I'm Dreaming of an Undead Christmas
Holidays can be fraught with stress and emotional land mines even without one family member becoming a vampire.
—Not So Silent Night: Creating Happy and Stress-Free Holidays with Newly Undead Family Members
My gingerbread man had fangs.
Why did my gingerbread man have fangs?
I glanced over to Miranda Puckett, undead transportation specialist extraordinaire, who refused to take her eyes off the highway. “Your sister’s really excited about you coming home for Christmas, Gigi,” she said, wincing a little. “And she’s worried that you’re not eating enough. That is an obsessive planner’s idea of road-trip snacks.”
“But were the fangs really necessary?” I asked, waving the vampire gingerbread man at her.
I shifted the enormous gift basket of Yuletide vampire-themed goodies that Iris had sent with Miranda, who’d been dispatched on a rare daytime car trip to pick me up from the University of Kentucky. She’d even worn her little black chauffeur cap and a black blazer over her jeans to complete the charade. Several of my dorm mates had been super impressed that my family sent a private car for me, particularly when I hadn’t been home to Half-Moon Hollow for a visit so far this semester. I’d even spent Thanksgiving break with my boyfriend, Ben, and his family. Rumors of my being a relationless waif would be squelched by the time we moved back into the dorm in January.
Miranda shrugged, tossing waves of caramel-colored hair over her shoulder. “Tess seemed to think so. Once she starts piping icing, you don’t really want to get in the way. But bear in mind, Iris is already planning a big Christmas candy exchange for later this week. You, me, Jane, Andrea, Iris, Tess, and Jolene, melting butter and sugar all night long. The boys will be doing something manly that will put Jamie’s emergency bail fund to use.”
The list of invited guests, all ladies Iris had grown close to as she became more involved in the Hollow’s undead community, made me smile. Oddly enough, my closest friend was Jane’s vampire childe, Jamie Lanier, a former Half-Moon Hollow High classmate. Jamie and I had been thrown together a lot over the years—enough that we eventually persuaded Jane to help us establish an emergency bail fund for those “Guys’ Nights Gone Bad” planned by the vampire Dick Cheney. This level of planning already set us apart as the most mature beings in the group.
“Ah, the complete gathering of supernatural super friends. But won’t making enormous batches of peanut butter fudge be sort of rough on people who get nauseated at the smell of food?” I asked.
“Well, yeah, but your sister is trying to make this, quote, ‘the most normal Christmas possible,’ unquote.”
I groaned, closing my eyes and thunking my head against the seat rest. “She broke out the Christmas village, didn’t she?”
“Yes, she did.”
When Iris was feeling nostalgic for our childhood Christmases, the village of tiny ceramic buildings, with their creepy, slightly cross-eyed citizens, would mysteriously materialize on the entryway table.
“She wants to make this special for you, Geeg.”
I sighed, settling back into my seat. Right, she was trying to make this a special visit, because it was my first Christmas since she was turned into a vampire. My life was so weird. “So how is Iris doing, really?”
Miranda brightened. “Under the circumstances, really well. To be honest, I think she’s wanted you to come home since the first night she rose, but she felt she needed time to adjust. Jamie has been a big help to her, believe it or not, as the most recently transformed vampire in our little circle.”
Iris had put off her transition to vampirism as long as she could, waiting until I had a firm start in college and her business was stable enough to take on new employees and daytime managers. In the meantime, she’d planned a beautiful, small ceremony in our garden for her wedding to her vampire beau, Cal, and used my departure for freshman year to take an extended honeymoon. But over the summer, while I was doing an internship in Nashville, their agreed-upon “deadline” arrived. Cal turned my sister with what was probably the most gentle, painless vampire bite ever recorded. And I hadn’t seen her since.
Iris was so worried that she would go vampire-wild and bite me that she wouldn’t allow me to come near her. Despite the fact that Jane and Andrea had made their changes without headline-grabbing feeding frenzies, she insisted on extra “resistance training” from Cal and Collin, Miranda’s boyfriend, to help her ignore the temptation of humans and their delicious blood. She would not see me until she could be sure that I was safe. She proved that when she withdrew my invitation for Thanksgiving at the last minute because she had a panic attack after exposure to raw turkey made her mouth water.
Considering that she’d sent Miranda to fetch me, I could only assume either that Iris was confident in her control or that the idea of my spending Christmas away from home made her feel like the worst parent figure in the world.
