own, pursuing first her degree and then her career.
Until she found herself all alone on Christmas Eve.
Like all the best clubs, the Purple Owl Café was a basement bar, its entrance nestled between a Chinese restaurant, closed, and a travel agency, also closed. A purple neon arrow pointed at the door.
There was a bouncer, a muscular woman with spiky platinum hair and a nose piercing. And all of a sudden, Katie realised just why — though she knew where all the cool clubs were — she hardly ever went there. It was because of the bouncers. There was something incredibly humiliating about the idea that even though you were willing to pay for the privilege of entering a club, you were still at the mercy of some overmuscled and underbrained jerk at the door who decided whether you got in or not, depending on whether your skirt was short enough or whether he just didn’t like your nose.
Restaurants didn’t need bouncers. Cinemas didn’t need bouncers. Theatres didn’t need bouncers. So why the hell did clubs think they did?
However, passing the bouncer — bouncerette? — of the Purple Owl Café was neither difficult nor humiliating. The woman simply nodded at Katie and said, “Merry Christmas. Have fun, sister.” Then she stared out at the falling snow again.
The staircase that led down to the club proper was steep and narrow and the linoleum apparently hadn’t been replaced since the time when the Café was a rock ’n roll joint back in the fifties. Katie smiled as she descended the staircase, imagining the look on the faces of her relatives back home, if they knew she was spending Christmas Eve in a lesbian bar.
The interior of the Purple Owl Café was pleasantly dim. The walls were black and covered with photos from the club’s illustrious sixty year history. Glittering stars studded the low ceiling and in a corner, there stood a Christmas tree, the only concessions to the season. There was a bar along one side of the club, a dance floor in the middle and a small stage at the other end of the room. On that stage, a girl with a guitar sat perched on a stool, singing a mix of seasonal and other songs in a voice that was so much better than anything heard in the talent shows on TV.
Katie looked around and then made a beeline straight for the bar. She needed a drink. A large drink.
A chalkboard behind the bar announced all sorts of holiday specials. Several varieties of mulled wine, eggnog, grog, cinnamon latte, hot apple punch, fancy Belgian Christmas beer. Katie studied it for a moment, then she decided on mulled blueberry wine. She wrapped her chilly hands around the warm mug, savouring the heat that spread through her body.
The crowd inside the Purple Owl Café covered an age range from barely twenty to seventy plus and was about seventy-five percent female, which was only to be expected. Though there were a couple of men around as well and not all of them seemed to be gay.
Katie ended up chatting with a well-manicured lady in her sixties named Renate. She was a widow, Renate said, from an upscale part of town. Her husband had died five months ago and since she dreaded spending Christmas alone, she’d headed for the Purple Owl Café because she remembered the place from what she termed “her wild youth”. Katie smiled and nodded politely, though truth to be told, Renate didn’t look as if she’d ever been wild in her whole life.
An old man named Herbert joined in. He’d been coming to the Purple Owl Café every Christmas Eve since 1959, he told them, and he’d been there through all the changes that had hit the place. Though the crowd here was always friendly and welcoming, he said, regardless of which subculture the Café was currently catering to.
“It’s my home away from home,” Herbert said.
Katie nodded. At any rate, the Purple Owl Café felt just like home, she thought. Here she was, spending Christmas Eve talking to old people, just like back at home.
Though to be fair, Herbert and Renate both seemed nice enough. And at least they hadn’t started ranting about “all those evil foreigners and asylum seekers” yet, which made for a pleasant change from home.
“Hi there,” a new voice said behind her.
Katie turned around and found herself face to face with a woman in her mid twenties. Her blonde hair was tied back in a ponytail. She wore jeans, a flannel shirt and no make-up.
“You’re new here, aren’t you?”
Katie nodded. “Is it that obvious?”
“Well, you’re looking a bit shy and besides, Herbert, the old lecher here, is hitting on you…”
She turned to Herbert. “No offence, Herb, you know we all love you.”
