Home » , , , , , , , » Christmas with the Vampire: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

Christmas with the Vampire: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts

When I rented this little Punto in Vienna, the grumpy old guy behind the counter told me that I’m too young to be driving across Europe on my own. He warned me that bad things can happen to a girl on her own. I named him “Mean Grandpa.” I give everyone nicknames because I can never remember their real ones. Mean Grandpa kept calling me Beatrice. It’s Beatrix. Trix if I like you.
Christmas with the Vampire: A Heartblaze Novelette
Christmas with the Vampire: A Heartblaze Novelette by Shay Roberts
I chose the Punto because it was cheap and kinda cute. But mostly because it was cheap. They call it a “supermini.” It’s a subcompact that goes airborne when the wind whips up. And outside the car, an epic snowstorm rages. I can barely see where the snow ends and the car’s white hood begins. The heat isn’t working right and I’m huddled over the wheel wearing my black trenchcoat over a gray cardigan and a dark blue thermal top. My feet are cold despite my wool socks and black riding boots. I’m supposed to be on the A1, headed for Nuremberg, but I’m pretty sure I got lost around Linz. The snow is falling so hard that I sometimes can’t see the road signs. I was using the GPS on my phone but it ran out of power and I must have left my charger in Vienna. Now I’m driving on pure instinct, searching desperately for shelter at one of those fancy ASFiNAG rest stops scattered across Austria. It’s getting dark now and a road sign flashes by, visible in a momentary break in the blowing snow. I read it in my memory. A blue sign with a circle of gold stars around the words “Česká republika.” Oh hell, I’m not in Austria any more. To be in the Czech Republic, I have to be all kinds of lost. It’s north and I was headed west. A brutal gust of wind blows my little Punto across the center line. This is getting serious. I have to get off the road. For the first time in this otherwise awesome vacation, I begin to get scared. How did I get into this situation? I think I’ll go with blaming Dad and Mom, who promised to send me to Europe during Christmas vacation of my freshman year. My friends at college think it’s weird that I’m not spending the break at home. But my family doesn’t celebrate Christmas. We never have. Mom and Dad are college professors, opposed to the crass commercialization and cultural insensitivity of the holiday. And now my Grinchy parents have let me go alone into this epic blizzard. Damn them, and damn the Czech Republic, which apparently relocated itself just to confuse me. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I seem to recall my dad, the cautious one, telling me to take the train. So I guess damn me for wanting to drive instead. In the darkness I catch an occasional glimpse of snow-covered hills pressing against the road on my left. Out to the right is a river. I pray I haven’t driven into the middle of the wilderness. The Punto suddenly plows into snow and I slam on the brakes. I must have driven off the road! I stand on the brake but the little car keeps moving. I suddenly realize it’s moving sideways! I’m swept up in a field of shifting snow, like driftwood on a frothy ocean wave. Avalanche! I scream as my car spins around. In the headlights I catch glimpses of the approaching river. My phone and motorway toll vignette fly around the car as if spun by a tornado. Then snow covers the hood and the world goes dark. The roaring sound ends abruptly and the car stops moving. Am I in the river? Am I going to drown in freezing water? I try to open the door but it won’t budge. Tears flood my eyes as I realize I’m entombed. I was so happy to escape my mom and dad over the holiday, and now I want more than anything to be safe at home. I love them so much. If something happens to me it will kill them. Panic rips through me as I think about freezing to death. In high school we had to read Jack London’s To Build a Fire. The guy in the story falls into the water during the winter and meets a gruesome end. All because he couldn’t build a fire. I don’t have anything to make a fire. Will I die the same way? Suddenly, I see a red light flashing. In the pulsing light I can see that the snowpack only comes up to window level. I lower the window and yell for help. A small vehicle with tracks for wheels and a red siren light works its way over to my car. A grim-faced female cop in black overalls hops off the vehicle and kneels beside my Punto. I’m so relieved to see her. “Thank you for coming. I’m really scared.” My voice sounds weak in my ears. She speaks in a thick Czech accent, yelling over the drone of the wind. “Stop car engine.” I nod and turn off the ignition. She peers inside the car. “You have injury?” “No. I don’t think so.” “Sorry for snow accident. We come to block road but too late. Can you exit window?” I unbuckle my safety belt. Snow Cop holds out her strong hand and helps me out the window. I realize that I’m only yards from the river. That was way too close! I give Snow Cop a hug. “Thank you.” I sound a little stronger now. That’s more like it. My cheesy pet name for myself is Beatrix the Bold. I try to live up to it. A powerful gust of wind whips freezing snow down the back of my neck. Damn, it’s cold! I should have worn my thermal leggings under my jeans. I realize they’re in my travel bag in the trunk, along with my scarf. And my phone, I need my phone! I remember it flying around inside the car. It’s probably on the floor somewhere. As I turn back to the car I hear an ominous cracking sound from somewhere on the unseen mountains above. Snow Cop pulls at my arm. “Must leave now before more lavina.” Lavina? The thought of being without my phone, even an uncharged phone, fills me with anxiety. “Just give me a second to find it.” But Snow Cop has me firmly by the arm. “Not safe here. We go.” She guides me onto the backseat of the tracked vehicle. “I take you to warm place in the town.” I swallow my anxiety over my lost phone. I am Beatrix the Bold. “What town?” She smiles mysteriously. “Very old town. Much history. You will like.” I sit in a small police station sipping coffee from a paper cup. Snow Cop has left me alone with her landline so I can call Mom and Dad. What will I tell them? I almost died in an avalanche and now I’m stuck in some backwoods police station with stone walls and phones from the Communist era. And literally right next door is a “Museum Tortury,” or Torture Museum. Just what every parent wants to hear when their daughter calls from Europe. I try to keep my hand steady as I dial the phone. It’s a little before 6 p.m. here, so it will be just before 9 a.m. in California. I can picture my parents drinking tea and reading the international news on their laptops. Dad will be eating half a bagel and Mom will have a slice of vegan cheese and some unsalted