It’s XOXO AD’s 12 Days of Christmas! To “stuff your stocking” before Santa arrives later in the month, we’re bringing you holiday excerpts each day, from now through December 12. Be sure to check back every day for a heartwarming, ho-ho-holiday treat!
Today’s treat is from Molly Harper’s I’m Dreaming of An Undead Christmas. Gigi is finally on winter break from college and is excited about going home to visit her sister Iris. It’s the first time the sisters have seen each other since Iris became a vampire and Iris is determined to have a “normal” Christmas, but things don’t go as planned…
Much like Clark Griswold, Iris wanted to kick-start our old-fashioned, traditional family Christmas extravaganza by finding the absolutely flawless example of Yuletide tree perfection. She hoped to recapture the magic of Christmases past by hiking all over McDonough’s Tree Farm on Route 31 to find this specimen and chop it down ourselves, then drag it home, caroling all the way. There was only one problem with this scenario. We had never hiked around McDonough’s Tree Farm to pick out a Christmas tree. Not once. Not even when our parents were alive. But reminding Iris of, well, reality was proving to be futile.
“Iris, we’ve used the same artificial Christmas tree since I was in middle school. Isn’t it sort of counterintuitive for a vampire to risk immortal life and limb in a place where there are a bunch of pointy tree stumps?”
I huffed (and puffed) as we trudged up the dark, pine-scented hill on the far side of McDonough’s nursery.
In the distance, Nate McDonough, third-generation tree farm proprietor and Iris’s high school classmate, was sitting in a cozy little outbuilding-slash-cashier station, warming his hands against a cup of hot cider . . . and probably laughing at us. I shivered into my standard-issue pea coat that all freshman girls get the moment they step onto a college campus. The only positive thing I could say about this experience was that it rarely snowed in western Kentucky, so at least I wasn’t slogging through drifts in my awesome-but-not-practical calf boots.
I noticed we were the only family taking advantage of McDonough’s nighttime hours. It was more than a little creepy, wandering along rows of evenly spaced trees in the dark, armed with a flashlight and not much else. It was cold and cloudy, the ground was uneven, and I kept stepping in holes that threatened to break my ankles. Given these assorted factors, I may not have been as supportive as I should have been of Iris’s need to closely inspect, then reject, every single specimen in the tree lot. The Douglas fir was too tall. The blue spruce was too full. And the Scotch pine had weird bald spots that would reflect badly on the Popsicle-stick ornaments.
“Oh, come on, this is fun!” Iris exclaimed, showing an annoying lack of fatigue as she flitted up the hill like a manic woodland fairy. Clearly, she was enjoying the “increased agility” part of vampirism, which was earning her the silent glare of sisterhood. Like me, Cal had lost his enthusiasm for the hunt about a dozen rejected trees ago and was balancing the rented tree saw on his palm. “We always wanted to do this when we were kids.”
“Yes, but we never did, because you’re allergic to real Christmas trees!” I exclaimed. “Don’t you remember when Mom and Dad used to get a real tree every year before Dr. Swanson did all those tests on you, and you ended up sick as a dog every Christmas?”
“Well, I’m not allergic anymore. No pulse, no allergies, no problem.”
“Oh, you’ve got problems,” I retorted, making Cal snicker.
Iris shot him a warning look even I could see in the dark.
Cal cleared his throat. “What about that nice tree over there?”
“Which one?” Iris asked.
Cal made a sweeping gesture toward the pine crop with his long arms. “The one that gets us off this tree
Iris rolled her eyes. “You two have no patience for perfection.”
“That’s why we have you, sweetheart.”
“Don’t try to butter me up,” she told him. “OK, we’ll split up and each pick a favorite. Cal, you go that way. Gigi, you take that row. I’ll go over there. We’ll come back in five minutes to discuss. Be careful, and try not to trip anymore.”
“I don’t want to ruin this warm family moment, so it’s only mentally that I’m making a really rude gesture at you,” I yelled over my shoulder as I walked in my assigned direction.