She turned back to Katie, ponytail flying. “…and he usually hits only on the new girls, cause he knows he’s wasting his breath on the rest of us. And besides…” She smiled, a warm and open smile. “…I’ve never seen you here before and I know I would’ve remembered an attractive woman like you.”
Looks like Herbert wasn’t the only one hitting on the new girls around here.
The woman held out her hand. “I’m Jess, by the way.”
Oh, what the heck…
“Katie.” She took the other woman’s hand and shook it. Jess had a good firm handshake, she noted.
“So…” Jess said, settling herself on the barstool next to Katie without waiting for permission. “…what brings you to the Purple Owl Café on this fine holy night.”
Katie shrugged. “Had a row with my family and didn’t want to spend Christmas alone in front of the TV, watching Helene Fischer or Stars in the Arena or whatever crap they’ve put on tonight. So I came here. You know how it is.”
“As a matter of fact I do,” Jess said, “So what’s the problem at home? Did you decide to come out to your family on Christmas and they couldn’t come to terms with the fact that there won’t be white weddings and grandkids anytime soon?”
“No, I…” Katie felt the blood rushing to her cheeks. “I’m not… Actually I’m bi.”
“No problem.” Jess grinned. “I’m not the jealous type.”
“And anyway, that’s… not it,” Katie said, though she didn’t even know why she felt the need to explain herself to a woman she barely knew, “It’s… well, my parents always invite the whole extended family over for Christmas…”
“And you had enough of holiday crowds?” Jess said, “Believe me, I sympathise.”
Katie shook her head. “There are a few relatives who are… well, problematic.”
“Let me guess,” Jess said and took a draft of beer straight from the bottle, “Uncles with roving hands, mothers, aunts and cousins who just can’t shut up about weddings and babies…”
“That, too,” Katie admitted, wondering how on Earth Jess could’ve known all that. “Still, those relatives are just annoying, but… well, there’s one uncle who’s a flat out Nazi. Always spouts racist crap about how foreigner and immigrants and Muslims are ruining the country and how someone ought to do something…”
“And you told Uncle Nazi where to stuff it?” Jess suggested, “Well done.”
“Not really,” Katie said, “I told Mom and Dad point blank that I didn’t want to put up with Uncle Nazi…”
That was actually a very good name for him.
“…and his racist bullshit anymore. I said that I’ll tolerate him as long as he keep talking about haemorrhoids or football or whatever. But as soon as he starts spewing racist crap, I’m going to tell him to shut up and keep his vile views to himself.”
“I guess that didn’t go down too well with your parents,” Jess said.
Katie shook her head. “I got told that one has to tolerate relatives and their repulsive views, because they are relatives. Oh yes, and you’re not supposed to call them on it either, because that would disrupt the holiday spirit.”
Jess rolled her eyes. “Whereas Uncle Nazi spewing forth racist shit obviously doesn’t disrupt the holiday spirit, because everybody just wants to hear racist diatribes with their Christmas cookies.”
Katie nodded. “Got it in one.”
Jess lifted the bottle to her mouth and took a draft. “That sort of thinking is endemic with that generation,” she said, “Our parents’ generation, I mean. Well, my parents’ generation, but I guess yours are about the same.”
“Mine are in their fifties and sixties,” Katie said.
“Mine, too. The sort of people who grew up surrounded by barely reformed ex-Nazis. And you couldn’t say anything against them, because they were everywhere, even in your own family. And so they never learned to stand up and say something…”
“Pah, Nazis,” Herbert piped in, “Never could stand them, not even way back when they wanted me to join their stupid club.”
Jess slammed the bottle down on the table. “With our parents’ generation, it’s all keep your head down and ignore the Nazi at the dinner table, hoping he’ll go away or shut the fuck up. Only that the Nazis at the dinner table never go away.”
Katie nodded in agreement. “Instead, they even become bolder, because they think everybody else agrees with them. Because no one ever has the courage to say anything.”