sunflower seeds. Dad answers with a puzzled tone, probably because he doesn’t recognize the incoming number. I try to sound cheerful. “Hey, Dad, it’s Trix.” He sounds suspicious. “Why aren’t you calling from your mobile? Is everything okay?” “Everything’s fine. My phone’s charging.” “I’m putting you on speaker.” I hear my mom’s worried voice. “What’s wrong, Trixie?” I hate it when she calls me Trixie. It makes me sound like a stripper. “I’m fine, Mom. There’s a storm, so I stopped at this town called Český Krumlov.” I hate lying, but I just don’t have the energy to deal with them. Mom would be worried sick and Dad would get angry. I can hear my dad typing an Internet search. His voice sounds stern. “Why are you in the Czech Republic? You should be in Nuremberg by now.” “I got detoured by the storm.” The lying is getting easier now. Now my mom is on the Internet, her voice excited. “That place is beautiful. Straight out of the Middle Ages.” “I don’t know. I couldn’t see much when I came in. It’s dark, and everything’s closed down for the storm.” For some reason, her excitement annoys me. I’m tempted to tell her about the Torture Museum. When I picked up the phone to call Mom and Dad, my intention was to tell them I’m coming home early. But now that seems like a silly, girlish thing to do. Beatrix the Bold holds out to the bitter end, despite the threat of medieval torture. Now Dad also sounds enthusiastic. “When the storm passes you should get out and see the place. It’s a remarkable learning opportunity. But not alone. Find a tour group to travel with.” Why does everything have to be a learning opportunity? Why can’t it just be fun? I see Snow Cop return to the office. She told me she would set me up in a hotel. Fortunately, I have my euros, passport, and credit cards in a money belt around my waist. The money belt was Dad’s idea. He badgered me until I relented and packed it. I picture a warm bath at the hotel and immediately want to get off the phone. “Anyway, everything’s fine. So don’t worry. I’ll head to Nuremberg after the weather clears.” Snow Cop flashes a disapproving look, knowing I’ve been feeding my parents a line of crap. My dad speaks cheerfully. “Sounds good, honey, call us when you get to Nuremberg.” My mom chimes in, “Bye, love.” “Talk to you soon. Love you.” I hang up. Snow Cop looms over me. With her hood down she’s kind of pretty, like some sort of Amazon queen. “Thanks for letting me use your phone. I can pay for the charges.” “No cost for emergency. Storm moved very quickly. Is gone now. I take you to hotel. Tomorrow you have car and your possessions.” She leads me out of the station and past the Torture Museum. The sky above is nearly cloudless now and the moon is shining. A snowplow clears the town square and dozens of people follow in its wake, setting up stalls and stringing colored lights. “What’s going on?” Snow Cop smiles. “Christmas market.” “I like the lights.” I’ve never been to a Christmas market. It’s probably a place to buy candy canes and such. But right now I don’t need any candy canes. I need a hot bath. Snow Cop points down a street that was empty earlier, but now swarms with tourists emerging from indoors. “We walk to hotel. This way.” We pass a shop selling wax figures, and another with large marionettes. I smell some sort of cranberry pastry that makes my mouth water. We soon arrive at an old three-story pink-and-white building. The Mini Hotel Abraka. Snow Cop drops me off with little ceremony. “Come to station in afternoon tomorrow for your car.” “Thanks for saving me. I never got your name.” She leaves without responding. Her attitude has changed since she heard me talking to Mom and Dad. I am just another ungrateful, lying daughter. The hotel clerk, an older woman with weary eyes, takes my credit card and checks me in. She presses a key into my hand and directs me to the stairs. I find my room on the second floor. It’s larger than I expected, with pink towels folded neatly on the bed. I peek inside the bathroom, covered in garish pink-and-white tiles, and am disappointed to find only a shower. I sit on the bed, tears filling my eyes, my dream of a hot bath shattered. On the pillow I see a note printed on hotel stationery. It says, “DO NOT LEAVE OLD TOWN AFTER DARK.” Well, that’s rather mysterious. I find a map of the town on a nearby wooden table. According to the map, I’m currently in the Old Town area. Bridges lead out of Old Town in various directions, including one to a place called Krumlov Castle. That would be cool to see, but I would have to leave Old Town to get there. Do not leave Old Town after dark. Why, I wonder? Are there muggers about? With my plans for a hot bath ruined, I leave the hotel in search of that cranberry pastry I smelled earlier. I carry the map in my pocket, heeding the advice to stay in the Old Town area. I’ve tempted fate enough by driving in the storm. I’m a bit crazy but not a total idiot. The town has completely transformed since I first arrived. There’s now a big Christmas tree, heavy with blue lights, standing in the main square. I remember the date and realize tomorrow is Christmas. What happens to the tree afterward? I picture elves shoving it into one of those noisy wood chippers. In the main square the tourists watch some sort of pageant. “Angels” in white robes ring bells as Joseph and Mary march in, carrying the baby Jesus. They place the baby in a manger strung with white Christmas lights and the onlookers cheer. A scruffy boy comes around, selling postcards of the scene before me. How much money are these tourists bringing in? Christmas is big business. I move away, trying to catch the scent of that cranberry pastry. I don’t like being around tourists, even though I’m one of them. The reason I rent cars is so I can go places that the buses avoid. I want to see the real Europe, unvarnished. I smell pastries on the wind and pick up my pace, trusting my nose to find my quarry. I suddenly realize the street I just walked down was not a street at all, but a bridge. I have left Old Town! I freeze in my tracks, salivating at the strong smell of cranberry pastries. I must be close. Ahead I see a castle tower lit by yellow lights. It must be Krumlov Castle. This is a medieval town, so of course they have a castle. And it’s probably a place where girls like me stumble inside and are never seen again. Do not leave Old Town after dark. I see what looks like a small coffee shop not too far away. Is that where the pastries are? Maybe I can just pop in and grab one. I won’t walk all the way to the castle. That would be madness. I hurry into the coffee shop, finding it dim and empty, with candles lighting a handful of low tables. Moving to the counter, I spot a plateful of flaky pastries sitting in the open. I can see no one behind the counter. “Hello. Are you open?” No one answers. I suddenly realize that I’m holding one of the pastries. I bite into it and find it...completely