“Thank you for restraining yourself!”
I kept my flashlight trained carefully on the ground, more to look for tripping hazards than to check out the trees like I was supposed to. The trees stood out like cone-shaped silhouettes against an even darker horizon. All alone on the pitch-black tree farm, I felt oddly anxious. When you lived with vampires, you got firsthand lessons on human vulnerability in the dark. Cal had provided me with a Taser, “Mr. Sparky,” and some law-enforcement-grade vampire Mace, but those were of only limited comfort to the panicky reptilian portions of my brain. Then again, he did also set off those panicky brain bits by sneaking up on me.
Screw this. I loved my sister, but there were limits. I’d make a focused effort to look for a few minutes and then turn back. Surely Iris would find something to suit her. I just wanted to get out of here without injury.
I swept my flashlight to the left, freezing when the beam of light fell across a small, furry gray body. The body in question whirled on all fours, opening its rat-like muzzle and revealing rows upon rows of sharp white teeth. And despite the fact that I was five feet taller and had a blunt object in my hand, the possum hissed and pulled back its paw as if it was going to swipe at me. I bit back the urge to shriek. Modern, sophisticated women who were able to interview for jobs with undead protection agencies surely didn’t yell for help when encountering a woodland creature.
“Move along, cranky little marsupial,” I told the spitting little bundle of fur. The possum took one last futile “swing” at me and then toddled off, dragging its leathery pink tail in its wake.
I laughed, swiping my hand across my cold cheeks. Randomly, I chose a tree for my “pick.” It was green and had branches. It would do. Turning on my heel, I headed back to our designated meeting point but stopped in my tracks after just a few steps. The clouds slid away from the moon, providing just enough light to get creeped out. I was being watched. I’d spent enough time walking around a college campus after night classes to know when someone’s eyes were on me. Was it Cal trying to test my reflexes again? Well, fine, if he wanted a simulation, we would do a full simulation. Even as the gooseflesh rose on my arms, my hand slid under my coat, reaching for the colloidal silver spray.
A shadow moved down the row of trees, hidden behind the pine boughs. I took a deep breath to offset the nervous tension coiling in my stomach. I would not make the mistake of calling out, “Hello? Who’s there?” like some stupid horror-movie heroine. I would be attacked with some class, damn it.
I pulled the canister loose from my pocket. I felt a little bad about the ease with which I was considering dousing him with a substance that would leave him burned, itchy, and feeling like he’d just made out with dry ice. But honestly, it would teach him to stop sneaking up on me, so it would be a wash, really.
I saw . . . something just beyond the trees. The white outline of a face materialized against the darkness, as quickly as my weak human eyes could detect it. Suddenly, the white shape lunged toward me through the trees, like something out of a bad 3-D movie. I froze, unable to move.
The face became clearer for a split second, a beautiful male face with even features, eyes that reflected an eerie gold under the moonlight. But then the man (ghost? vampire?) retreated into the shadow cast by a large pine. And all I could see was the eyes, standing alone like the Cheshire cat’s, watching me as I watched him.
What did he want? Should I yell for help? Did I need help?
As quickly as the face had appeared, the eyes disappeared, and I heard someone moving quickly away from me, through the trees.
I blinked, waving my hand in front of my face, sure that I was dreaming or experiencing some sort of hallucinatory allergic reaction to fir trees.
I jumped at the voice behind me and screamed. Turning, I slung the canister out and squeezed the trigger before I realized it was Ben standing behind me and not some scary incorporeal face. The stream of colloidal silver flew in a perfect arc, right into his eyes.
“Ah!” Ben yelped, slapping his hands over his face. “What the hell?”
“Oh, my gosh, Ben, I’m so sorry!” I exclaimed, dropping the canister.
“Oh, God, my eyes!” Ben cried. “My eyes! It—wait, no. It doesn’t burn.” He blinked rapidly, and the grayish solution trickled down his cheeks like runny mascara. “I’m OK. What the hell is that?”