“And since no one ever stops them or shuts them up, those newly emboldened dinner table Nazis eventually take to the streets like those jerks in Dresden.” Jess shuddered.
“Dresden is such a beautiful city,” Renate said, “My husband and I went there on holiday a few times. The museums, the architecture, the opera…”
“Too bad it’s also got seventeen thousand jerks marching against a piddly half percent Muslims,” Jess added.
“A pity,” Renate agreed, “Such a beautiful city marred by hate.”
Herbert nodded. “Pretty city. Pity about the Nazis.” He took a gulp of beer. “Damn Nazis. Hate them.”
“I think we can all drink to that,” Jess said.
So they did. And Katie realised that she felt so much more comfortable here at the Purple Owl Café than she’d ever felt during those Christmas Eves with the family at home.
“What gets to me most…” she said quietly, “…is that when I gave my parents a choice between Uncle Nazi and me, they still chose the crotchety old racist over me.” Katie took a sip of mulled wine. “That makes me feel so valued.”
“Their loss,” Jess said and patted Katie on the back, “Our gain.”
They all drank to that, Jess and Katie and Herbert and Renate. Katie emptied her mulled wine and promptly ordered another cup. And if she got drunk, then so be it. After all, it was Christmas Eve and her parents preferred the company of a crotchety old racist to her own. What better excuse to get drunk?
Herbert and Renate eventually began sharing reminiscences of what they termed the “wild days of their youth”, while Jess and Katie chatted with each other. They talked about their jobs and their families and their favourite books and films and TV shows and discovered their shared love for Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and shared dislike for The Walking Dead and Game of Thrones.
Through it all, it was bleedingly obvious that Jess was flirting with her, but Katie didn’t mind. On the contrary, she felt rather flattered by the attention. She’d never understood why she was supposed to feel flattered by the attention of men, even if they were often overbearing and unwilling to take no for an answer, whereas the attention of women was supposed to be shocking, even though women were far less aggressive about it.
The singer on the stage took a break — only too understandable, considering she’d been playing all evening long — so someone popped a holiday CD into the player. Soon Christmas songs flooded the bar, all the good old corny tunes like “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” or “Driving home for Christmas” or “Do they know it’s Christmas time?” – the original, not the revised Ebola edition.
Pairs of all possible gender combinations quickly took to the dancefloor, swinging to “Rocking around the Christmas Tree” with more enthusiasm than skill. And then “Last Christmas” came on, the one and only true version by Wham!, still as brilliant thirty years later as it had been back in 1984.
“Oh my God, I love that song,” Jess exclaimed, “I mean, I know it’s corny as hell, but I still love it.”
Katie nodded. “No, it’s all right,” she said, “I understand. I love that song, too. Even though it is corny as hell.”
Their eyes met for a long moment, then Jess held out her hand to Katie. “Do you wanna dance?”
Katie wasn’t much of a dancer, had never been. Oh, she quite liked dancing alone in her kitchen. But dancing with others, particularly men? Forget it! The men always insisted on leading, which meant you were tied to their lack of rhythm.
However, the leading issue wouldn’t be too much of a problem here, since Jess was no man. So why the hell shouldn’t Katie dance with her? Especially since it would so shock her family to see her dancing with another woman.
So Katie took Jess’ hand. “Sure, why not?”
So they danced to “Last Christmas” and the question who leads and who follows didn’t come up at all, because they found that they were both perfectly in tune. And if Jess wrapped her arms just a little tighter around Katie than strictly necessary, Katie found that she didn’t mind at all.
Then George Michael sang that this time, he’d give his heart to someone special, and Jess pulled Katie in even closer. Then, before Katie knew what was happening, Jess suddenly kissed her full frontal on the lips.
