The lights of Nocte Urbis flashed red, green and gold. A few of them were icicle-blue, a purplish sheen imbued with the frost. The crowd shuffled in the snow — hats on heads, scarves around necks, mittens on hands. The flakes fell with relaxed ease — they were in no rush, they had all the time in the world.
Mayor Frank gripped the podium, the bolts in his neck replaced with striped candy canes. “Ladies and gentlemen! Thank you all so much for coming out in such force this fine December evening. It’s wonderful to see so many of you! Lots of old faces — Drac, I’m looking at you!” Frank bellowed a volley of laughter, as did the crowd. “And a few new ones, too.” The eight-foot-tall man smiled at his audience. His forehead was cavemanlike. Stitches and staples were visible at the joins in his green flesh.
Thomas Walker watched from the far edge of the crowd, arms crossed. Two elongated teeth hooked over his lower lip. Despite his air of recent grumpiness, a smile tugged at the corners of his mouth. The lights from his shop cast a warm orange glow on the blanket of white that cushioned the ground. The sign above the door said ‘BLOODY GOOD’.
“And we’re here tonight,” Frank gestured at the greenery behind, “to light this Christmas tree!” A round of applause, cheers and hoots. Delirious and cheerful. “Felled by the multitalented Mr Yeti.” The mayor pointed into the crowd. “There he is, folks! He’s shy, so be sure to give him a round of applause and tell him your thanks!” Mr Yeti blushed and waved a booklet of Christmas hymns — tiny in his humungous paw.
Anna Von smiled at the new faces, most of whom she’d yet to meet. Several of her treats were in circulation in the crowd, given out for free to try and drum up business. A stylised calligraphic font out front read ‘Soul Food’. The ghost eyed the vampire across the way, arms folded, face stony. They’d had an altercation the day before, but they’d settled into a ceasefire. For the time being, at least.
“…and with thanks to our more nimble and winged friends for putting the lights up,” said Mayor Frank. The faeries, goblins, gnomes and leprechauns danced over the branches of the pines. Small squeaks and cheers. One or two of the more fastidious creatures altered a bauble here and adjusted a light there. “Now, for our resident tinkerer, Dr Mad Scientist. Mad, if you’d do the honours of turning on the lights!”
Mad grinned and waved at the mayor. He’d altered his genes — to last a month, or so he predicted — to give himself antlers and a shiny red nose. To get into the holiday spirit. He raised his finger.
“TEN, NINE, EIGHT, SEVEN,” said the crowd, led by Frank.
Dr Scientist lowered his finger.
“SIX, FIVE, FOUR, THREE.”
Anticipation in the air.
Mad hit the switch, and the Christmas tree thumped into life. Bulbs dazzled, colours flared. Glitter twinkled, gold and silver. The lights winked in and out of existence. The crowd oohed and ahhed and rained thunderous applause upon Dr Scientist. Overhead, the dragons breathed flames — red, orange, green, blue — into the winter’s night.
Frank extended his arms — a wingspan of almost ten feet. “Let the festivities begin!”
“And a-one, and a-two, and a-one-two, three, four…” The zombies groaned into the night. Their choir was a backdrop for the banshees, who wailed their carols in harmony.
After a slight pause, the crowd joined in. Werewolves with baubles hooked into their fur began to howl, the melody one we all know. Mummies — bandages exchanged for wrapping paper — moaned along. Not quite as rehearsed as the choir, but with more than enough enthusiasm. Unicorns, Christmas lights wrapped around their horns, stomped their hooves and whinnied. Basilisks with tinsel twisted around their bodies slithered over the ground. They hissed their good cheer. Giants and orcs and ogres and cyclopses with Santa hats began to mill about. They laughed amongst friends, mugs of hot chocolate and gluhwein in hand.
Thomas sighed. He shut his shop door and flipped the sign around. ‘SORRY, WE’RE OPEN’ became ‘COME ON IN, WE’RE CLOSED’. The bell overhead tinkled on his way out. The vampire raised his cloak to his eyes and stole through the crowd.
“Hey, how we doing tonight?”
“Yeah, Merry Christmas to you too!”
“Haha, yeah, it sure is!”
“Glad you’re liking ‘em, I’ll bake more tonight!”
“Ooh, I love that outfit. Make it yourself?”
“Yeah, happy holidays!”
“I know, brr, right? Hear it’s gonna get down to the minuses tomorrow!”
He broke free of the throng on the other side and came face to face with the ghost. The pair eyed each other for a moment, the vampire and the spirit. Anna hovered six inches above the ground, shop visible through her translucent body.
“Hello, Anna,” he said.
“Thomas.” The ghost nodded.
The vampire looked up at the snow that fell. “Lovely weather we’re having, hm? Looks to be a white Christmas.”
Anna followed his gaze. “Hmm. Quite.”
An awkward silence fell over them.
“You here to chew me out again?”
He smiled. “No, Anna. I came to say that I’m sorry.”
Anna looked shocked for a moment. “Oh.”
“I’ve thought about what I said, and it doesn’t make any sense.”
“That you’d get annoyed over a bakery that doesn’t even cater to the same kind of customers as your own?”
Thomas watched as a ghost floated past, a ghost cookie in hand. He nodded. “Yeah, something like that.” He sighed. “So, yeah, I’m sorry. Truce?”
Anna nodded. “Truce.”
Another moment of silence.
Anna cleared her throat. “So, what was it? Holiday grumpiness? Pre-January blues?”
Thomas let his gaze drop to the snow on the ground between them. A billion flakes of glitter twinkled their reflections of the Christmas lights. “No, I don’t think it was that at all.” The vampire swallowed the spit that had accumulated in his mouth. “You know how kids on the playground can be mean to those whom they like?” He raised his eyebrows but continued to stare at their feet. Or, rather, his feet and her ghost mist that petered away into nothing.
She hadn’t understood.
Thomas raised his face — it was a great effort. As if stuck in treacle. “Well…”
“Oh.” Anna’s eyes widened. “Oh!”
Thomas blushed. The colour in his cheeks was rather strange. “Sorry.”
A fluttered heartbeat.
Her voice softened. “Don’t be.”
His dead heart trembled and stumbled over its step. Was it too absurd to read reciprocation in that warmth? Was it so crazy to hope? To dream? Shoot for the moon. If you miss, you’ll land in the cold void of space with no oxygen to breathe. Which will be fine, because you’re a vampire and you’re undead.
Thomas hooked a thumb in the direction of his store. Baked treats infused with human blood were ready to take out of the oven. “I’ve gotta get back. Busy season, and all.”
Anna smiled at him — a proper one. There was nothing perfunctory or businesslike about it.
“Would it be — and please, be honest here, I won’t be offended. In fact, I think I know what the answer will be, which will be okay. I mean, you’re allowed to make your own decisions, and I don’t want to be presumptuous. It’s just that, well, if you never take your shot, you’ll never score, will you?” The vampire rushed to correct himself. “Not that I think of being with you will be scoring — gosh no, I just—”
“I’d love to. How about coffee, once we’re both closed up for the evening? We can talk. Properly, this time.” She offered him a grin. “No more hair-pulling.”
“Get back to your shop, Thomas.” Anna winked at him. “We’ll talk later.”
Thomas nodded, tongue wrapped into knots at the back of his mouth. He smiled at her. “Merry Christmas, Anna.”
The ghost smiled back. “Merry Christmas, Thomas.”