December 24, 09 @ 6:00 am
The Christmas Spirit
“I like your hat.”
Usually, the compliments started with my hat, maybe my elf shoes, and ended up as something vulgar. This job was, by far, the worst I’d had. “Look, buddy, if I had a candy cane for every guy who—oh…”
Staring back at me were the warmest brown eyes I’d ever seen.. The rest of the package was pretty well put together too.
“What would you do with all those candy canes?” He asked, and my heart skidded to a stop.
He laughed and tapped the bell at the end of my hat. “What made you decide to be an elf?”
“I’m oozing with Christmas spirit, can’t you tell?”
I hate Christmas. Everyone was so fake. Ever since I figured out my parents lied about Santa, I had a hard time believing anything about the holidays were real.
So how did I end up basically wearing a green felt bikini and thigh high striped stockings in the showroom of Crazy Cal’s Car Lot? I guess it was just another reason to hate Christmas.
And if my dad ever saw this costume, Crazy Cal would find his North Pole sign in a very inconvenient location if you know what I mean.
“My name is Nick, by the way.” He held out his hand.
Was I supposed to shake it? I’m sixteen, I don’t shake hands with people. Whatever, I put mine out gingerly. He held it for a brief second, but that was all it took. A rush of feelings swept over me—like when you open the front door during a snowstorm. Only these feelings were…nice. The sensations of music hit the hardest—but there was also scent of cinnamon and an urge to giggle.
I drew my hand back like he’d burned me. “My name is Holly.”
“You don’t like Christmas, do you, Holly?”
“Who are you?” Because he wasn’t like anyone I’d ever met, I knew that already.
“You won’t believe me.” He took my hand again, and this time there was cocoa and sleigh bells. “Because you don’t believe. I think I can fix that though.”
Why wasn’t I scared? Cuz this guy was crazy. “Believe in what?” I dared.
“The spirit of Christmas, of course.”
* * *
I ditched Nick, no matter how cute he was, and went about my business spreading good cheer to men with comb-overs and beer bellies. I felt cheap. They should feel worse, but I knew they didn’t.
Every kid that came through the door found Nick. It was weird. They all whispered something in his ear.
Nick and Cal were closing a deal towards the end of the day, so I locked up. One mother told me that her daughter was hoping to talk to Nick before they left.
I promised little Bria to relay whatever message she wanted to give him, mostly so they’d leave and I could put some real clothes on again. When I came out of the bathroom, Nick was waiting. His eyes lit up when he saw me. It was really too bad he was such a weirdo because I’d never met anyone so good looking my entire life.
“Molly says she wants a Zhu Zhu pet, whatever that means,” I said, testing him.
“I’ll tell my dad, thanks.”
“Why does she think you are Santa? Wait…why will you tell your dad?”
“I’m not Santa…yet. Not until Dad retires anyway.” He noticed my raised eyebrows. “I told you that you wouldn’t believe me. Bria still believes in Christmas.”
“Your dad is a mall Santa?” I asked, hopefully.
“No, my dad is Santa Claus. And when he retires, I will be Santa. I know you don’t believe, but I’d like to show you something.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you.”
“That’s okay.” He took my hand. “We don’t have to go anywhere.”
Except that we did.
* * *
Instantly, we were transported to someone’s apartment. They couldn’t see or hear us..
The apartment was shabby, but clean, and decorated with glitter and lights. Christmas music played, and something was roasting in the oven, but everyone was in the back room. Instead of a bunk bed, there was a hospital bed in the center of the room. There were two kids cutting out paper snowflakes on the floor, and two parents reading a book to the boy in the bed.
“They were broke before the medical bills,” Nick said. “They don’t have much. They’ll have even less in a couple of days.”
I swallowed hard. The little boy was bald. I didn’t need to ask any other questions.
“I brought you here because Mikey is going to be okay,” Nick said.
I perked up, “Really?”
“Not like that.” Nick put his arm around me. Instead of weirding out, I let myself enjoy the riot of sensations. It was comforting, especially here, in the dying boy’s room. “He’s not going to hurt much longer. His family will though.”
“What does this have to do with Santa?”
“They will still love Christmas. If they can, why can’t you?”
