Title: Hearts Alight
Author: Elliot Cooper
Publisher: NineStar Press
Release Date: December 19, 2016
Heat Level: 1 – No Sex
Genre: Romance, paranormal, holiday
Dave Cunningham hates the rampant consumerism that’s come to dominate his family’s Hanukkah celebrations. But a chance to bring a bit of a holiday happiness to his long-time crush, Amit Cohen, helps put him in a more festive mood.
In the quest to craft the perfect gift, Dave tries to urge a few personal details out of stoic Amit. Unintentionally, he learns the Cohen family’s secret: Amit is a golem. But Amit has a problem that runs deeper than his magical origin, and a Hanukkah miracle might be the only thing that will keep the budding flame between him and Dave from going out.
Elliot Cooper © 2016
All Rights Reserved
Nothing made Dave Cunningham want to hibernate in his apartment for the winter quite like shopping for Hanukkah gifts with his brother-in-law. He stared up at the shelves full of brightly colored toys with an internal groan. Only another hour, he told himself. Two if he was unlucky. He fought the urge to plug his headphones into his ears to drown out the omnipresent Christmas music filling the store.
“What d’you think of this LEGO set?” Jake held up a large box depicting a desert island playset, complete with pirates and skeletons. His wide brown eyes looked frantic, panicked. He shook the box and pulled a face at the heavy rattling. “Shoshie loves pirates, but she’s probably too old for LEGOs. Or…I mean, is anyone ever too old for LEGOs?”
“She’ll love whatever you get her.” Dave half glared at Jake but caught himself and shook his head. It wasn’t Jake’s fault the delightful minor holiday of their youth had been swept up in consumerism. “You shouldn’t have to get her anything. We go through this same torture every year.”
“It’s not torture; it’s fun. It’s festive!” Jake insisted and flashed a bright smile. “Just thinking about her face when she opens the big one on the eighth night? I love it. And, more importantly, she loves it.”
“My sister likes getting presents,” Dave said. He couldn’t help but blame her for the deterioration of their family’s Hanukkah celebrations. There wasn’t any malice left in his blame, though, just an understanding of the sad truth. In trying to keep Shoshana invested in and excited about her Jewish heritage, their parents had put them on a dark path to celebrating materialism.
It had started when he was in high school and Shoshana was in middle school. First, with her upset at her Christmas-celebrating friends and their incredible hauls of gifts. Then the growing jealousy over not being able to participate in the Santa-spangled sweep of dominant American culture. Finally, they’d all endured one too many crying fits and months-long debates about whether or not modern―or historical―Christmas was even about Jesus’s birthday.
Their mother and father decided to do what some of their friends had done: one small gift for each night of Hanukkah. And since their father had grown up in a Christian family, he liked the idea of gifts exchanged between everyone, not just from parents to children.
For the first few years, the new tradition seemed all right. Shoshana’d been made happy. Dave had even enjoyed helping pick out gifts for his sister and parents. But as time went on, the presents got bigger, and their importance in the scheme of the holiday celebrations almost usurped their father’s latkes. They’d definitely overshadowed the lighting of the menorah and family game time.
“Don’t act all high and mighty like you don’t like gifts,” Jake said, arching a brow. He glanced back at the second box he’d picked up―a pirate LEGO set of a huge ship. “Ship or island?”
“Ship, so she can display it after it’s built.” Dave didn’t bother looking at the boxes or their respective price tags. Jake made plenty good money running Gin Teal, his hipster bar downtown. “I’m not saying I don’t like gifts or that she shouldn’t. Just that Hanukkah isn’t about gifts. It’s the festival of lights. Celebrating the rededication of the Temple. The miracle of the oil. Spending time with family and―”
“You’re saying you don’t want a totally secular Hanukkah, I get it. But Shoshie does.” Jake put the ship set in his shopping cart and headed down the aisle toward the board games. “She’s an atheist. I’m agnostic. It works for us and we can celebrate with old traditions and more modern ones. Without guilt, even.”