Iris was more of a mother to me than a sibling. Our parents died in a car accident when I was twelve. After a disastrous attempt to try to blend me into her life in the big city, Iris gave up college and the career she had planned to bring me back to Half-Moon Hollow and live in our parents’ old house. She even started Beeline, a “daytime concierge service” and event-planning business for vampires, so her schedule would be flexible enough to work with mine.
I knew exactly how hard Iris worked to keep our parents’ house, to feed me, to make me feel like I had some sort of normal life. There were times when I practically choked on my own guilt, seeing the dark circles under her eyes and the worry-bitten nails. I resented her sometimes, for making me feel that way, for taking our parents’ place. And then I realized what a stupid reaction that was, and I went through the whole guilt cycle again.
I was happy that she’d found Cal, quite literally. She tripped over him coming into his kitchen while dropping off a service contract at his house. Cal, an investigator who occasionally worked for the Council, made her happy. He made her feel loved, just for her, not for what she did for him. And now he had made sure she would never age, never die. I had to love him for that alone.
I had no moral objections to Iris being turned. I knew that Cal and Jane claimed that their personalities didn’t change much from their human days—something I found sort of horrifying in Dick’s case. More than anything, I worried that there wouldn’t be room for me in her new life. It wasn’t just a case of new hours or a new diet. Her whole life had changed. She was more now—more powerful, more dangerous. And I was just a human. How could Joh n Hughes movie nights with her baby sister compare with late-night vampire shenanigans?
I flipped down the visor mirror and pressed my fingers to the dark circles under my eyes. Between that and the pale skin, the pouty and slightly dry lips, the sloppily pinned-up dark brown hair, and cheekbones that were just a little exaggerated from recent stress-based weight loss, I was starting to look like a Tim Burton character.
I pulled a small pink bottle out of my suitcase and immediately commenced moisturizing.
I had to stop worrying, I told myself as I rubbed the un-Burtonizing lotion into my face. Iris loved me. Cal loved me. We would make this work. I was only fixating on family issues to keep myself from thinking about my other issues.
“Rough finals week, huh?” Miranda said, patting my shoulder sympathetically.
Yeah, finals. Right. I was worried about grades. That sounded plausible. I nodded.
Miranda gave my shoulder a light squeeze. “Well, close your eyes and rest, hon. We’ve got a few hours before we get home, and I have an audiobook I can listen to. Or if you want, you can climb into the vampire cubby in the backseat and nap back there.”
I capped the moisturizer and pretended to consider that tempting offer for a moment. “Hmm, sleeping in a mobile coffin. Thanks, but no thanks.”
“All part of our state-of-the-art vampire transportation package.”
Miranda served as director for Beeline’s transportation service, supervising three other drivers with specialized vampire-friendly vehicles capable of moving vampires around safely, whether across town or across the country. Iris still ran the wedding-planning division of Beeline but had slowly begun transitioning the daytime concierge duties to several assistants she’d hired over the last few years to prepare for her transition to “nighttime hours.”
“I guess I should thank you for not offering use of the in-car blood warmer.” I snorted, plugged my headphones into my ears, and cranked up the more restful Florence and the Machine tunes. Even over the opening strains of “Seven Devils,” I could make out Miranda’s “Smartass!”
Hours later, Miranda was shaking me awake as we pulled into the driveway of my family’s Half-Moon Hollow home. The old farmhouse had started off as a small one-story structure, but the original owners had added rooms as their family grew. Iris had always been careful to keep up the exterior, with new gutters and fresh robin’s-egg-blue paint on the shutters whenever she could afford it. Of course, now that she had a well-off vampire husband with shadowy income sources and a vampire contractor in her circle of friends, she could afford to freshen the paint whenever she felt like it.
Even with twilight’s purple shadows hovering over the yard, I could make out Iris’s winterized garden. In the summer, the house had looked like an English country cottage with fluffy crepe myrtle, dreamy blue hydrangea, and low-lying golden puddles of shrub verbena. But now all of her plants had been cut down to their “dormant” height, which was next to nothing, and she had supplemented the beds with evergreen shrubs and fanciful little decorative touches such as gazing balls and the wrought-iron fawn Cal and I had bought her for Mother’s Day.
Iris got a little depressed over the winter months, not being able to go out and dig in the dirt. I wondered if this winter would be easier on her, knowing that really wasn’t an option anyway, what with her whole new “bursting into flames when exposed to daylight” issue.
Miranda helped me haul my bags to the porch and, to my surprise, followed me into the house. As soon as I’d shut the door and safely blocked out the last of the sun’s rays, Cal rushed out of the shadows in the recessed foyer, threw his arms around me, and left my feet dangling four inches off the floor.