“Everyone is so fake this time of year.”
“So don’t be fake.”
“Why do you care if I believe in Christmas?”
“I can’t exactly date someone with no Christmas Spirit.”
“I can’t exactly date someone who thinks he’s Santa.”
“I won’t be Santa for another thirty years.”
I took the bundle of money from my pocket and lay it on the dresser. Four Saturdays of leering and pinching to sell myself for a cell phone seemed really, really stupid now. My parents were right. I didn’t need it.
These people had real needs.
“Are you going to get fat?” I asked Nick.
“Eventually.” Nick led me out of the bedroom and we were back in the showroom. “Not for awhile though.”
When he kissed me goodnight, I tasted snowflakes and vanilla.
And when he asked me to hold on to that elf costume for the future, I stomped on his toes.
December 23, 09 @ 6:00 am
As Close as a Christmas Wish
Christmas Eve meant two things to Katie Mills. Her annual viewing of “It’s a Wonderful Life” and lots of spiked eggnog. Although this year, the eggnog ranked higher on her list of priorities.
She tried not to sigh as the festively lit miniature cactus beside the TV caught her eye. White LEDs twinkled happily on the prickly limbs, her own ode to the hot Arizona night. Ordinarily she loved the holiday, and she had since childhood. But this year, her first without Steve, wasn’t the same.
Nothing would ever be the same again.
Her gaze drifted over the glowing ornament that topped her makeshift tree. A vampire with flowing blond hair and carved cheekbones probably wouldn’t be most people’s star of choice, but she wasn’t most people. And that ornament had been her last present from Steve, given to her shortly after he’d known he was dying. He’d bought it to cheer her up, while simultaneously teasing her about the rows of vampire novels lining her shelves.
You and your fantasies, Kate.
Her biggest fantasy had been that Steve would get well. But he hadn’t, and now a tiny grinning vampire was the last thing she had to remember him by.
A pang of loneliness struck her with the force of an anvil.
“God, I wish I wasn’t alone.”
The tinkle of bells shot her from her painful reveries to the present. She thought it was from the movie, but no, it had segued into a commercial. Before she could blink, an elfin woman with a light blue cast to her skin appeared beside her old La-Z-Boy. She wore a pointy pink hat with a clump of bells on the end and a necklace of icicles, except her ice didn’t melt.
“You wished,” she said simply, and cast an arm toward the cactus.
Katie stared stupidly as the vampire ornament shimmered and shook, rising up into a puff of smoke that soon morphed into a full blown man.
Here. In her living room. And he was wearing a cape to go with his fake fangs.
She breathed in and out, willing her heart not to explode through her chest. “Who are you?” She glanced back at the blue…elf beside her chair. Or maybe she was a smurf. Not that it mattered. Whatever or whoever she was, she was gone.
“Leilani’s work here is done, so she vacated.” With a sweep of his cape, the blond man dropped onto the chair opposite her. His eyes blazed a fiery forest green. “I’m glad you turned your Elf cross upside down to welcome her, or else I’d still be swinging on that damn tree.”
“Elf cross?” What the hell? “Uh, look, I’ve been drinking tonight, so—”
“Yeah, standard Christmas alone. I know how it works.” He draped one ankle over his opposite knee, flashing a bit of winter white leg. Good Lord, did men even come that pale in Tempe? “Drinking, sappy movies, tears and recriminations. Well, Kathleen, that’s over now. It’s just about time.”
He’d called her Kathleen. Only Steve had called her that.
She picked up her reindeer mug and gulped down her heavily rummed liquid courage.
“Time for what?” she croaked once she’d emptied the mug.
“You to live again. There is nothing as painful as a living death, Kathleen. Steve wants you to be happy.”
She choked from a mixture of eggnog—too much cinnamon—and raw pain. “I’m happy. I go to work. I see my friends. I even bowl!”
He arched one nearly white brow. “You are miserable. It’s time for that to change.”
A single tear tracked down her cheek and she swiped at it furiously. Now even her ducts had betrayed her. “You’re not real. You’re a damn Christmas ornament. I’m probably sleeping and when I wake up, I’ll be alone.”
