Authors: Shauna Granger
By Shauna Granger
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events or locales is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without prior written permission from the author.
Published by Shauna Granger
Copyright © 2014 by Shauna Granger
Cover art by Shauna Granger
This book is for all my fellow Christmas-babies,
who have to share their birthday
with one of the biggest holidays of the year.
We all get the shaft, so this is your birthday gift from me.
And no, this doesn’t “count for both.”
Too many bodies were pressed around me. Strange, strangled music whined overhead, desperate to be heard over the masses. The air was stifling, both too cold and too hot. A pain was forming at the base of my head as stress and strain became almost too much to bear.
A child was on the floor, crying so hard that her face was red and streaked with tears, and she was on the verge of hyperventilating. Her mother stood over her, on the brink of tears herself, completely at a loss of what to do. Should she drag the child out of the melee? Break down and cry with her? Give up and let the mass of bodies trample them both? I was suddenly grateful I didn’t have any munchkins to look after.
Holiday shopping was murder without having to tote around exhausted children.
My arms shook under the weight of my purchases. The line was never going to move. It was a fact I’d come to accept. It was the queue to Hell, and we’d all lined up like sheep to the slaughter. Eventually I set my items on the floor so I could shove them with one booted foot every time we shuffled forward an inch. I’d found presents for everyone, even a little something for Fletcher. Picking it out had given my heart a little twist of guilt, though. I’d led the poor man on only to reject him. Not for the first time, I considered putting it back, but we were supposed to be friends, and friends exchanged presents at Christmastime.
A man behind me groaned when “Jingle Bells” rang out over the sound system—again. I, too, felt the rake of nails down my back as the tiny silver bells began their incessant jingle jangle. It may be a different band singing their own very special rendition, but the store had played the damn song too many times to count as we all stood in that line praying for a swift death. I was tempted to give up on the queue to Hell, but I’d been looking for the perfect gift for Joey for over a week. Smert, her tiny cream-and-green dragon she’d gotten at Samhain, was getting bigger, and his wings stronger, so I’d found a tiny green harness decorated with rhinestones that she could put on him to keep him tethered to her wrist.
My forehead was beaded with sweat. I unwound my scarf and shoved it into my purse, along with my fingerless gloves. Pulling my jacket open, I tried to cool myself off to no avail.
December in Southern California was kinda weird, truth be told. The days were warm thanks to the hot, dry Santa Ana winds, but when the sun set, the temperature dropped dramatically, reminding us it was actually winter. Department stores and malls never handled the volatile weather well. During the day, they cranked on the AC while Williams-Sonoma brewed hot apple cider, then at night, the heat blasted until shoppers were roasting like holiday hams.
Havencrest was doing everything in its supernatural power to make our neighborhood as Christmas-Yuletide-Solstice-Saturnalia-ish as possible. Every year, a committee was formed to organize a city-wide holiday that combined all the holidays into one glorious glitter-fest.
The streets were strung with twinkling fairy lights and glittering pixie dust that made the snow shimmer like fresh-cut diamonds. Witches and fairies worked together to create a nearly invisible barrier along the city perimeter to hold out the hot winds and keep the temperature low enough for the enchanted snow that flittered down from the top of the dome, making it feel as if we were in the world’s biggest snow globe. The town would’ve felt claustrophobic if the barrier were impenetrable, but after years of tests, they’d come up with the perfect spell. The barrier stood against the weather but allowed living creatures and vehicles to pass through without constantly breaking it.
When we were kids, we used to dare each other to run up to the edge and pop the bubble without getting caught by the Wardens. Our game was ruined when Mackenzie Benson fried all her pretty hair after they’d put a curfew on the barrier with a jinx that attacked anyone who tried to disturb the spells before daybreak. Mac wasn’t allowed to play with us again after that.
But it did force the committee to take off the curfew. So many humans lived and worked within the supernatural community, not to mention the few races that didn’t keep nocturnal hours, that a curfew was a ridiculous idea. But no matter. Now the barrier was a thin, soap-like bubble that stretched and reformed easily as people, vehicles, and animals passed through it.