“Huhhh ngg,” I wheezed against Cal’s chest as he squeezed my little human lungs. I caught a glimpse of Miranda grinning at me over Cal’s shoulder as she headed toward the kitchen. “Hi, Cal.”
“We missed you so much, Gigi,” Cal whispered. I smiled, rubbing my cheek against his old Clash T-shirt. Tall, dark, and badass, Cletus Calix was a veteran of the Trojan War, had a bronze short sword hidden on his person at all times, and was a heck of a hugger. “Now, tell me, how is school?” he asked, setting me on my feet.
He grinned. “Really, truly fine, or ‘there are upsetting details I don’t want to share with you, beloved brother of mine’?”
“Really, truly fine,” I promised.
“The boy who was giving you trouble?”
I raised an eyebrow. “Mysteriously stopped coming to class, and when I crossed paths with him in the student union a few weeks later, he turned and ran away like his creepy little pants were on fire. Oh, and then he dropped out of school.”
Cal crossed his arms over his considerable pecs. “I can’t say that I am sad to hear that. I can only hope that he spends his ample free time contemplating the dangers of ignoring the word ‘no’ when a young woman refuses to date him.”
“I don’t want to know what you threatened him with, do I?”
“It wasn’t me,” Cal promised me, sounding astonishingly prim. “It was an associate . . . and he may have informed the little cretin that if he continued to harass you or any other lady unfortunate enough to cross his path, the vampire community would find a way to defy medical science and demonstrate cranial-rectal inversion.”
“You told him you would stick his head up his own butt?”
He nodded curtly. “Yes, we did.”
I tilted my head, smiling up at him. “I sort of love you.”
“You absolutely love me.”
It was the kind of statement that would have made Mr. No Emotional Attachment freeze up and mutter to himself when we first met. And that made me love him all the more. So I hugged him again. “I do.”
Cal patted my back, and I felt a strange little shudder in his chest, as if it was difficult for him to draw the breath that he didn’t actually need.
“Are you going to cry?” I asked. “Please don’t. Your eyes go all gross and bloody when you cry.”
“I might have, but I think you’ve ruined the moment.”
I heard several cars outside pull to a stop in our driveway. Doors opened and slammed, followed by the sound of nimble footsteps clipping up to the porch. Miranda opened the door just wide enough for several moving-blanket-covered figures to dash inside.
“What the?” The fact that Cal wasn’t shoving me behind him in a defensive stance indicated that he was expecting our guests.
“Really, guys, I think the blankets were a little much,” Jane grumbled as she whipped hers off her head and tried to tame her chestnut hair. “There’s barely any daylight left.”
“Miranda’s arrival text came at fifteen minutes before sunset, Jane,” her husband, Gabriel, said, pulling off his own blanket. “And with your rate of flammability, we shouldn’t take any chances.”
“It’s not that bad,” Jane insisted.
“Jane, you lit your sleeve on fire while carrying your mom’s birthday cake,” Dick Cheney said as he dropped his blanket, revealing a T-shirt that read, “Indifferent people, unite! . . . Maybe.”
“She’s sixty-two. That’s a lot of candles.”
“OK, but you lit your sleeve up twice,” Dick’s wife, Andrea, noted. I sort of wanted to be Andrea when I grew up. Always put together, always dressed in beautifully tailored, elegant dresses and shoes that made me drool, she reminded me of a redheaded January Jones. How she managed being married to a man whose entire wardrobe seemed to consist of mildly offensive and/or sarcastic T-shirts, I would never understand.
“Yeah, yeah, Jane’s a klutz, but we love her anyway.” Jane’s childe and my old friend, Jamie, huffed, tossing his blanket at Gabriel and nearly side-tackling me in his urgency to hug me.
This was the problem with teenage vampires. They occasionally acted like overgrown puppies with fangs. Although I’d just teased Cal for getting all emotional, I had to admit that I was getting a little misty myself. I’d missed my family, including my extended vampire “aunts and uncles” and whatever weird hybrid brother-friend-cousin I considered Jamie. Sure, we’d had Skype chats. Andrea and Jane sent care packages full of iTunes gift cards, Tess’s killer fudge brownies, and Tom Hiddleston DVDs. Collin and Gabriel used “helping Gigi with her history classes” as an excuse for calling to check up on me. Miranda and Dick sent wildly inappropriate e-mails detailing Jane’s and Jamie’s latest wacky antics. But it wasn’t the same as seeing them in person, their goofy expressions, their laughter, the way their banter bounced and volleyed. The people in Jane’s circle chose one another because they truly enjoyed the company, the conversation, the confusion that happened when they got together. It was loud and crazy, and sometimes someone got shot with a stray poisoned arrow, but it was never boring.