Still. Always. Forever.
“You’ll never be alone again. I’ll be as close as a wish, as far as your heartbeat.”
The phrase, the same Steve had uttered before closing his eyes the last time, robbed her of breath. “Who are you? And why are you saying things only my husband could know?”
“Better question. What will your mind allow you to accept?” He rose and crossed over to her chair, then knelt at her side. The hand he placed on her knee was warm, not cold as she’d expected. “Leilani spoke to him. Steven. He’s okay, Kathleen. He wanted her to give you his message, through me.”
“Through you? You’re a damn Christmas ornament. She’s a Smurf.” What the hell had been in that rum? “This isn’t making any sense.”
“Your mind is closed,” he murmured, lifting his hand. He didn’t aim for her cleavage as she’d first assumed, but instead laid his hand on her chest. “But your heart is open. He still loves you, Kathleen. And tonight of all nights, at midnight on Christmas, he wanted you to know you would never have to miss him again. He’s here with you. In every rustle of the wind.” Branches scraped against the glass as the breeze rose outside. “In every bell that chimes.” And again, the sound that had accompanied Leilani. “You only need to look inside yourself to know.”
Katie sucked in a breath as the vampire off her cactus leaned in to brush his surprisingly soft lips against hers. Her eyes closed automatically, and when she opened them a moment later, he was gone and the little girl in the movie was talking about angels getting their wings every time a bell rings.
She looked around her living room. The same well-worn furniture filled her vision, but the warmth spreading through her made everything look fresh and new. Including the vampire ornament adorning her cactus.
She would never be the same.
A smile lifted her lips as tears filled her eyes. Happy tears. She wouldn’t question her Christmas miracle. Tonight she would just open her heart.
“Merry Christmas, Steve,” she whispered.
December 22, 09 @ 6:00 am
Waking Up with Dragons
Darkness was falling fast. Already, the pinks and golds of sunset were giving way to the blues and purples of the coming night, the shadows made thicker by the mountains and leaving the desert to grow cold without the warmth of the sun. As per usual, the sun must always surrender to the night.
Jenna Flores watched the coming night with a wistful heart. It had been two years, nearly three when she counted precisely, since she had moved away from her hometown with her husband. She missed her family and friends back home. More than that, she missed the companionship of her coven, especially on Yule. It was one of her favorite holidays, and celebrating as a solitary was not nearly as fulfilling.
Glancing towards her husband Robert, who leaned against a nearby boulder and was pitching rocks into the underbrush, she smiled slightly. He was a good companion, but he was far more in tune with the supernatural than she was. He was a good guardian, but she needed others to help her practice her craft, not just to advise her.
Heaving a sigh, she called, “You’re going to make the animals angry.”
Robert looked at her and grinned. “No I won’t. It’s too cold for them to come above ground now.”
Jenna just shook her head as Robert turned to look up at the sky. “Any dragons hanging about tonight?” she asked.
Getting to his feet, Robert nodded, his eyes following a movement that she could not. “Yup. Seamus is hanging around right now. He’s busy complaining that it’s too cold.”
“Why is he here? He never hangs around for rituals, not even on the sabbats.”
Shrugging, Robert strode easily towards her, shoving his hands in his pockets. “He promised he’d be here tonight. Besides, he likes it when you do your rituals.”
“Because I’m so entertaining?”
Robert just grinned. “There is that.”
Glowering, Jenna said, “He’s never going to let me forget about calling the wrong elements, is he?”
“Nope. He’s actually laughing right now.”
A part of her was irritated. Not only was she a struggling practitioner, but the fact that Robert had conversations with invisible dragons that she could not, and had never been able to, see, drove her half-mad.
“Seamus, if I could see you right now, I would–”
“Honey? You know you don’t want to taunt a dragon.”
The irritation boiled over. “It’s not fair, you know! I’ve been practicing for four years now, and I’m nowhere near as open to all this as you are! You got stoned once, and bam! You talk to dragons and plants and can hop across different dimensions. Me? I don’t hear a peep from the plants anymore, and certainly nothing from the gods.”