We shuffled forward another inch, and I could finally see the head of the cashier just a few people away. The music shifted to “Come All Ye Faithful,” and the round of groans around me almost drowned out the crying child. I’d been shopping all day, foolishly trying to get every single gift I needed in one fell swoop. My hair was clinging to the edges of my sweaty face, my back ached, and I was sure I would have to cut my boots off my swollen feet.
I fucking loved Christmas.
My phone vibrated in my bag against my thigh. I dug it out as I gave my boxes a shove with my foot, moving up in line. I was next. It was a friggin’ miracle.
Ron-ron: Where are you?
Me: Seventh Circle of Hell.
Ron-ron: I told you not to go to the mall.
Me: Thank you, Great and Powerful Oz.
Ron-ron: Har har. Hurry up. You’ve got customers.
I dropped my phone back into my bag, blowing my bangs out of my eyes. Something was happening behind the bank of registers, but I couldn’t tell what. I leaned forward to hear what they were tittering about, but then a man stepped in front of me, so close that he popped my bubble of personal space. He looked human enough in his tennis shoes, jeans, and grey Black Witch White Magic T-shirt. But looks were deceiving. His aura pulsed against mine so that my senses were filled with the feeling of open spaces, the scent of bark and grass, and the warmth of sunshine. But under all that was the push of primal, animalistic allure. Tree nymph.
I jerked back and hissed, “Toads!”
“Well,” he said, dragging the word out with a waggle of eyebrows. “What do you say to a little Yuletide cheer?” He leered at me, leaning in and giving his head a shake so that bells jingled overhead.
I looked up, feeling my face pull in a grimace as I eyed the mistletoe and bells attached to his Santa hat by a thin wire. “Oh good gods.” I leaned back, almost touching the guy in line behind me as I tried to put some space between me and the randy nymph.
“Whaddya say? Bet a pretty little witch like you could really renew my Christmas spirit.”
He winked at me, and I felt as though I was trapped in some sort of cheesy vaudeville act. Even the bouncy version of “Mr. Heatmiser” overhead added to the surreal moment. The nymph wiggled his hips to make the bells jingle again, and I knew he wasn’t asking for a kiss.
“Seriously? You think it’s okay to talk to women like that? Beat it, creep,” I said with a flick of my fingers, zapping him with a controlled flash of power.
It snapped at his face, making him yelp and jump back. A hand flew to his face as if I’d slapped him. I kinda wished I had.
“There are kids around here, for the love of frogs!” I pointed at the crying child and her mother, who was now sitting on the floor with her, defeated.
“Take it easy,” he said, all good humor gone from his face and voice. “Just a little joke.”
“Yeah, real funny.” I threatened him with another jolt of power, but he turned and ran before I could zap him. I heard a snicker behind me, and I looked over my shoulder to see a guy with just one small box in his hand.
“Sorry,” he said, putting up his empty hand in surrender. “But why did you say there were kids around? I know he was being gross, but it’s just a kiss.”
I eyed him for a moment, letting my aura touch his. He was just a human on the supernatural side of town. “It’s not, though.”
“Humans think it’s just a quick, innocent kiss, but really the tradition is a lot more…” I paused to think of the right word. “Uh,
, if you get my meaning.”
He furrowed his brow, so I lifted mine, giving him a pointed look. His eyes went wide and I knew he got what I meant.
“Wait, you mean…?”
“Down and dirty,” I said with a nod. “In front of people usually.”
“Right.” I bent over to pick up my items, seeing a register clearing.
I watched the guy’s eyes dart over to a display of joke mistletoe items. Some were innocent enough, like the cheesy Santa hat the nymph wore, but others were less discreet, like the ones that hooked onto a belt buckle so the mistletoe hung right in front of…
“Happy holidays!” I said, overly cheery, as I walked away from the dumbstruck human.
Humans had done a great job of muddling all the different winter holidays into one giant mishmash, so it was easier for us to celebrate our lovely pagan ways like we normally would, with evergreens, lights, feasting, and gift giving. But they’d gotten a few details wrong or just decided to change them, so after many generations, they didn’t realize what they were doing sometimes—like “kissing” under the mistletoe.
