Silent Night, Haunted Night, страница 1
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Silent Night, Haunted Night
This one is for Anna and Keith.
May they live happily ever after.
Ebenezer Scrooge isn’t the only person who’s ever had to deal with ghosts at Christmas.
You remember the tale; crabby old man, three spirits coming to visit on Christmas Eve—the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present, and Future—all there to show him the error of his ways and to give him a second chance at life before it was too late.
Unlike Scrooge, my second chance at life came much earlier. My name is Nicki Styx, and I’m only twenty-nine. A faulty heart valve nearly did me in last year. In fact, it did do me in; I’ve been to the other side and back again—and I mean that quite literally. Bright light, tunnel, and lifetime instructions to “do unto others as I’d have done unto me” before waking up in the hospital, sore and forever changed. I was very lucky, although getting kicked out of the afterlife definitely came with some strings attached; the restless dead, the ones who weren’t so lucky, keep popping up with unfinished business, expecting me to finish it for them.
Which I do, if I can.
Even if it gets me in trouble, which it frequently does.
This year, however, the holidays seem to have brought nothing but trouble: three unpleasant spirits out to teach me a lesson for interfering in the “natural order of things.” Three ghouls, three harpies, three sisters in crime…better known as the Three Fates.
The worst of the three is a succubus, a beautiful woman who can seduce any man alive by invading his dreams.
I know ’tis the season to be jolly, but this year, Santa’s “ho, ho, ho” is all too real, and worse—she’s out to steal my boyfriend.
A little girl’s laughter woke me in the middle of the night. High-pitched, giggly, and quickly shushed.
“Quiet, Kate. You’ll wake them.” A woman’s whisper, delivered in a scolding tone. “I like watching young lovers sleep.”
“Too late,” came another feminine voice, at normal volume. “Her eyes are open.”
My eyes were open, but I seriously doubted what they were seeing. Floating in the air directly above my bed, peering down at me as if I were a bug under a microscope, were three faces: a little girl, a beautiful dark-haired woman, and an old lady. Just faces, no bodies attached. I wasn’t dreaming, though I’d been asleep a moment ago—I could feel the mattress beneath me, see the gleam of my digital clock from the corner of my eye. Terrified, I tried to scream, to leap from the bed, but I was frozen in place, completely unable to move. To my right lay my boyfriend, Joe, warm and solid, and snoring very faintly.
“He’s quite handsome, isn’t he?” the brunette said to the others. “This will be no hardship.”
In my mind, my hand clawed at Joe’s sleeping figure, and my throat filled with shrieks. In reality, I just lay there like a block of wood, my heart beating a mile a minute, as I stared wild-eyed at the trio of disembodied spirits who’d obviously decided to pay me a visit in the middle of the night. My panicked gaze passed briefly over the clock—it read 3:00 a.m. on the dot, in big blue numbers that were hard to miss.
“You’re such a slut, Selene,” said the old woman, shaking her head. Her gray hair was scraggly, lank, framing a face seamed with wrinkles.
“And?” asked Selene, idly. Her hair was gorgeous; thick and wavy enough for a shampoo commercial. Even in the middle of being terrified out of my mind, her face reminded me of an old painting—one of the classics I could never remember. “What do you think he sees in her, I wonder?” Selene cocked her head, examining me closely. “She’s nothing special.”
The little girl giggled again, but I found nothing funny about being paralyzed, analyzed, and, quite literally, scared stiff.
“I knew I should’ve done this by myself,” said the old woman, shooting the others an annoyed glance. “You two have no sense of decorum.”
“Quiet, you old hag,” said the little girl, shocking me even further (if that were possible). “Why should you be the only one to have any fun? Choke this one, smother that one…I mean, really, Mary. Do you think we don’t know what you do to them when you’re alone?”
“Give her a mirror and she’s even worse.” The woman named Selene joined the girl in a chuckle, while the old woman pursed her lips and glared at them both. “Bloody Mary, indeed.”