ordinary. No cranberry. No spice. This is not the pastry I’m looking for. But famished, I snarf it down anyway. I pull a five-euro bill from my money belt. Waving the bill before me, I walk toward the back of the shop. “Hello, can I pay you?” My feet catch on something and I fall to the floor. Thanks to my middle school ballet classes, where I was taught how to fall, I land safely on my side and arm, avoiding a broken wrist. As I look for the bill I dropped, I see a startling sight...a huge white dog stretched out on his side. This is what I tripped over! The massive beast barely glances at me and then resumes his nap. I feel something lumpy under my butt and look back to see I’m sitting on a boot, connected to a leg. “Oh, I’m so sorry.” I climb to my feet to discover a light-skinned man with cherry lips and blue eyes, probably in his late twenties. He has short dark hair, and wears an Old World suit from centuries past, complete with lacy cuffs. He looks like he might have been crying. He is so gorgeous, and so very pale, like someone out of a vampire movie. I immediately name him Sad Vampire. I try to speak. “Um...uh....” Did I just drool a little? He looks up at me as if it takes all the energy he has left. “Yes?” His rich voice and Czech accent make my tummy tingle. Must. Speak. “Um...who do I pay?” He shrugs. “I do not pay.” He hasn’t stopped looking at me. His gaze burns my skin. I look at my feet, unable to bear his scrutiny. I’ve never felt so instantly attracted to anyone. Not even to Jefferson Penly, the math whiz in my senior year who liked to build those fighting robots. When I told my parents I’d lost my virginity to him, they didn’t seem upset. I guess I was hoping for more of a reaction. There’s been no one in my life since Jefferson. And since I started college in the fall, I’ve been stressed, doing nothing but eating and studying. Guys have been the furthest thing from my mind. Until now. I risk a glance up and find he’s still staring at me with those lovely eyes, like two chips of blue ice. “What are you called, girl?” He sounds a little friendlier now. I wonder why he was crying. “Beatrix.” He repeats my name, rolling the r on his tongue. Beatrix has never sounded so sexy. My parents gave me the perfect name, and Sad Vampire just pronounced it the perfect way. I feel a heat spreading through my body, like warm honey in my veins. I must speak to him, find a way to connect. I suddenly blurt out...”Why are you so sad?” Too direct. My head is swimming and I can’t think straight. He blinks in surprise. “I’m sorry, forget I said that.” I should leave him to his reverie, but my feet, rooted to the floor, don’t seem to agree. He cocks his beautiful head as he appraises me. “You are precocious. In body and spirit.” Oh no, he’s looking at my body! I put on six pounds this semester. I’m nothing special to see, just long dark hair and brown eyes. I look down at myself to find my coat and cardigan open and my nipples standing out against my thermal top. Mortified, I quickly close my coat. I feel my face flush. I can’t meet his gaze. I manage to point at the beast on the floor. “I like your dog.” Sad Vampire laughs softly, almost imperceptibly. “Not dog. He is wolf. And he eat men for such disrespect.” The white wolf watches me from the corner of his eye, his heavy head never leaving the floor. Sad Vampire pushes aside a mug of thick black coffee. He rises smoothly from the table, his leather boots creaking. He leans toward me and extends his hand. “I am called Augustin Kryštof.” A tremor runs up my arm as I shake his hand. The delicious cranberry spice smell, what I mistook for a pastry, is coming from Augustin! My mouth waters as I stare at him in shock. What the hell kind of cologne is he wearing? I suddenly realize that I haven’t let go of his hand. And in fact, I’ve stepped closer to him. His breath is cool and electric on my face. He leans forward and whispers into my ear. “My cook make very good meal. Join with me for dinner?” I only nod, not trusting my voice. I will eat anything with Augustin. I will eat anytime, anywhere, as long as I eat with him. I’m still holding his hand as he leads me out of the shop. It feels strangely warm outside as we walk through the streets of Český Krumlov. I let my coat fall open again as Augustin leads me ever closer to the castle. He seems content not to speak, but curiosity overwhelms me. “Do you live in the castle?” He chuckles. “No, Beatrix. Castle for tourist.” He pronounces Beatrix with an r like a sexy growl. “Say my name again, Augustin.” “Beatrix.” Startled, my head swivels toward him. “What?” “You asked me to say your name.” I hadn’t meant to say that aloud. I turn my head away in embarrassment. Augustin leads me to a dimly lit courtyard outside the castle, into a narrow alley, down a short flight of stone steps, and through a thick iron door. It suddenly occurs to me that I’ve been led to a deserted location by a stranger, something I would normally never allow. What am I thinking? Augustin could be some sort of beautiful monster. What kind of spell has he cast over me? I see the white shadow of the wolf passing through the doorway to join us. Augustin closes the iron door, speaking softly. “Stay close, Beatrix. This is bear moat.” Did he say bear? We’re in some kind of enclosure. We walk around a log and a small boulder. I see a pair of low stone shelters with glowing eyes inside. One of the bears grunts and I press myself into Augustin. His lithe body feels chiseled of stone. “Harmless creatures, Beatrix. Once they protect entrance to second courtyard. Now they dance for tourist.” With one hand, Augustin lifts a thick iron grate on the floor of the enclosure. It must weigh fifty pounds! He points into the hole. “Strange, I know, but shorter path to home.” I peer uneasily into the gloom and see a ladder descending into what I imagine is some medieval hell. Not a chance I am going down there. Augustin places his hand on my waist and my body shudders in pleasure. “Please, Beatrix.” Beatrix. I love the way he says my name. It gives him some sort of hold over me and I find myself doing as he asks. After a short descent down the ladder I find myself standing in a concrete tunnel. A weak bulb in the distance casts faint light that sparkles on the half-frozen mud covering the concrete floor. I hear the grate slam closed above and Augustin jumps down gracefully with the wolf in his arms. How did he do that without twisting an ankle? The white wolf, seemingly indignant, wriggles free of Augustin and finds his footing in the mud. He really is a magnificent creature. “What’s his name?” “He is called Zima. Czech word mean winter.” Augustin takes my hand, a hand that has been yearning for his touch, and leads me toward the light. “Now we travel tunnel. Nazis construct during war.” We pass the light, a dim bulb hanging from a cord. In the distance hangs another light. My shoe suddenly sticks in the mud and I go down