Robert approached his wife, and gently put his hands on her shoulders. “Jenna, it’s okay,” he said comfortingly. “I know that you struggle sometimes, and whenever you don’t practice constantly you have to regain the footing you had. It’s okay that your mind isn’t as open. It’ll happen sometime. I know it will.”
Jenna watched him regretfully. “I don’t know if it will, Robert. I mean, I try and try, but there are times when I think I’m just not meant for this.”
A smile touched his lips. “It’s Yule, hon. I know you love this holiday. Don’t you feel the energy around here? Everything’s antsy for you to practice tonight. You know what you’re doing. Let’s celebrate here, and then we can go back home and feast. We got that great bottle of wine to look forward to.” He paused, searching her face. “You are meant for this, Jenna. You know you are. Your mind will open up when it’s ready to. I promise.”
Sighing heavily, Jenna nodded, accepting the kiss that he placed on her forehead. “All right. Let’s get this going before the coyotes come out.”
“That’s my girl.”
As Robert moved back to his boulder, Jenna took another deep breath and closed her eyes. Emptying her mind, she let the calm of the desert fill her. No cars going by, no helicopters, no screaming people. Just her and the cacti and the small scurrying creatures seeking shelter from the night. A peace filled her as she paced her breathing, letting the energy of the earth creep up from her feet and slowly fill every cell of her being. At once she felt connected, in tune with Mother Earth and every living creature in the near area.
Smiling to herself, Jenna took another breath and slowly walked her circle, chanting more to herself than out loud as she drew the protective circle. With each footstep she felt the energy rise, creating a safe bubble around her from the energy of the earth. Something like static electricity rushed through her as the circle was completed, and it felt as if a door was smashed open in her mind.
Half-falling over, Jenna staggered as white light filled her mind. There was timelessness and connectedness and a rush of life. More than that, she could feel the essence of joy in everything around her. It felt like home, and made tears fill her eyes.
“Jenna? Are you all right?”
Fighting against the sob that rose in her chest, Jenna laughed. “Yeah. I think I just—I think I woke up.”
“Open your eyes.”
Slowly, Jenna looked up.
And found herself staring at a four-foot long scaled dragon’s face from mere feet away.
“Merry Yule,” a booming voice echoed in her mind. “It’s about damn time.”
December 21, 09 @ 6:00 am
Walking in a Werewolf Wonderland
Maeve turned around just in time to swing her axe at the massive werewolf flying toward her in mid-air. The sharp blade sliced through the werewolf’s neck, decapitating the ugly mutt on impact. Blood pooled around the corpse as the snow quickly turned from white to crimson.
“Guess they never taught you to look before you leap in werewolf school, huh?”
Damn werewolves. They always came out in hoards during this time of year. This was major hunting season for them. Who says Christmas was only for little boys and girls? Werewolves loved the holidays. What wasn’t to love? Carloads of humans driving on desolate, country roads on their way to visit family and friends. The wretched animals would play ‘wounded dog’ on the road luring the poor unsuspecting driver (and the rest of the carol singing passengers) into a feeding frenzy trap. Talk about ‘meals on wheels’. It’s an old tactic. Been there, done that. You’d think they’d come up with a new routine.
Maeve counted. There were six of them. Outnumbered? Yes. Outdone? Hell no!
One of the dogs moved quickly and knocked her down before she was able to kick its hairy butt. She swiftly retrieved the dagger from her boot and plunged the silver blade into its neck. “Eat this, you flea infested fur ball.”
The fighting continued until the last over-sized mongrel was slaughtered. She was born for this. It was her destiny, just as it had been for all the women in her family. She came from a long line of werewolf slayers, born and raised to defend and protect humankind from the predators that stalked them. She was a hunter of hunters. A killer of killers. Yeah, she was a werewolf butt-kicking machine.
Trying to catch her breath, she lay on the cold forest floor. She was battered, bruised and damn tired. Propping herself up onto her elbows she scanned the wooded area. There was carnage everywhere.
As she began to pull herself up from the ground she stopped instantly as she caught sight of another werewolf. Oh yes, there was always that last one left.
