Yes, Astrid, there is a Santa
By Janet Sked
Astrid was in the kitchen getting Billy a drink of water – his third for the night – and I was in my bedroom, hoping she’d keep the kid distracted long enough for me to get the darned presents wrapped.
Billy was six, just starting to really enjoy the Christmassy thing, and the poor little guy was keeping us on our toes over the whole Santa story. He kept trying to get up to see Santa; Astrid and I kept telling him that the old boy wouldn’t pitch up if he was awake. He’d nod and blink those big eyes at us, and the next thing we knew there’d be a kitten trying to sneak down the passage.
Small boys and cats, oh, mama.
Astrid was starting to mutter about kissing him goodnight. Since I did not want a hung over kiddie whimpering under the Christmas tree next morning , I’d vetoed that, but I was starting to entertain the idea in a dark, ratty corner of my mind.
Problem now was it was already 3 a.m. and that meant Billy would miss Christmas all together, which wasn’t acceptable to either of us. Since his mom was currently hiding in the laundry basket under a double-dose of her medication, the two of us were taking turns running frantically after him to make sure he didn’t trip and land on the fire grate, or something worse. With Billy it was almost always something worse, bless him.
Anyway, you wouldn’t think a ghost and a vampire would be worn out by kid, would you? I mean, we’re both technically dead. Still, if you’re a parent and you haven’t reached that stage in your kid’s life, take it from me that they could exhaust the patience of the Dali Lama, and probably out sprint Usain Bolt provided there’s something dangerous they need to go and do while your back’s turned. If we hadn’t been dead we’d probably have been stealing Kitty’s tranquilisers by now.
I heard something rustle in the lounge. To be honest, I thought it was just the tree branches, rubbing against each other.
And then I heard Billy’s gasp of delight, a muttered curse – and the growl of a sleep-deprived, cranky vampire.
I disapparated into the lounge, leaving the gifts to tumble to the bedspread behind me, and flashed into the middle of the room in time to see Astrid lift the guy by the tree off the ground by his neck.
Behind me, Billy started to whimper.
“Astrid,” I sighed. “Please don’t eat the magical construct in front of our boy.”
She glowered over at me, fangs still extended.
“Put him down now, darling. ” I clarified. “You’re upsetting Billy.”
She dropped him with a thump. After a few seconds, he rose unshakily to his feet, and tried to place a small pair of wire-rimmed glasses on the edge of his nose.
“Santa!” Billy lisped.
I glanced at him. I don’t think you could have impressed that child more if you’d turned into a house of candy – and with his appetite, that’s saying something, let me tell you.
“Ho ho ho..” Santa’s voice trailed off as Astrid turned and glared at him again. He looked over at me. “A little help, here, lady?”
“She’s a vampire,” I shrugged. “They’re territorial. You know that.”
He sniffed and rubbed his moustache. “Lady, if I’d known there was a vamp in this house it would have gone to the dawn shift.”
“What?” Astrid said.
“Not our fault if your records aren’t kept up to date,” I answered. “We’ve been here for years.”
“Yeah,” he grunted. “Those little bastards in dispatch are getting slack again. I’ve had two empties tonight and a human, for crying out loud. Don’t know what they get paid for anymore. Damned elves are more trouble than they’re worth sometimes.”
“Wait, what?” Astrid tried again.
“Santa!” Billy shrieked, and bolted forward. He tripped over his own feet in his haste, changed in mid-fall and carried straight on across the room.
“Santa?” Astrid looked she’d just been goosed. “Santa Santa?”
Our guest sighed as a very excited kitten swarmed up his left pants leg. “That’s the name. No need to wear a hole in it.” He winced as a couple of tiny claws dug in. “Couldn’t get him to sleep, huh?”
“Not a hope,” I sighed. “How much trouble will this cause?”
“Oh, it happens with most of them at least once,” he said, freezing as one little paw starting dabbing excitedly at his belt buckle. “Earlier the better, to tell you the truth. Gets all the drama out the way. Ya know, the issues humans have when their kids decide I’m not real are pretty small when the supes realise I am.” He thought about it for a moment. “Especially the wolfen.”