“Hi,” the cashier said with too-wide eyes and a strained smile.
“Hello,” I said cautiously, setting my purchases on the counter.
“Um.” The cashier looked as though he was on the verge of tears as he hesitated to start ringing me up.
I couldn’t handle any more crying. “Oh gods, what?”
“Our system has gone down.”
“You have got to be kidding me right now.”
“I’m sorry, but no, I’m not.”
“I just stood in line for over an hour.” I knew that didn’t make a difference to their stupid electronic devices, but I had to say it anyway. “You are not going to tell me I can’t buy these.”
“No, no,” he said. “I’ll just have to do everything manually.”
He held up a calculator and old-school credit card swiper that would take an imprint of my card. His smile pulled painfully at his face. I thought he was waiting for me to explode, but I just didn’t have the energy.
“Awesome.” I braced my hands on the counter and let my head drop. It stretched my aching back, so I stayed like that as he punched prices into the sad little calculator. My phone vibrated again, and I pulled it out, clearing the panicked text from Ronnie telling me to get my witchy butt home. What did she think? That I liked being trapped in the mall?
“Okay,” the cashier said, bringing my attention back to him. “So then I add the tax. Um. Oh, hold on.” He turned away to talk to his manager, holding the calculator out for help.
“You’re killing me,” I muttered. I forced myself to stay standing, but all I wanted to do was lie on the ground and throw a tantrum so big it would shut up that little girl. I heard my mother’s voice in my head telling me to behave, that Yule wasn’t far off, and if I wasn’t careful, Krampus would visit me. A shudder went through my whole body, drawing me upright and squaring my shoulders.
I glanced at the girl screaming on the floor and considered telling her the story of Krampus and what he did to little girls who threw tantrums in public. Her mother was practically melting under the strain of carrying shopping bags and trying to negotiate and rationalize with the child, but she’d gone Chernobyl. There was no hope left.
“Sorry,” the cashier said, his manager at his shoulder.
She didn’t even bother to greet me or give me a fake smile. She just muttered over his shoulder, pointing at the calculator. We watched him punch the keys, and a surprised look crossed his face.
He grinned at me, so proud of himself, and said, “That’s two-thirty-five eighty-five.”
A jolt went through my body. How could so little add up to so much? After closing my mouth, I stared at my items, trying to decide if I should put something back. Maybe I really didn’t need to get Fletcher that dragon-head ring? But what if he got me something? Ronnie’s parents never expected anything from me, but this was the first year I could actually afford to get them something. So their silver picture frame was definitely staying. Besides, it was already engraved. I just needed a childhood picture of me and Ronnie to fill it.
Ronnie’s gift was just symbolic so she had something to open. Her real gift was going to be going to one of my clients’ houses to pick out a new familiar. Ronnie didn’t know it yet. She’d been on the lookout for a new familiar for a couple months, and when Antonia told me Mrs. Jangles had gotten pregnant thanks to the neighbor cat, I just had a feeling it was meant to be. But I wanted Ronnie to have something to actually open, so I’d bought a new collar with a blank nametag for the soon-to-be familiar. That wasn’t very expensive, so I couldn’t justify putting it back.
Besides that, all the goodies I’d picked out were for thank-you baskets for my regular clients and foodie gift baskets for Jameson, Kyle, and Spencer. Nothing was that expensive. It just all added up.
With a long-suffering sigh, I handed over my credit card, grateful I’d managed to pay the balance down over the last couple of months. But damn if that machine didn’t sound like a gunshot when they passed the swiper back and forth over my card. The tearing noise the carbon copy paper made as the cashier pulled it away sent a chill down my back.
“Have a happy holiday!” he said as he handed me the filmy receipt.
I tried to smile as I took it, but even I could tell it wasn’t a pretty smile. He tried not to flinch at the sight of my face, gods bless him, but his smile faded at the corners. I took my bags, my shoulders protesting their weight as I turned to fight through the throng of people. On my way to the car, I stopped at the coffee shop and spent another twenty minutes in line to get a little pick-me-up before I faced the horde waiting at my apartment. A dark chocolate cherry mocha with an extra shot was just what this tired witch needed.