“What’s the harm?” Mary answered defensively. “I don’t kill them.” She tilted her head, gray hair straggling across one withered cheek as she stared down at me, considering. “Usually.”
“Never mind,” said Selene. “We got what we came for.” She eyed me speculatively from her perch in midair. “Shall we make her forget, or let her remember?”
“Oh, let her remember,” said the little girl, carelessly. Shoulder-length brown hair with bangs, tucked behind her ears, Kewpie doll lips. “She brought it on herself, and what can she do about it? She’ll just think it was a dream, anyway.”
Unbelievably, as she spoke, the fog of sleep drifted up to claim me. Unable to fight it even if I wanted to, I slid into it with relief, glad the nightmare—if that’s what it was—was over.
It had been a dream, hadn’t it?
I couldn’t stop thinking about it the next day, replaying it over and over in my mind as my best bud Evan and I worked on the Christmas window display at Handbags and Gladrags. The store was a mutual dream come true, conceived back in our teens, brought to fruition in our midtwenties, and now the coolest vintage fashion store in Little Five Points, Georgia.
“Earth to Nicki,” Evan said, none too patiently. “I’ve been chattering away for five minutes about ideas on what to get Butch for Christmas, and you’ve been no help at all.”
Giving him a teasing grin, I said, “Why don’t you just put a big red bow on your—”
“Tut, tut, tut.” He raised a finger, interrupting me. “Santa doesn’t bring presents to naughty girls, you know. Particularly sparkly presents that fit on one finger.”
I shook my head. “You’ve really got it in your head that Joe is going to propose to me this Christmas, don’t you? Just because your boyfriend gave you a ring doesn’t mean mine will do the same.”
Evan sighed happily, admiring his platinum band for the umpteenth time since Butch had given it to him, months before. “I’m a hopeless romantic,” he said, “and you and Dr. Gorgeous have been dating well over a year now. It’s your second Christmas together. It’s time.”
“Who says I want to get married?” The very idea made me nervous. There was no question that Joe and I were in love, but marriage was a scary thought. When I did get married, I wanted my marriage to be like my parents’, but how many people achieved that level of happiness and commitment?
“Of course you want to get married,” he said complacently. “June wedding, you in Vera Wang, me in Armani. Pink tulips in the bouquet, to match the streaks in your hair.” He shot me a warning glance. “Don’t you dare switch to blue or purple streaks in the meantime, either. I want a pink tulip for my boutonnière.”
I just shook my head and went back to work. Arguing with Evan while he was envisioning my imaginary walk down the aisle was a waste of time. He’d been planning my wedding since I was fifteen, and it was always changing, depending on his favorite designer du jour.
“Hand me that box of ornaments, would you?” We were going for a true vintage Christmas look for the window display, lighting up an old aluminum Christmas tree with a color wheel. We’d framed the entire window with a bunch of old Christmas cards we’d gotten in a box lot at auction. Box lots were always a gamble, but one person’s junk could easily be another man’s treasure, and you could find tons of tr
The silver tree stood in one corner of the window, the color wheel tinting it from silver to green, to red, to blue. I was draping it in handmade ornaments dripping with glitter, obviously made by somebody’s kids: Popsicle sticks and pipe cleaners and empty spools of thread all put together to form sloppy but cute stars, angels, and Santas. Every time I pulled one out of the box I couldn’t help but envision someone else’s long-ago Christmas, and the happy memories that must’ve led to their making.
That unknown family probably never expected their kitschy heirlooms to end up in a store window display, but hey, such was the commercialism of Christmas. Besides, I liked to think they’d be happy that their family treasures were still giving enjoyment to somebody, even if the somebody was just me.
“What the heck is this?” Evan held up a very twisted little brown lump with a single red pompom, which I took from him.