on one knee. Augustin’s strong hand keeps me from falling on my face. I rise, finding a tear in my jeans. My knee stings. I must have landed on something sharp. “Do you have injury, Beatrix?” “I’m fine, thank you.” He leans down to examine me, dismayed by the tear in my jeans. He opens the torn denim and sees a bit of blood on my knee. He recoils, as if sickened by the sight. “I have medicine at chateau.” “No worries, I’m Beatrix the Bold. It’s just a scratch.” I limp as I test out the knee. Augustin sighs. “Two kilometers remain. The ground grows more hard to walk. We must make different approach.” “I’m fine. I can do it.” He shakes his head in a way that tells me this is not a negotiation. “Hold to my hand. Do not release. This is strange, but short journey.” I nod apprehensively, gripping his hand. Is he going to sprout wings or something? I hear Zima whine. My stomach lurches as the world suddenly shifts to a blurry black and white. It’s so quiet I can hear my heart thumping. Augustin’s whisper sounds like a shout. “Walk if able, or I carry you.” “I can walk.” As I limp forward, the floor feels like hard rubber. I look behind me and see the vague shape of the wolf, moving in slow motion, growing smaller with every step. The tunnel walls seem to whoosh past. The pain in my knee abates as I find my stride. I can’t help but laugh in wonder and delight. I’ve entered some colorless dimension where I’m the fastest girl alive. Augustin looks at me with surprise. “You...pleased?” “Hell yes. This is better than being drunk. What’s happening? Where are we?” “I cannot speak more of this. I am sorry.” I nod, frustrated that he won’t satisfy my curiosity, and press ahead, the lightbulbs whizzing past in a regular rhythm. I’m only walking but it looks like I’m strapped to a rocket. This may be the most fun I’ve ever had! Augustin tightens his grip on my hand. “Not so fast, my Beatrix the Bold.” I laugh. “Not so slow, my Sad Vampire.” He suddenly whirls on me, his face a strange mask of shock and anger. “Who are you, really? I will know if you lie.” I should not have teased him. It’s too soon for that sort of humor. His intensity scares me. I try to let go of his hand, but can’t escape his suddenly painful grip. It feels like the bones in my hand are about to break. Tears spring to my eyes as I answer him with a shaky voice. “I’m Beatrix Lawson.” He calms down a little, now looking merely annoyed. “I understand now. You jest to me. Sad Vampire is joke.” It suddenly hits me why my nickname may have alarmed him. I named him Sad Vampire because he looks exactly like a brooding, Old World vampire. And then there was his tremendous strength and agility, and his strange reaction to the blood on my knee. What if he is a vampire? My stomach explodes with butterflies and I feel a cold sweat on my face. Maybe vampires are not just the stuff of fiction; maybe they’re real! Did he take me down here to bite me? To kill me? I wanted some adventure on this vacation, but nothing this dangerous. I feel my mind spinning with panic and I try to wrestle it under control. My parents tell me I’m smart enough to think my way through any problem. I hope they’re right. I take a deep breath to calm myself. I remember a terrible story I heard as a child. Some girl was crawling in a low cave. The walls became so narrow that she couldn’t turn around. Her only option was to press forward, with the walls of the cave tearing at her skin. Eventually, the walls became so narrow that she got trapped, dying a long and agonizing death, alone in the dark. Her skeletal remains were not discovered until years later. If Augustin means to do me harm, I can’t outrun him, and even if I could, where would I go in this shadow world? I am a prisoner in his domain. My only hope is to press forward, hoping that the walls of the cave don’t trap me. Augustin reads my face. I feel my whole body tremble as his frozen eyes burn into mine. He speaks softly, his Czech accent strong. “You understand. You are joking girl, but not stupid.” “Yes, and you are a sad vampire, but not cruel.” A blatant appeal to his humanity. He shakes his head as if disgusted with himself. “You wrong. I have commit many terrible acts.” Despite his words, my fear lessens a little. Truly bad men are not troubled by their badness. Time to press forward. I force a smile. “Do you really have a cook? Is there really a dinner waiting for me on the other side of this tunnel?” “Of course. I take you...” Augustin suddenly stiffens and his head snaps around. He peers deeply into the shadows. I feel a sudden, powerful urge to run. Augustin speaks softly. “Rapax, the Autarch, make approach. Bandit of our kind. Hold your place, Beatrix. Do not run.” A tall man with long red hair and a black cloak glides from the shadows. I want to scream. Every part of my body demands that I flee. Do not leave Old Town after dark. Rapax smiles widely, showing his ivory fangs. I hear something inside my head, like a choir of fallen angels singing a dark lament. Augustin whispers urgently. “Hold, Beatrix.” I cling to his voice, somehow managing to keep my feet planted. Rapax speaks in a singsong voice, his English perfect. “She’s just eighteen, Augustin, my favorite cuisine.” Augustin steps in front to shield me, never taking his eyes from Rapax. “Venatores ask me of you, only two days past. You risk much here.” Rapax holds up his palms in a carefree manner. “I feel no fear, only hunger.” I feel an invisible hand fondling my butt. I swat at it but nothing’s there. As Rapax eases forward, Augustin holds up his hand, warning him to halt. “Girl is my prize, Autarch. Feed elsewhere.” No question now that Augustin is a vampire. Is that all I am to him? A prize? If Rapax is a bad vampire, I pray that Augustin is a good one. Rapax chuckles. “How will you stop me, Kryštof? Your fierce consort is dead. Now it’s just you, the sensitive one. I am your better. You must surrender this girl to me.” Somehow, a long, serrated knife appears in Rapax’s hand. Augustin doesn’t have a weapon. Now I fear for his life as well as mine. Then something happens impossibly fast. Rapax, his arm dangling, shrieks as Augustin drives the knife into his head. I can only see what happened by slowing it down and playing it through in my memory. Augustin leapt forward and Rapax stabbed from below. Augustin used both hands to grab the Autarch’s wrist, stopping the thrust. Then Augustin, still gripping the wrist of his enemy, spun around with his back to Rapax and broke the Autarch’s arm over his shoulder. Then Augustin took the knife from Rapax, turned around and stabbed him in the head. It’s the worst act of savagery I’ve ever witnessed. I look away, sick to my stomach. But I’m relieved that Augustin won. Then I hear Augustin’s soft voice. “Fight over. You safe, Beatrix.” He isn’t even breathing hard. I turn to see him wiping his bloody hand on Rapax’s cloak. Suddenly, the body of the fallen vampire disappears