“It’s pepper spray for vampires,” I explained, offering him my nubby purple scarf to wipe his eyes. “Microscopic silver bits floating around in liquid. You’re going to be OK. In fact, colloidal silver is used by a lot of health nuts to treat burns and eye infections, so I might have just done you some good.”
There was enough light to see that he was giving me “deadpan face.”
“You’re right, too soon.” I wiped the last of the gray streaks from his cheeks. “What are you even doing here?” I asked, trying not to sound annoyed that my boyfriend had dared to enter my presence.
“Iris invited me. She thought it would be a fun double-date sort of thing. But my mom had a bunch of errands she needed me to run. I told Iris I didn’t think I’d be able to make it,” he said, giving me a quick, familiar peck on the lips. “But here I am.”
OK, now I was annoyed with Iris, which wasn’t fair, because she didn’t know about my growing feelings of “meh” toward my boyfriend. She thought she was doing something nice. What girl in her right mind wouldn’t want Ben Overby to join her on a moonlit stroll among fragrant Christmas trees?
I brushed his damp hair away from his big green eyes. Ben had one of those sweet, all-American faces that practically screamed “let me date your daughter.” An endearing, slightly upturned nose, high cheekbones, and a wide, smiling mouth. Why didn’t that face give me the shivers anymore? Why couldn’t I just be happy with someone who loved me?
“I suck,” I said, sighing.
Shaking myself out of my internal hate-fest, I shrugged and said, “I suck as a girlfriend. Nice girls don’t spray their boyfriends in the face with self-defense chemicals.”
“Eh, you’re not so bad,” he assured me, wrapping an arm around my waist.
Iris and Cal skidded to a stop just in front of us. “Are you OK? We heard yelling,” Iris said. “Oh, hey, Ben. I thought you weren’t coming.”
“Yeah, you heard yelling like five minutes ago,” I scoffed. “Where have you been? I don’t want to be lectured about slow reflexes anymore.”
Cal and Iris didn’t defend themselves, which I found suspicious. I clicked on my flashlight and pointed it at them. Both of them were looking at the ground, their faces flushed and guilty. Well, as flushed as vampires could get, what with the zero-blood-flow issue. And Cal had skipped two buttons on his shirt.
I narrowed my eyes at them. “What took you two so long to get here?”
“We couldn’t find you,” Cal protested.
“You couldn’t find me? With your superhearing and night vision?” I was full-on smirking now. “Are you sure there wasn’t something else distracting you? Something you could be doing in the privacy of your bedroom like normal people instead of dragging loved ones to spooky tree farms as a cover story?”
“Oh, ew,” Ben said, cringing at the thought of my sister and her husband doing dirty, naked things in the woods.
“Shut up, Gigi,” Iris hissed.
“I don’t want to hear any more about putting myself in defenseless, stupid situations, you tragic horror-movie cautionary tales,” I said, pointing my finger in Cal’s face. “And you will not sneak up on me anymore.”
“But you need to stay alert!” Cal protested.
“I just sprayed Ben in the face with colloidal silver. I’m plenty alert.”
“Cal!” Iris exclaimed. “Why have you been scaring Gigi? Is this more of that ‘constant vigilance’ crap?”
Ben raised his hand. “I’m fine, by the way.”
“Iris, can we just pick out a tree, any tree, and get out of here?” I begged her. “I think we’ve covered all of the holiday tradition bases. Fear, loathing, inappropriate sexual behavior. Let’s call it a night.”
“Fine.” Iris sighed, pointing toward a tall blue spruce behind Cal. “Let’s take that one. Cal, start sawing.”
“Yes, dearest.” Putting his vampire strength to practical use, Cal wrapped his hand around the trunk of the tree and yanked it out of the ground by the roots. Bracing the tree against his thighs, he sawed off the roots, leaving a perfectly smooth trunk.
“It’s faster this way,” he insisted.
“Your traditions are weird,” Ben whispered.
I rolled my eyes skyward. “Tell me about it.”
On the first day of Christmas, XOXOAD gave to me…
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