Dave plucked at the fringe on his blue-and-silver-striped scarf, his mind a jumble of rebuttals. There was more to it than the consumerism, the secular chokehold. He didn’t mind a dash of either. Modernity wasn’t the problem. It was the lack of balance. And the horrible pressure to be thoughtful and tasteful and have enough money to bring material happiness to his loved ones. He’d tried not giving gifts the year before, after explaining his tight budget and distaste of the focus on presents. No one had batted an eye; they’d all been understanding. And then they’d lavished him with gifts and, without meaning to, had made him feel terrible for not being able to reciprocate. It was a vicious cycle he couldn’t break.
“Maybe I should just celebrate on my own this year. I could open up my schedule to take more evening shifts at work, make a little extra money. Business is picking up with people wanting to do pottery-painting parties to make holiday gifts. And we’re booked up for three of our five holiday-themed painting classes,” Dave said as he trailed after Jake, hands thrust deep into his jeans pockets.
“You just said Hanukkah is about families celebrating together.” Jake shot him another look, pursing his lips in disbelief. A slow smile crept across his lips. “Oh, I know what this Scrooge act is about.”
The gleam in his eyes was the same one Shoshana and his mom got when they tried to set him up on dates.
“Don’t say it!”
“You’re lonely. Romantically lonely.” Jake picked up a game box and skimmed over the descriptions on its side and back. “Hiding at work and in your apartment isn’t going to change that. Besides, no one’s going to be doing art classes the week after Christmas. You’ve told me before your Valentine’s customers don’t start until after the first of the year.”
Dave groaned and picked up a Magic 8 Ball, flipping it over a few times without reading the message in the inky window.
At least Jake hadn’t said the dreaded “you need to find a woman.” Dave had tried dating women, but it had never worked out, for one reason or another. He was too oblivious. Too attentive. Too observant. Not observant enough. And, once, he’d been so lackluster in bed that his girlfriend had told him to stop, thanked him for his time, and walked out of his life.
Dating men hadn’t gone much better, if he were being honest with himself. He was no towering gym-honed testament to manhood, with his short stature and soft middle. He wasn’t highly educated, having done a failed stint at one of the local community colleges. He didn’t have much money, though he did have a decent job at his dad’s art studio. Since he’d gotten his own place, he’d been treading water. No one wanted to stick around and join him in his ambitionless pool.
“You should swing by the bar Saturday night,” Jake said after placing a dice game in his cart. He smiled at Dave with the brotherly warmth that had been there since high school, when they’d only been best friends, and then reached over to grip Dave’s hunched shoulder. “I’ll buy you a beer if you’ll just show up. You don’t even have to talk to anyone. Just…be present.” He smirked and cocked his head to the side, putting one fabulously thick sideburn and wooden earlobe plug on display.
“Har-dee-har. Let’s see what the oracle has to say. Should I go to Jake’s hipster haven on Saturday?” Dave shook the Magic 8 Ball, still secure in its packaging. When he flipped the ball over, the answer floated to the window. Dave sighed. “It is decidedly so.”
“Good!” Jake pushed his cart down toward the seasonal area of the store, beyond the tinsel trees and endcaps bursting with foil bows and rolls of wrapping paper. “Just a heads up, my uncle Amit’s working that night.”
The man was physically everything Dave wasn’t: chiseled muscles, strong chin, tall, huge hands, and slightly wavy black hair that swept perfectly to one side. Amit Cohen straddled that maddening line between men Dave wanted to be and men he wanted to be with. So what if he was a reclusive workaholic?
Elliot Cooper writes speculative fiction featuring queer characters. His novels and novellas come with hopeful and happy endings, though his short fiction runs the gamut of styles and genres. He strives above all to make his readers feel, while also increasing positive representation of LGBTQ characters and their stories.