from this shadowland. I see the blurred image of his corpse back in the real world, being eaten by Zima. I desperately need Augustin to say something, anything, that helps make sense of this. “What the hell just happened?” “Bad luck happen. Autarch is rare kind, Beatrix, do not have fear.” How can you say that after what just happened? Augustin gestures for me to continue following him down the tunnel. I cannot move, though I’m scared he’ll abandon me to the likes of Rapax. Augustin looks into my eyes and speaks in his rich Czech accent. “If you must fight, be like animal. Before fight, no worry. During fight, no mercy. After fight, no remembering. Live in present, like animal, or else you go mad.” That is actually kind of profound. He holds out his hand and I take it, my body filling with power and resolve at his touch. My fear gives way to thoughts of food. “I’m hungry, Augustin.” He nods. “Good. I have special dinner.” I can’t understand the expression on his face. I just hope that I’m not the main course. We emerge from the tunnel. My stomach flips as we leave the shadow world and return to the land of color. Augustin puts his hand on my shoulder and my body buzzes with warmth. “We have returned to Mortalos. Is your stomach uncertain?” “I’m fine.” “Good. Many people...regurgitate.” I laugh. It feels so good to laugh. I almost can’t stop. Augustin cocks his head. “Why are you amused?” “Regurgitate. It’s a weird word.” “Apologies. There is idiom?” “Vomit. Puke. Barf.” “Very well, then. Many people barf.” I laugh even harder. Augustin shakes his head in irritation and leads me up a steep incline through the woods. “This is mountain Kleť. My home territory. My chateau is called Bílý Vlk.” “What does that mean?” “White wolf. In day long past there are many, now only few.” A thick layer of fresh snow blankets the forest, but someone has shoveled out a path leading up the mountain. I gasp as we emerge from the trees and I see a great stone mansion lit only by moonlight. I’m so relieved to find this impressive structure. I feared our destination would be some grisly vampire lair slick with human gore. Augustin looks proudly at his home. “It was built in year eighteen hundred and eighty-three. The architecture neo-Gothic in majority. Few of these building remain in all the world.” We pass through an open iron gate guarded by two enormous stone griffins. As we approach the house I see stained glass windows, gargoyles, and towers rising above the three-story roof. I wish now that I had taken an architecture class this semester, so I could put a name to all the fine detail I’m seeing. My first thought is to take a picture, but of course I don’t have my phone. Again I feel a surge of anxiety at being out of touch with the world. Augustin throws open the wood-and-brass double doors of the chateau and gestures for me to enter. I step inside, where a demure woman takes my trenchcoat without making eye contact. Augustin isn’t wearing a coat. I guess vampires don’t get cold. Augustin speaks softly to the servant. “Ona jí se mnou.” The servant nods and hurries off. I take in the surroundings. The chateau is dimly lit by small hanging lamps ringed with brass figures such as birds and rabbits. Augustin bows slightly and waves his hand. “This is entrance hall. You shall have complete tour at later hour. For now I show you water closet. Then to dining hall.” Water closet. What an elegant euphemism. When I was in sixth grade, Randy Mortenson tried to convince me it was called a “crapper.” I wonder where Randy is now. Probably still in the sixth grade. Augustin drops me off at the bathroom and disappears to check on dinner. This is an epic water closet, nearly as big as my entire apartment in Berkeley. The floor looks like some sort of blue-streaked marble. The fixtures are made of brass and cut glass. After using the toilet I wash my hands and dry them on blue Egyptian cotton towels, then I leave the bathroom to look for Augustin. If I was going to make a run for it, now would be the time. But how far would I get in the snow and darkness? He would catch me for sure. Would he be angry? Would he hurt me? Panic rises inside me again. How the hell did I get into this situation? Clearly, Augustin wields some dark power over me. But even though I know this, I don’t care. I want to be near him. I smell food cooking. Some sort of savory meat. I follow the smell through dark, polished hallways paneled in lacquered wood and pass the occasional bronze statue of a warhorse, bear, or other manly creature. I find Augustin in a large dining hall with a chessboard floor. Carved wooden panels surround the room but it’s too dark to see their details. The small ebony dining table, lit only by candles, seems lonely in this ocean of a room. Augustin waits with my chair pulled out. He helps me into my seat, then sits down across from me. “Bon appétit, joking girl.” “Thank you, kind sir.” The meal has been served on what I guess is some sort of fine Bohemian china, painted with red flowers. Augustin gestures to my plate. “Good Czech food tonight. Jitrnice.” I look at the food: two links of sausage next to a pair of gravy-covered dumplings. It smells amazing. I realize that for the first time, I can’t smell Augustin’s cranberry spice cologne. I cut into my sausage with a silver-handled knife and take a bite. The salty, smoky flavor washes over me and I relax into the chair. “This is fantastic. What kind of sausage?” He shrugs. “I am no expert. Whatever parts of pig remain. The liver, and other organs such as...how do you say...the breathing bags?” Feeling a wave of nausea, I push the plate aside. Augustin frowns. “You do not like?” “I’m sorry. I’m just not used to this type of food. Do you have any fruit?” Augustin stomps his boot on the floor. A harried male waiter hurries in to take my plate and Augustin speaks quickly to him. “Přines jí jablko.” I try to look anywhere but at that plate. For the first time, I notice a painting on the ceiling above the table. It’s a stunning woman with long dark hair, wearing some sort of beautiful, old-fashioned red gown. Odd to have a portrait on the ceiling. Is this the fierce consort that Rapax spoke of? After a time, my curiosity gets the better of me. “Augustin, she’s very beautiful. Who is she?” Once again I see the sad look that Augustin wore at the coffee shop. He doesn’t respond. The waiter returns at a jog, presenting me with a plate of sliced apples. I thank him as he bows and departs. Apples. Excellent! Apples are a safe bet. Of course Snow White would disagree. The apples taste bland but I really don’t care. I’m too busy studying Augustin, who has been looking like he wants to say something. Perhaps I shouldn’t have asked about the portrait. It’s probably some long-lost love from centuries ago. Augustin drops his fork and speaks in a growl. “Painting is of Petra, my wife.” My heart clenches, jealous at the thought of another woman. Is she dead? Is she