The kiss was tentative at first, then ever more enthusiastic. And though Katie was initially too stunned to react, she soon responded in kind. Hell, if Katy Perry could kiss a girl and like it, then so could Katie. And it would so shock her family. Besides, the kiss felt good, damned good, as good as a kiss could only feel on Christmas Eve or New Year’s Night or when you were kissing your one true love — not that Katie would know anything about that.
“Last Christmas” was already over and the next song — “Lonely this Christmas” — had started up, when their lips finally parted. They both stumbled to a halt, panting and out of breath.
“Sorry,” Jess said with a wink, “Mistletoe,” and pointed at the ceiling.
Katie looked up and indeed, there was a mistletoe, already somewhat dry and battered, hanging from the ceiling among all the glittering stars. And since they were still standing right underneath the mistletoe, Katie pulled Jess in for another kiss, while Elvis was still wailing about being lonely and cold this Christmas.
After that, Katie and Jess didn’t talk very much anymore, though they danced and kissed a lot. And after about three songs, they didn’t even need the mistletoe as an excuse any longer.
It was already after midnight, when the Purple Owl Café finally closed down. Katie and Jess spilled out of the club with the other remaining Christmas Eve revellers.
Outside, it was still snowing, though a thick white blanket already covered the streets, muting the world.
“Where are you headed?” Jess asked Katie.
“Central station,” Katie replied, “Looking for a taxi home.”
“Great,” Jess said, “I’m headed that way myself. I live near Osttor, you know?”
So they set off through the snow, arm in arm like a couple that had been together for a long time. Occasionally, they met others traipsing through the late night snow. People heading home after the midnight mass, mostly, though there were also a few fellow partygoers. But most of the time, Jess and Katie walked all alone through the deserted city, feeling as if they were the only two people left on Earth.
Soon the lights of the station shone up ahead, a bright beacon in an otherwise dark holy night. There were people there and taxis and trains and shops that were open twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week, three-hundred sixty-five days of the year.
Jess and Katie both found that their steps slowed down, as they station approached. Almost as if they didn’t want to part just yet.
“You know what?” Jess said suddenly into the silent night, “I’m hungry. How about a midnight snack at the station?”
Katie nodded, for she suddenly realised that she was hungry as well. “Sure. If we find a place that’s still open.”
“It’s central station,” Jess said, “Something is always open.”
In the end, they found that three shops were still open and that they had the choice between kebab, Turkish pizza and Pho. After a bit of back and forth, they finally decided on Pho, because it was hot and comforting and the ideal midnight snack for a cold Christmas night.
And so Jess and Katie soon set perched on bar stools in a cheery bright interior of the Pho shop, looking into each other’s eyes over two bowls of steaming hot noodle soup.
They chatted over nothing of importance, while savouring the springy noodles, the fresh, crispy herbs and the broth itself, infused with cinnamon and cardamom and cloves and star anise.
“Just the same spices as in gingerbread,” Katie couldn’t help but point out.
Jess nodded. “The ideal midnight snack for Christmas Eve then.”
And as they sipped their Pho, they both looked into each other’s eyes some more and liked what they saw there.
“I… I don’t normally do this,” Katie finally said, “But I really like you. And I… well, I’d like to see you again. After Christmas, of course. Or maybe even after New Year’s Night.”
Jess listened patiently, the bowl of Pho poised perfectly at her lips. She waited for Katie to finish, then she set the bowl down.
“I like you, too,” she said, quite bluntly, “And yes, I’d like to see you again. But why wait until New Year’s Night or even longer? After all, I’ve got a flat near Osttor. It’s not a very big flat, but I’ve got a really nice and comfortable bed.” She paused. “So what do you say?”
Truth to be told, Katie didn’t quite know what to say and how to say it. So she said nothing, just nodded.
Ten minutes later, they both set off into the snowy night again, Pho warming their stomachs and mutual attraction warming their hearts.
And though the evening had started as a lonely Christmas for both of them, it did not end that way.
That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.
And if you want even more holiday stories, I have a collection of all my holiday stories called The Christmas Collection available.