“It’s a reindeer,” I said, grinning. “Rudolph, in fact.” I uncurled the pipe cleaner legs and antlers and showed it to him. “Very cute.”
He gave it, and me, a doubtful look. “I can buy dozens of cheap ornaments at Family Dollar, you know, and they’d be all shiny and new. You sure you want to go this route?”
“Absolutely,” I said, reaching to find a place on the Christmas tree to hang the reindeer. “It’s going to look fabulous. I’m going to spray the whole tree with fake snow when I’m done.”
“An aluminum Christmas tree and fake snow. How special,” Evan murmured, turning back to the boxes.
“Hey, this look was considered extremely modern back in the early sixties,” I returned. “Anything ‘space age’ was very hot in those days.”
His criticism didn’t bother me. I knew the display was going to look cool, and I suspected his mild pique was only because he hadn’t thought of it himself.
“Why don’t you go get Lucy ready?” I knew he’d rather dress our Lucille Ball mannequin than dig through boxes, anyway. All the mannequins at Handbags and Gladrags were modeled after classic movie stars from the fifties and sixties, and we kept them posed and dressed accordingly. “The Santa suit is hanging in the office, and don’t forget the hat and the ice skates.” The Santa suit was a real find—plush red velvet with a flouncy skirt trimmed with white fur, made for a shapely female instead of a chubby guy—some glamour girl had probably worn it to a ritzy Christmas party back in the day.
“You sure you want to go with Lucy?” he asked doubtfully. “Red hair, red suit…”
“She’s perfect,” I said cheerfully. “We’ll pose her flat on her butt like she slipped and fell on the ice.”
He cheered up at that image, like I’d known he would, and stepped down from the window to begin Lucy’s transformation.
Which left me alone again to wonder about last night’s dream, and whether I needed to be worried about it. Maybe three women’s faces hanging over my bed and discussing me like I wasn’t there was just some weird hallucination my overtired brain had cooked up.
It had just seemed so real. I could see them in my mind’s eye: the ugly old woman, the beauti ful younger one, and the cute little girl. I could even remember their names: Mary, Selene, and Kate. Most of the strangers who appeared in my dreams didn’t have names, so where had I come up with those?
The shop bell rang as the front door opened, but my back was to it and my mind on other things.
“Excuse me,” someone said, “but do I know you?”
I turned, and my heart nearly stopped. The woman in front of me had dark, wavy hair and a face that belonged on the cover of a magazine; she was beautiful, absolutely beautiful, and I recognized her instantly.
She was one of the women from my weird dream—the gorgeous one called Selene.
“Oh,” she said, smiling at me with ruby red lips, “I guess not. You remind me of someone, that’s all.”
“I…” I was staring, but I couldn’t help myself. “You look familiar, too,” I managed to say.
Was it possible?
“Do I?” She cocked her head playfully. “Maybe we have met before.”
“Maybe we have.” I was getting my equilibrium back. “My name’s Nicki,” I said, determined to find out hers.
“Selene,” she answered easily, still smiling.
I swallowed, hard.
What was I supposed to say now? Oh, you’re the woman who was floating above my bed last night—nice to meet you in person.
It obviously hadn’t been a dream, after all, and there was no other way around it—here was another spirit with unfinished business, one who evidently enjoyed freaking people out in the middle of the night. “What do you want?” I asked abruptly.
She frowned a little at my tone. “I just came in to look around,” she said. “I love vintage.”
I was in no mood for games, more certain by the second that she was playing one. “Sure you do,” I said sourly. “Vintage clothing comes in real handy during those late night visits with the talking heads.”
The look she gave me was distinctly puzzled. “Is that a band or something?”
I wasn’t buying it. “You and your friends, three a.m.? Ring any bells?”
“I’m sorry,” she said, turning away, “but you’ve obviously mistaken me for someone else.”