“Hey, Dead Guy.” I laughed, wrapping my arms around Jamie’s neck. Jamie was the same blond, green-eyed, all-American boy he’d always been, down to the worn jeans and Half-Moon Hollow Howlers baseball shirt. All he was missing was the tan. It was a little weird, seeing him stuck forever at seventeen while I was about to turn twenty. Eventually, I would start to wrinkle and get gray streaks in my hair, but Jamie would always be frozen as his unusually handsome teenage self. My only consolation was that he was going to be carded forever.
“Nerd Queen!” Jamie exclaimed, spinning me around. “Thank the Lord, you’re back! You have no idea what it’s like putting up with these stiffs when you’re not around.”
Jane smirked as she lightly shoved Jamie out of the way so she could hug me. I loved this woman. If Andrea was my fashion role model, Jane was my verbal ninja master. I had happily studied at her feet for years as her smartass Padawan. “You know,” Jane said, “comments like that convince me that you’re not quite mature enough to move out on your own. You’re snarking yourself into living with your sire long-term. You’re going to be that guy who lives in his parents’ basement—forever.”
Jamie shuddered. “And you wonder why I whistled a happy tune while I filled out my college applications.”
“I whistled a happy tune while you filled out your college applications,” Gabriel muttered, making me giggle as he pressed a quick kiss to my cheek.
After spending two semesters taking somewhat belated community college classes and proving that he could function in a classroom without devouring his classmates, Jamie was joining me at UK that fall. And his girlfriend, Ophelia Lambert, was not happy about the prospect of Jamie spending all of his time out of her sphere of influence. Moving to campus with him was not an option, as her position as head of the local Council for the Equal Treatment of the Undead demanded too much of her time. She was an unhappy girl all around. And according to the red-flagged e-mails Jane sent me, Ophelia seemed to be blaming me for her unhappiness, since I was the one who had helped Jamie through the application process. Which sort of sucked, since she had vampire powers and low impulse control and was quite possibly the most terrifying permanent teenager I had ever met.
“I heard that,” Jamie yelled, tossing a glitter-dusted pinecone angel at Gabriel’s dark head.
“I wanted you to,” Gabriel said, as an un-blanket-covered Sam Clemson walked through the door.
I guessed the threat of daylight had finally passed, which sort of made Gabriel and Dick’s insistence on protecting Jane from herself that much funnier. But Gabriel had turned the poor woman after a drunk hunter mistook her for a deer and shot her; I supposed their concern for her well-being wasn’t unreasonable.
Sam, a lanky, recently turned contractor with a broad, impish smile, raised his eyebrows at the pile of blankets on the foyer floor. “Was there a sleepover?” he asked, his big brown eyes twinkling with laughter that he had the good sense to hold in. Jane stared at the ceiling as if she was praying for patience as I gave Sam a big hug. And it wasn’t just because he was holding a takeout container from Tess’s restaurant, Southern Comforts, that I was 99 percent sure contained my favorite bacon-infused macaroni and cheese.
Yes, that’s right. Sam, a vampire who couldn’t eat solid food because of a vampire’s lack of digestive enzymes, lived with a chef. Irony can be a real jerk sometimes.
Rounding out our wacky cast of undead guest stars, Collin Sutherland poked his head through the door.
“Was there a sleepover?” he asked, icy blue eyes narrowed slightly. “I don’t know whether to be hurt that I wasn’t invited or grateful that I wasn’t invited.”
“That’s why you weren’t invited!” Miranda, his girlfriend, yelled from the kitchen.
Collin and I weren’t in the “hug circle” of friendship yet, so I politely extended my hand, belatedly remembering that (1) a female-to-male handshake reach would be considered forward by a vampire who’d fought in the Revolutionary War, and (2) even if my feminist welcome gestures didn’t offend Redcoat sensibilities, Collin didn’t do handshakes. Collin was a psychic, able to see the potential futures of people he came into contact with. So he wasn’t a touchy-feely guy. Before Miranda had dragged him out into the world, he’d lived in relative seclusion in the woods for almost a hundred years.
I pulled my hand back and ever so smoothly transitioned to the awkward half wave. “Welcome, Collin.”
Collin smiled—in relief, I suppose, for not having to rudely reject gestures of friendship from his hosts’ kin.
“What’s with all of the vampire guests?” I asked Cal. “Not that I mind the undead welcome wagon, but I just got home. Surely Iris isn’t having a party?”