still here somewhere? Augustin continues, his voice growing dark. “We live as man and wife for many decades. But I desire more, to be bloodmates. I acquire the heartblaze ring. But before I give ring, she kill herself. A year ago. On Christmas Day.” “That’s terrible. I’m so sorry.” I look up at the portrait. It suddenly occurs to me that Petra looks a lot like me. Is that why he brought me here, because he misses Petra and I remind him of her? His face a mask of stone, Augustin rises abruptly and stalks out of the dining hall. Damn, I’ve upset him. With the help of the waiter, I find Augustin in a large room in the back of the chateau. He sits in a rocking chair before a Christmas tree strung with red and white lights. Some of the bulbs twinkle, and Augustin looks a little crazy with the alternating colors washing over his face. I approach him carefully but he doesn’t react. I stand beside him and admire the decorations on the tree. I see some sort of crystals or gems in wire cages, clear bulbs with tassels hanging inside them, and metallic bulbs with crocheted cozies. I share my smile with Augustin. “This tree is amazing.” He nods. “The work of Petra. Her Christmas room. She keeps room in Christmas decoration all the year long.” Odd that he speaks of her in the present tense. Perhaps it’s just the language barrier. I notice something hanging over the tree. “Is that a...dreamcatcher?” “Yes. Gift to Petra on journey in North America. It stop bad dream from coming, but allows good dream to pass. A toy, of course. But Petra could do this in reality.” “I don’t understand.” “She was last of great dynasty Rožmberk. She have many tutors, some pagan. One such tutor, the witch, taught to her the power of dream magic. With this, Petra become very important person in Transcendent society.” “Transcendent?” “Yes, my kind.” “You mean...vamp—“ He cuts me off with a sharp gesture. “We not like this word. You say Transcendent.” “Transcendent. Sorry.” As Augustin rocks in the chair, his eyes look far away, into the past. I sit on the floor beside him and stare at the beautiful tree, breathing in the evergreen scent. As the silence grows, I find it more and more uncomfortable, and finally I must speak. “I have a confession. I’ve never actually celebrated Christmas.” He shrugs. “Some do not. But here we do.” “Why? I’m genuinely curious. Why is it important to you?” He grows quiet for a while, then speaks with a sadness in his voice. “Petra love to help children, to nourish their Christmas dream. But in end, she did not nourish her own dream, and the melancholy claim her, as it does many of our kind.” “I’m so sorry, Augustin.” He looks away from me, hiding his emotions. “I tell this for reason. I want your help tonight. I have special mission to complete.” I can’t even imagine what he’s talking about. But the thought of helping him makes me happy. “What mission?” He stands and paces around the glowing tree. “There are many poor in this area. People of the earth, who mine, who grow the food. Their children must work very hard, many with holes in their shoes, and holes in their hearts. They know of the happy children in the cities. Children of wealth. And it hurts them to know they never will have this life. You understand?” I nod, feeling an uncomfortable level of privilege. Whenever those ads come up with starving kids, I always look away. I’ll walk an extra mile to avoid passing the homeless. Things like that make me feel so guilty. When I was growing up, I had nearly everything I wanted. And yet, it was never enough. The week before I turned sixteen, I prayed every night that my parents would get me a car for my birthday. They did. But in a few months I found myself wanting more. I don’t know why. Augustin continues. “All the year long, these children of the earth dream of Christmas. Petra helps to bring these dreams. The children live in the hope and the fantasy of this holiday, more than any other, to escape the sadness of their daily hardship. This is how they survive. Christmas is never for Petra and I. It is for them. Each year on this night Petra does special thing for them. But this year she cannot. And so it is my heavy honor to stand in her place. I will not force you to go with me. You are free to stay in Bílý Vlk.” “I don’t understand what you’re planning, but there’s no way I’m staying behind. I want to help.” He reaches down and takes my hand, lifting me from my seat on the floor. My body shudders at his touch. I lean toward him, but he steps away, leading me out of the room. Augustin takes me behind the chateau to a stable lit by hanging lanterns. Steam rises from the breath of several servants loading brightly wrapped packages into a jet-black sleigh. Two magnificent horses stand ready to pull the sleigh. Their coats are black, but their lower legs and hooves are covered with long white fur, as if they’ve been walking in snow. “Wow, those horses are beautiful.” He pats one of the animals on the flank. “This Půlnoc, the other Stín. They are steed most strongest in my country.” The servants, having finished loading the sleigh, return to the chateau with Augustin’s nod of thanks. I left my coat inside and now I’m shivering in the winter cold. Augustin notices my discomfort. “Ah, I have something for you to remain warm. Something better than American coat.” From the front bench of the sleigh he retrieves a lush red hooded cloak. Somehow I know it once belonged to Petra. He holds up the cloak and I snuggle into it, finding immediate relief. I prefer wearing dark-colored clothes, but for some reason, the cloak makes me feel like skipping, like I’m Little Red Riding Hood, with Augustin playing the Big Bad Wolf. I smile at him. “Thank you, Augustin.” I enjoy saying his name, and hope he will say mine in return. “You are most welcome, Beatrix.” I literally hop with happiness and excitement. “Where’s your red suit and white beard?” He looks at me quizzically. “And your reindeer. Rudolph, Donner, and the others I keep hearing about.” “Ah, I see, joking girl. I am Saint Nicholas. Rudolph and Donner are my snow deers.” Snow deers! I burst out laughing and he looks hurt. “My English amuse you?” I didn’t mean to hurt his feelings. I suddenly step forward and kiss him on his cold, hard cheek. It feels like bees buzzing on my lips and face. The scent of his cranberry spice cologne overwhelms me and suddenly the stable is gone. I see a glacial river roaring past, glowing lava seeping from an enormous gash in the earth, and the golden leaves of fall ripped from their trees by a fierce windstorm. I stumble away from Augustin and focus on the moonlit stable. What was that? Was I hallucinating? I feel unsteady on my feet and Augustin grips me by the arm. “This feeling normal, Beatrix. Do not have alarm.” It takes me a moment to find my voice. “What is that cologne you’re wearing?” “No cologne. Some woman do not smell. Some do. Those who smell all smell different scent. If it draws