I eyed her narrowly, wondering what was going on, but she’d plainly decided that our conversation was over. She’d turned her back, and was browsing through the jeans rack. Size six section, I noticed; she’d obviously had a body that could stop traffic when she was alive, and I was disliking her more with every moment that passed.
“Nicki, we need some ones,” Evan said, from behind the counter. He had no idea what was going on. “Do you have change for a twenty?”
“No,” I said shortly, not bothering to look.
“I might,” said Selene, turning her megawatt smile on Evan.
“That’d be great,” Evan said cheerfully, and I nearly jumped out of my skin. If Evan could see her, hear her, then that meant she was…
“Let me check my wallet,” she said, moving past me toward Evan. I got a whiff of her perfume—expensive, exotic. “I’m pretty sure I got a bunch of ones in change at the grocery store the other day, and I hate carrying small bills.”
Alive. She was alive, not a spirit; she couldn’t possibly have been floating above my bed.
What the hell was going on?
“Oh my god, is that a Furla?” Evan’s eyes, big as saucers, locked on Selene’s red leather handbag. She’d laid it on the counter while she dug around for her wallet.
“It is,” she said, laughing. “I got it in Milan last year; a gift from my last boyfriend.”
“You must’ve been a very good girl to get a gift like that,” he answered, practically drooling. (Over the bag, of course.)
“Of course, darling.” Her casual use of the word “darling” to a total stranger set my teeth on edge, and I’d expected it to do the same to Evan, but he didn’t seem to mind. “Better than ‘good’, if you know what I mean.”
They laughed together, and the sound made me want to grit my teeth.
“Too bad his brain didn’t match his body.” Selene sighed, tossing her hair over a shoulder. “I might’ve kept him around longer. Male models can be so self-absorbed, don’t you think?”
“You’re preaching to the choir, sweetheart,” Evan said, though I couldn’t remember him dating any male models. “It’s hard to be in a relationship with someone who’s more in love with their own reflection than they are with you.”
“Yes, the next man I date is going to be smart as well as sexy,” she said, pulling a wad of ones out of her wallet. “Kindhearted, good-natured, gorgeous…” Here she paused, offering Evan the bills. “…and well-endowed.”
They burst out laughing again, and I couldn’t take any more. I walked up to the counter and came around to Evan’s side. “Good luck finding Mr. Perfect,” I said, r
It would’ve been obvious to anyone that I was trying to hustle her on her way—it was certainly obvious to Evan, who gave me a look.
“Oh,” she said, turning her sunny smile in my direction without missing a beat. “I think I already have.” She tucked the twenty into her wallet. “Last night, in fact.” Slipping the wallet into her bag, she picked it up and slung it over her shoulder. The bright red leather was almost the same shade as her lipstick. “I’ll have him under my spell in no time.”
With a waggle of her fingers to Evan, she turned and headed for the door, dark hair cascading over her shoulders and down her back. “Ta-ta, darling. I’ll be back when I have more time to shop.”
“Bye,” Evan said, waving like a schoolgirl.
“Stop that,” I snapped, the moment she stepped onto the sidewalk.
He turned to me, frowning. “What’s your problem? It’s not like you to be rude to customers.”
“I didn’t like her,” I said flatly. “And you’re not allowed to like her, either.”
His eyebrows rose. “I thought she was nice!”
I curled my lip. “Yeah, I forgot how much you love to play with Barbie dolls.”
“Now that was just uncalled for,” he said, slamming the cash register drawer shut.
Realizing that I was about to pick a fight with Evan for no reason, I backed off, but not very graciously. “I can’t help it. There’s something not right about her.” I was hesitant to tell him what the real problem was, because, quite frankly, it sounded pretty bizarre.
Either I’d seen her in a nightmare, which sounded completely stupid to say out loud, or she was a spirit, in which case Evan shouldn’t have been able to see or hear her. Neither of those scenarios made sense. If she was alive, how could she have been in my nightmare, and if she’d been in my nightmare, then how could she be alive?