I looked up to Jamie. “Oh, no, is there some sort of crisis? What is it this time? Senior citizen vampires poisoning people with plants? Supernatural scavenger hunt? Megalomaniacal real estate developers going after Gabriel’s house this time?”
“No, I think we’ve already done those,” Jamie said, shaking his head.
“Also, technically, Gabriel’s house is mine,” Dick added.
“We’re not having a crisis,” Cal insisted. “No more than usual, anyway. Iris just wanted some moral support.”
“Moral support or backup in case she loses it and tries to make me into an appetizer?”
Jamie wrinkled his nose. “Wow, super inappropriate, Gigi.”
“Yes, you’re selling yourself short, Geeg, you’re at least a small entrée, like one of those microwavable pot pies,” Sam suggested.
“So I’m frozen convenience food in this scenario?” I frowned. “That’s insulting.”
“I can hear you, you know!” Iris yelled from upstairs.
“Why is everybody making such a big deal out of this?” I asked Jane. “She’s had months to adjust. She’s been around humans since she was turned, and far as I know, she didn’t bite any of them. There would have been a news story or a tweet or something.”
“It’s different being around the people we love for the first time,” Jane said. “And maybe I might have told her the story about trying to drain Zeb on my first night out. A few times. I told her the story several times.”
I glared at her.
She bit her bottom lip. “Sorry.”
“It’s a funny story!” she exclaimed. “Zeb stabbed me! A bunch of times. To comedic effect.”
And yet more glaring.
“Sorry,” she said again. “And I’ve tried to make up for it. From her first night, we worked with her on desensitizing her to human scents. Zeb and Miranda hung out here a lot, because Zeb is used to being our guinea pig by now. She took right to it, of course. And Jamie helped, sharing his little tricks on how to distract himself. She hasn’t had a single slip, but she still can’t relax. It’s like she thinks she can drill the thirst out of herself. She’s really nervous about this, Gigi. And if you freak out or reject her—”
“I won’t,” I promised her.
“It’s easy to say that,” Jane told me. “I’m not screwing around, Gigi. You’re going to have to put on some big-girl panties here.”
“The big-girl panties are firmly in place.”
“Good.” Jane pressed a large wooden stake into my hand. “Now, hold on to this.”
“No!” I cried. “That’s crazy. Knowing my luck, one of us will stumble, and I’ll end up staking her. Iris, stop being the drama queen of the damned and get down here!”
“Does she have the stake?” Iris called from the top of the stairs.
“She won’t take the stake!” Jane said in a completely normal tone, knowing that Iris, with vampire superhearing, could hear us just fine from upstairs.
“Make her take it!”
“No!” I yelled.
“Gladiola Grace Scanlon, I won’t come down there unless you have some way of defending yourself. Now, take the stake!”
I winced at the use of my unfortunate birth name and shot Jamie a death glare when he snickered. “No using my full name, Iris, that’s not playing fair! Get down here!”
“Fine.” I heard her sigh. “Jane, is everybody ready?”
“Yes, we’re all at our stations. Come on down,” Jane told her. “I promise, it’s going to be OK, Iris.”
Hearing Iris’s feather-light footsteps on the stairs, I turned, and my jaw dropped. Iris had always been pretty, even sweet-faced, with large, expressive, forget-me-not-blue eyes and the wild dark curls we’d both inherited from our parents. Now the hair that occasionally frizzed before was shiny and softly framed her face. Her eyes seemed darker and larger, bottomless and full of secrets. She was still Iris, the woman who’d baked for my school’s PTA fund-raisers and emergency-basted my prom dress at the last minute when I stepped on the hem. But now she was also otherworldly and dangerous, like one of the exotic poisonous plants she loved to study.
When she smiled, two razor-sharp, blinding white fangs crept over her bottom lip. Flinching, she clapped her hand over her mouth.
All the other vampires in the room snapped to attention at once. I felt Jamie step ever so slightly closer to me, his hands brushing my elbows, as if he would jerk me across the room to safety at a moment’s notice. Jane and Gabriel seemed especially tense, crouching expectantly on either side of Iris.
I rolled my eyes. “She’s not a flipping serial killer. Calm down, everybody!” I reached out to take Iris’s hand. It was oddly cool to the touch, but it was the same. Her fingers curled around mine and squeezed gently. They had the same weight, the same old scars.
“Hey, Geeg,” Iris whispered.
A little sob escaped my throat as I threw my arms around her neck and hugged her tight. Jane and Gabriel stepped closer, but I gave both of them the stink-eye over Iris’s shoulder.
I closed my eyes tight as my big sister folded her arms around me.
“Hey, Iris. It’s good to be home.”