you, it is because I possess something you need.” “What would that be?” He shrugs. “I do not know. This for you to discover. Come, we must go.” For one glorious moment he lifts me up as if I were a child, and places me in the sleigh. I can still feel where his hands were on my hips as he takes the reins and coaxes the horses forward. My stomach lurches as the world suddenly shifts to a blurry black and white. Augustin and myself, the sleigh and the horses, are all in the shadow world now. The dim forest flashes past at alarming speed and the chateau disappears behind us in a heartbeat. Augustin makes his first stop at a local farm. Even from within the blur of the shadow world, I can see that the tiny house on this patch of land needs serious repairs. A brick is missing from the chimney and one of the windows is boarded over. Augustin rummages in the sleigh’s hold and finds a package with silver paper and green ribbon. I notice that inside the shadow world, I can see color, but the real world beyond is only black and white. Augustin checks the tag on the silver package. “This gift go to Pavel. In the spring his mother run from family and leave him with father. Pavel dream of cookie his mother make one Christmas, cookie with tiny candy of many colors. His father have no money for cookie. So we bring Pavel his dream.” I feel a terrible pang of guilt and sadness, and I look away. I can buy cookies whenever I want. And my mom hasn’t abandoned me. I suddenly regret coming with Augustin. “How many stops do we have to make?” “After Pavel, thirty-two visits more. And then one special visit to end.” “That will take all night.” “No, only few hour in Mortalos. Time flow faster here. Please stay in carriage.” I watch as Augustin carries the package toward the little house, and walks right through the wall. Moments later he emerges from the wall and takes his seat in the sleigh. “Next stop is for Zuzka. In the summer her brother fall inside barn and die. She—“ I interrupt him. “I get it. You don’t have to explain them all.” He frowns and nods, then takes the reins and we’re moving at insane speeds once again. Looking at the flashing landscape is making me sick, so I try to concentrate on my feet. “You can’t help everyone, you know. The world is a big place.” “This is true. We only help those in our fiefdom.” I realize now that “we” means him and Petra, not him and me. For the first time, I’m a little angry with him. “Doesn’t it bother you that you’re only helping a small percentage of kids?” “It bother me more if we help none.” Feeling oddly sullen, I retreat into myself, content to let the silence stretch. House by house, Augustin completes his tour of rural poverty. I see skeletal cows, rusted cars with missing wheels, ramshackle outhouses, and a couple of snow-covered junkyards. I feel a pressure building in my chest as each gift is taken from the sleigh. Finally, only one remains, and I can’t wait for Augustin to deliver it so we can return to the chateau. He turns to me, speaking for the first time in a long while. “Final place is special. You must come.” I don’t want to go, but his look is determined, and I don’t have the will to argue. The pressure inside me is still building and I feel like I need to scream. Traveling literally through the trees, Augustin guides the sleigh to a ruined structure in a small clearing. He hops out of his seat and retrieves the last present from the back of the sleigh. When Augustin helps me off the sleigh, I’m so upset that his touch does not affect me. I can’t imagine why he’s brought me here. “What is this place?” He leads me toward a collapsed building of bare, bleached wood, most of it under the snow. Suddenly we shift out of the shadow world. The cold hits me and the sleigh and horses disappear. Are they still in the shadow world? As Augustin speaks he sounds almost...nervous. “This is where I born, nearly two centuries before. House fall down long ago but I allow no one to clear this land. Because I want to remember my place of birth.” He walks over to an empty patch of snow and points. “My sister and I sleeped here, far from the fire, and in winter the snow fall on our bed through crack in roof. We embrace to be warm, but could not sleep because of cold. And in the day, very tired, we work in silver mine, as both boy and girl must in that time. We have no money. No Christmas. Then my father die in mine when rocks fall, and my mother die of poison from smelter house. I try to care for sister but fever kill her. She die with never in her life a gift. So each Christmas I bring her one.” I feel something breaking inside me. Augustin takes the package, with its purple paper and pink ribbon, and presses it down beneath the snow. “This year I give blanket. To keep her warm.” My heart explodes and I hear my sobs echoing through the frozen woods. My legs fold under me and Augustin catches me as I fall. I get upset when they don’t have a blue car at the rental counter. But there are people in the world with real problems. And for the first time I’ve let myself feel their pain. Augustin holds me in his arms and whispers... “I am sorry. I should not bring you here. We return now to Bílý Vlk and I care for you there.” I sit with Augustin on a love seat with brass detailing and luxurious dark orange upholstery. After bringing me back to the chateau, he insisted that I eat something, and now we’re enjoying some sort of raspberry shortcake with cream between the layers. The dessert makes me feel one hundred percent better, like some sort of happy pill. I speak to Augustin quickly, between bites. “Delicious, what do you call it?” He speaks with a bit of cream in the corner of his mouth. “Piškoty. There are many variation.” It hasn’t escaped my attention that we’re not eating in the dining hall. This is clearly his bedroom, a sumptuous chamber lit only by candles. The walls are covered by a wine-colored wallpaper with some sort of blossom design. The antique bed has a gilt-wood head and footboard, hand-carved with a rose-and-thorn design. The place is beautiful. I could sleep here every night for the rest of my life and die a happy woman. But I don’t think I’m here to sleep. I want to be with Augustin, but I’m incredibly intimidated. I can’t even think straight when I touch him and I’ve no idea how vampires make love, or if they make love. If all he wanted was my blood, he could have taken that long ago, so he must want something more. Before I know it, I’ve inhaled the entire dessert and there’s nothing left but a silver fork and a lovely little china plate. In my high school health class they taught us the importance of communication before intimacy. The teacher, Ms. Hanston, even talked in detail about the discussions she and her husband had early in their relationship. That was a great class, and she made it seem so easy. But sadly, I never took the advanced class on communication with vampires. Oops, Transcendent. Ack, where to start with