It was wounded. Blood oozed from its left side and it growled as it stared at her. Her breath caught in her throat and she couldn’t move as fear struck deep in the pit of her stomach. Before she could do anything the werewolf jumped on her, pinning her back down. She couldn’t move. They were eye to eye. Nose to nose. Breath to breath.
Suddenly, it began to shift back to its human form.
Gone was the furry four-legged beast. Now there was a two-legged finely built, one hell of a gorgeous male on top of her — a very naked male. Before she could react, he captured her mouth with his and kissed her. It was gentle yet passionate and completely electrifying. But now was not the time for a make out session with wolfman.
She pushed him away from her lips. “Get off me you animal!”
“Oh babe, I love it when you talk dirty.”
Maeve ignored Shawn’s flirtatious banter. She was more concerned about his injury.
“Let me see that cut.” She twisted her head to look at the damaged flesh.
“It’s just a scratch. I’m fine.”
“You growled. I know your growls, Shawn. That was an ‘it hurts like hell’ growl.”
He swept his fingers gently over the wound. “Yeah, it stings a little. But it’s fine.”
Damn, she could ring his neck for scaring her like that. She inspected the gash and was relieved to see that it wasn’t serious. He would heal in no time.
“See, I told you. Fine. Now bring those lips back here.”
Never in a million years did she think that she would end up with the very thing she hunted. But Shawn was one of the good guys. He came from a pack that lived peacefully within society and fought the war against those of his kind that preyed on humans. It was a bonus having a werewolf for a boyfriend and it definitely helped on the battlefield. He was her handsome, strong and fierce, secret weapon and she was crazy in love with him. They were crazy in love.
Maeve pointed a stern finger at him, “You are so lucky he didn’t claw you any deeper.”
“You’re being such a girl.” He teased.
“I am a girl. Just go get dressed before you get –” her eyes scanned down to his lower extremities, “frostbite.”
“Baby, the only frosty thing biting me is you.” He leaned down and placed a quick kiss on her winter-chilled lips.
Maeve couldn’t help but grin at him. “There’s a first aid kit and some clothes in a backpack behind that tree.” She playfully swatted his butt. “Move it.”
He gave her a sexy little smirk. “Yes ma’am.”
While he got dressed Maeve took out her cell phone and called the ‘cleanup crew’ to come and dispose of the bodies and sweep the area clean.
Shawn quickly emerged from behind the tree — fully clothed.
Maeve looped her arm with his. “Come on. If we hurry we can still take Leonard to the mall.”
Shawn rubbed a hand down his face. “Maeve, you can’t be serious?”
“What? Pet pictures with Santa are the new thing. Everyone does it.”
“Yes, but don’t you think people will stare and be a bit….hesitant?”
Maeve glared at him. “Hey, a pet is a pet.”
“Babe, he’s a four foot python!”
“He’s only three feet and he’s harmless!” She scowled.
Shawn threw up his hands in surrender. “Fine, we’ll take him.”
Maeve smiled and kissed him on his cheek. “That’s the Christmas spirit!”
“Uh-huh. But if he tries to make a meal out of some poor little poodle there will be no presents for him under the tree.”
Maeve scrunched up her nose at him. “Don’t be such a Scrooge.”
Shawn gave her a playful grin. “Bah, humbug.”
December 20, 09 @ 6:00 am
Don’t Kill the Messenger
Making my way down the sidewalk, breath puffing out in tiny gray wisps, I decided this was my “Bah, Humbug” year. I wanted to escape the holiday hoopla and spend my Christmas Eve curled under a blanket with a book and a steaming mug of hot chocolate.
Ready to start my quiet evening at home, I’d discovered there was no hot chocolate and briefly debated whether or not it was essential to my happiness. The chocolate won.
The 24-hour quick mart was willing to take my money any time of year, and with few people on the street this late, I’d be home before midnight. I had bumped into only one man hurrying in the opposite direction.
Looking back as he rounded a corner, he hadn’t seen me and would’ve flattened me if his reflexes hadn’t been sharp. Fair and attractive in a Chaps-model kind of way, he’d been under-dressed for the weather, wearing only a sweater and jeans. We’d both been on our ways with muttered apologies.
The only sounds as I neared the Christmas tree lot at the corner of the park were those of my boots crunching snow and the rustling of my plastic bag. The soothing cadence of the walking white noise let my mind wander.