“Real?” Astrid looked from me to him, then back again. “He’s real?”
“Hey! In the room here? Of course I’m real,” he snapped, shuffling over to the sack that lay beside the tree. “What else would I be?”
Astrid flung her hands up. “Nobody in their right mind would be happy about a stranger with an interest in children, who crosses a threshold uninvited, and uncontrolled! I thought you were a human myth.”
He caught Billy deftly as the kitten dropped from his shoulder, patted the soft, furry head almost absently before placing him on the carpet, and looked over at Astrid, face thoughtful behind the whiskers.
“You’re one of the old ones,” he said.
“I was turned before your legends were spoken in my land,” she answered, then shrugged. “I never really had a Christmas celebration until a couple of years ago.”
I must have made some sort of noise, because she smiled at me, quickly. “There wasn’t really a point until I had a family.”
He looked at her, and for a moment something blazed behind his eyes. “Then you know that legends shift, and myths change form. Once upon a time that tree would have stood over gifts that twitched and thrashed. Perhaps it will again, some day.”
“I can do without that, myself, thanks,” I muttered.
Billy the kitten mewed gently, then shifted into a six-year-old boy who promptly stuck his thumb in his mouth, and smiled shyly around it.
Santa stooped and lifted him up by the armpits, then eased himself into the nearest chair.
“I’ve never met a bunch quite like you before,” he said, looking from Billy to the two of us. “How do you celebrate?”
“Ruth cooks for Billy,” Astrid said.
“My pumpkin pie is good,” I agreed. “And a little bit of roast lamb and turkey wings, cranberry sauce and mint jelly on the side.”
“We put up special storm shutters, so I can come out of my room early. We open some presents here,” she nodded at the tree, “and then we sit around the table with those funny hats and squeakers.”
“You pretend to eat?” He was staring at her. “You pretend to eat food?”
“He won’t eat otherwise,” I explained. “So we’ve both gotten good at faking it. Although every now and then Astrid forgets and actually tries to eat something.”
We both shuddered at the memory.
The old man in the chair cuddled our boy, rocking him as his eyelids started to droop, and gaped at us. Then he chuckled and rose.
Astrid stepped forward and took him, and Billy nestled automatically against her shoulder, making snuffling noises in his sleep.
“We have milk and cookies somewhere,” I said.
He shook his head. “Appreciate it, Ma’am, but I’m now unbelievably behind schedule. If you leave a little something out next year, though…”
“We can do that,” Astrid said, stroking the hair away from Billy’s face. “And you are welcome any-”
He was gone.
We looked at each other and shrugged.
As we were leaving the room I realised that there were suddenly two more little red stockings dangling from the mantle, instead of only the one marked with the ragged “B”. Neither one of was very proficient at needlework.
Astrid raised an eyebrow at me.
“It is technically Christmas,” I said.
She grinned as I marched back over and snagged the two stockings.
“One each,” I laughed, and shoved my hand into mine as Astrid mirrored me.
Both of us yelped at the same time, and both withdrew index fingers beaded with a drop of scarlet.
“There’s a note in mine,” I said, sucking my finger.
Astrid was staring at me.
“Ruth,” she whispered. “You’re bleeding.”
Now, ghosts don’t bleed. We cannot bleed, since the physical part of us no longer exists, most of the time. Vampires can, and often do when they cross paths.
I had a moment of quiet hope, and panic, and then I smoothed out the note and read it out loud.
“In my role I am allowed to cast a spell; once a year in one household out of all of the ones I visit. My magic is old, but only strong during this one day of the year, and old magic is blood magic, and I have taken payment from the both of you.
For this day only, from this year forwards, you are mortal. The vampire may eat with her family. The cook may share her love.”
“Oh, my, Lord.” I dropped the note and covered my mouth with both hands.
“Ruth,” Astrid whispered. She was shaking. We both were.
I raised my eyes to meet hers. “So,” I said. “Ever had coffee?”
The turkey, by the way, was marvelous.