him? I put my plate down on an end table and pivot in the love seat to face him. “That dessert was amazing, and very thoughtful. Thank you.” He nods and waves it off with a smile. “Your bedroom is so cool. Like something from a museum. I feel like Josephine.” “Who?” “Josephine Beauharnais, Napoleon’s lover.” “Ah, yes. I know of him.” “They wrote love letters to each other. It was very romantic. He would write to her and tell her how he felt, tell her what he wanted to do with her when they were together again.” Augustin smiles. “I imagine well what he wanted of her.” “The problem is, I can’t imagine what you, what your people, the Transcendent, do when they are together.” Augustin chuckles. “I perform same action as mortal man. Do not fear me.” I feel some relief now, but there are two more hurdles to cross. “Okay, so here’s the thing. I want to be here, Augustin. I want to be with you. But we’ve only just met, and I think it’s too soon to consummate our relationship.” He cocks his head. “Consommé? You speak of soup?” Awkward! I take a deep breath to calm my nerves. “No, I mean...how do I say this?” Words fail me, so I do an obscene mime show with my hands. Recognition dawns and Augustin laughs. “My apology. I understand now. You save yourself for husband. Very wise. No worries, Beatrix. Styk is but one pleasure. There are many others, yes?” I nod, trying to think of what he might mean. I can think of a few others. But many? He rises from the love seat. “I instruct servants not to disturb us.” Then he literally disappears in front of me. I know he’s walking in the shadow world. He’ll be back very soon. I rush over to an oval mirror above a vanity painted in ivory and gold. I quickly check my teeth, face, and hair. What does he see in me? I look a little like Petra, but she was ten times more beautiful. Damn it, my insecurity is showing. I have to stop thinking like that. It’s not healthy. I turn away from the mirror and spot something shiny on the floor next to the bed. I move closer and peer down. It’s a tube of lipstick! I jump as Augustin’s foot kicks it under the bed. “That is of no consequence.” Did it belong to Petra? Then why is it on the floor? Augustin puts his hand on my shoulder and my body hums. He whispers in my ear. “Look into my eyes, Beatrix.” I turn toward him, struggling to think clearly. He takes my finger into his mouth and I feel something growing inside there. His fangs. Hard and sharp. My heart beats hard in my chest. I have one more hurdle to cross. “Augustin, this is very important. You must not bite me. Promise you won’t bite me.” He looks frustrated. “I will try, Beatrix, but that is promise I cannot make.” He leans in to kiss me. The smell of his cranberry spice pheromones overwhelms me and my mind spins a dozen random visions. He sweeps me off my feet and carries me to the bed. Part of me wonders if I will still be alive in the morning. Part of me doesn’t care. As sunlight creeps into the bedroom, I stare at Augustin’s perfect, nude body on the bed. He has a beautiful black rose tattooed on his chiseled chest. I wonder what it means. He sleeps very deeply, not waking as I rise and dress. I think of rousing him, but it’s easier this way. I walk to the leaded glass window and look out at the winter landscape under a clear sky. I see a road leading from the chateau, winding down the mountain into Český Krumlov. Not as direct as the tunnel, but it should get me there. My night with Augustin was beyond words. My body responded like an instrument to his touch, creating music I’ve never heard. I fear I will never share that experience with another from my world. Has Augustin ruined me for mortal men? He didn’t bite me, and now I know why. After we made love, we lay together for hours and he talked about the history of Český Krumlov and his chateau, often in Czech. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand his words. I felt his emotions. Augustin is lonely. What he craves most is the intimacy and companionship he had with Petra. He wanted that from me more than my blood. I can’t believe how wonderful I feel, as if a tremendous burden has been lifted. This was not the Christmas I expected, but I wouldn’t trade it for anything. I’m sure this experience will alter the course of my life in unexpected ways. As amazing as all this has been, I can’t stay here with Augustin. I don’t want to hurt him, but I have a family, and friends, and I just started college. If I leave now I still have this beautiful, perfect night with him. But if I stay, I’ll become miserable, isolated from my world, and my perfect night with him will be ruined. I find a writing desk and leave him a note... Thank you for sharing your Christmas and your life with me. You are a beautiful soul, and you have changed me. I must say goodbye for now, but not forever. – Your dearest Beatrix. I finish the note by adding my phone number. As I turn away from the writing desk, my heart stops. Standing before me is Petra, in her lovely red gown, looking as she did in her portrait, with rosy cheeks and long dark hair. She speaks in a rich voice with a Euro accent. “I suppose he told you I was dead.” Cold horror jolts through my body. What the hell is happening? Petra laughs warmly and reaches out to brush the hair from my face. “Do not fear me, dear one. Augustin told you the truth.” Although she looks like she’s in her late twenties, she has a motherly quality that I like. I don’t sense any malice in her. But how can that be? I just slept with her husband! She tilts her head forward, gazing into my eyes as if reading my thoughts. “I’m not angry with you. Not at all. Since I departed, Augustin has brought many dark-haired women to his bed. He fed on them and sent them away. You are the first he has spoken with. You are the first to remain until morning. It is good to see him happy, if only for one night.” Amazing. Not a trace of jealousy or anger. She must really love him. “He made me happy too, Petra. I’m sorry I can’t stay here.” “Of course, dear one. I understand completely. You have a life to live. But promise me you’ll visit again next Christmas.” “I think I’d like that.” “It’s settled, then.” She kisses me on the forehead. “When you leave, take my red cloak. Colors have power, Beatrix. Embrace them.” I open my eyes to find myself still in bed with Augustin. I have been dreaming. I remember the dreamcatcher hanging over the Christmas tree. Petra was a dream witch, and what I just experienced was no ordinary dream. No wonder Augustin speaks of her in the present tense. She continues to live in his dreams. Augustin sleeps as I rise from the bed and dress myself. I write him the note, then find myself growing teary-eyed as I leave the bedroom. I turn for one final look, but I can’t see him from this angle. That’s okay. He’s burned into my memory, a memory that must sustain me until I can return here next Christmas.


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