From within the evergreens ahead, another man stared at me, and I increased my pace. He shot forward as I passed to grab my arms. I dropped my bag as he tightened his grip and dragged me into the trees.
I saw stars as he slammed me against a temporary wall, placing one big hand around my neck to hold me. Pressing his face close to mine, he drew in a deep breath. Displaying a mouth filled with rows of tiny, sharp teeth, he grinned at me.
“You smell like angel,” he growled. “Where is the messenger?”
My brain shut down. This creature that looked like a calendar boy for shark-of-the-month just smelled me. I giggled hysterically. Sharp-tooth shook me again.
“Where is the messenger?”
“What messenger?” I didn’t think he’d believe me if I explained that I’d only come for a mug of hot chocolate.
He squeezed my throat, and self-preservation kicked in. Screaming, I tried to deliver a solid groin kick, but he saw it coming and threw me to the ground. I couldn’t breathe.
“You reek of Gabriel,” he said. “Tell me where he is, or you will die.”
“Not tonight.” From over Sharp-tooth’s shoulder, I watched as the man I bumped into earlier grabbed a holly bough and thrust it through my attacker. Hideous mouth opened wide, the creature evaporated in a cloud of sulfurous smoke.
“I heard you scream,” said the stranger, crouching to help me sit up. “We need to get off the street.”
“That thing wasn’t human.”
“Demon,” he said, looking grim. He took my arm and ushered me toward the sidewalk. “Do you live near here?”
I blinked hard, thinking I’d misheard. “Demon?”
“Yes.” He narrowed an intense tiger-eye gaze on me. “Do you live around here?”
I gave him my address. He began to hustle me along, scooping up my bag as we passed. When he handed it to me, I accepted it without protest.
“It said I smelled like angel—that it was looking for a messenger.” Alternately watching the man and my feet, I stumbled after him. “Are you the messenger? Are you Gabriel?”
He didn’t answer. As we passed under a street lamp, I felt myself go numb as I saw the strange shadow he cast on the ground. Within the pool of light, his shadow stretched high and rippled on either side of him like phantom wings. I stopped cold.
Messenger. Angel. Gabriel. “Oh, my God! You’re an angel!”
Slapping my hands over my mouth, I was mortified that I’d just said God in front of an angel. Looking green at my outburst, he eventually nodded.
“I am called Gabriel, and I am an angel.”
“Demons are real, and they can kill angels?” My world tilted.
“Unfortunately, yes,” he said, reaching out again to tug me onward. “I am a messenger, called Gabriel after my commander.
“As part of the Host, my essence is linked to others of my kind. The demons chasing me used a spell to bind me to earth in hopes of using me in a ritual to destroy my kind. My link to the others would have crippled them at my death.”
I remembered how distracted he had been earlier, not by cold, but by evil creatures hunting him. “What happens if demons destroy your kind?”
Gabriel’s handsome face hardened in dark shadows. “What always happens in war. Kill the messengers and cut the lines of communication. Things break down, and faith declines. Humans suffer.” He grimaced at the thought.
I could see my Victorian up ahead, looking serene and inviting. Who’d have thought I’d spend Christmas Eve caught between angels and demons?
Throwing a sideways glance at me, Gabriel spoke very softly. “I’m sorry you had to find out about our existence in such a terrifying way. I wouldn’t want to see you burdened by this. As soon as my binding spell breaks at midnight, and you are safely indoors, I will leave.”
“You made it,” I said, looking at my watch. “It’s past midnight.” Facing him, I asked, “They don’t win, right?”
“Tonight, we are safe.”
Not quite the reassurance I wanted.
“Do you get to fly away now?”
Gabriel smiled. “Go inside. Leave my getaway to me.”
There were many questions I wanted to ask, but I settled for one.
“Will I see you again?”
Glancing up at my window, his tiger eyes took on a mischievous glint as he spotted the flashing angel on top of my Christmas tree.
I felt more than saw him leave in a rush of air. Turning to look, I saw a single opalescent feather drifting toward the ground.
Celebrating the holiday didn’t seem like such a bad idea after all.