by Paula Gail Benson
To sleep, perchance to Dream; Ay, there's the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil, Must give us pause.
From William Shakespeare’s Hamlet
Her name was Ember, but she wondered if any spark or flame remained inside her. She had no recollection if she had been called Ember in life, or if it came after. From the time before she became the queen's retainer, she remembered only a few mileposts.
She had served the queen since before the historical Christmas events occurred. But as she faced the holiday’s approach this year, she contemplated only one wish: she wondered what it would be like to cease to exist. She could eagerly submerse herself in death or nonexistence if it meant rest, but not if it led to an eternity of unrelenting mental processes. She had spent a million lifetimes doing that. No wonder when she heard Christmas greetings, her thoughts, like Scrooge’s, turned to holly stakes through hearts and cannibals’ puddings.
Centuries before, when selling family members into servitude to relieve debt was commonplace, Ember was sold to the queen. At that time, she considered herself lucky until she discovered that: (1) the queen ruled the undead, (2) the indenture would exceed any number of human lifetimes, and (3) Ember’s own eternal existence would be an unsleeping devotion to accomplishing tasks for her mistress.
Ember felt no joy in her position, although it provided consistency, relative stability, and a measure of immortality for less than the price of becoming a full-fledged vampire. She didn’t fear the threat of having the blood sucked out of her. The heavy round talisman of immunity given to her during the binding spell when she became a retainer and always worn around her neck protected her, but there were worse things than succumbing to the bite of the undead. There was the extended and unending boredom of being responsible for the monotonous small duties while the undead slept, restoring their strength, and while they roamed, seeking their prey.
At times, Ember daydreamed of sleep, but the binding spell precluded her from losing herself in the sensation of true rest. So, without the luxury of unthinking zombie-ism, she persevered.
For a spell-induced perpetual servant like Ember, Christmas was no different than any other day. Her latest responsibility was to build up the constitution of the queen’s newest consort, a short, squat, lackluster, new-made vampire who the queen viewed as her “bloody good trifle saved for the end of a Christmas evening of debauchery.”
Ember didn’t want to know the full implications of that phrase. She understood that vampires drew sexual gratification not only from creating new vampires, but also from, well, consorting with them. Ember heard the queen explain that drinking from her own creation could be either a very powerful or disappointing experience. Ember didn’t want to face the queen’s disappointment. She did as she was bid, even though why the queen had chosen this latest scrawny, puny consort was beyond Ember’s understanding.
To strengthen and sweeten the consort, whose name was Tim, as in Tiny, Ember told him to get in the queen’s ancient black van that resembled a paddy wagon and then took him to a blood bank. Posing as couriers, they requested the specific blood units Tim would consume to build his stamina and distinctive taste. The blood bank’s Christmas Eve night supervisor was a spacey blonde with a name plate on her white coat that said “Sharlayne.” She remained focused on her phone conversation even as she reached for their paperwork.
“Uh huh,” Sharlayne said into the receiver while she fingered their phony credentials. “Well, I know I’m going to have to shoot him. I don’t want to get any closer to him than I have to so I bought one of those huge revolvers that packs a big wallop. I can fire as many shots as I need to bring him down in the alley. Nobody will hear. The place is deserted on Christmas morning. What I need to know is how you recommend I dispose of the body so I won’t get caught.”
Ember knew humans generally didn’t plan murders where they could be overheard. If she hadn’t been so concerned about getting Tim spiced up for the queen, she might have enjoyed listening to an alternative to some cloyingly sentimental Christmas dialogue. But, Ember was in a hurry, so she fumed at having to wait for Sharlayne’s attention, not that she had anything else to do.
Tim seemed riveted by Sharlayne. He watched intently as Sharlayne curled a strand of blond hair around her finger.
Now that Ember thought about it, she realized that Tim showed an affinity for people and their problems that Ember had rarely witnessed. He could look deep into a person’s eyes as if he were reading thoughts. Yet, instead of being disconcerting, Tim’s piercing stare brought a sense of comfort and reassurance. Before they left for the blood bank, his gaze had reduced the queen’s fit of fury to a quiet murmuring discontent.
Even Ember had come under his scrutiny once. All he did was to ask how she was feeling. (He knew better than to ask if she had slept.) But, no one had questioned in centuries if she felt well or ill. Instead of rebuffing his intrusion, she found herself lingering in the sense of warmth enveloping her. His concern had been a tiny pin prick of contentment that punctured epochs of indifference.
Could he be trying to make a connection with Sharlayne, Ember wondered. If so, how could Sharlayne ignore his effort and continue babbling?
“Yeah. Now go slow so I can write these down. Vertical instead of horizontal burial makes grave less obvious. Okay, next? Slice off head and appendages for separate disposal to make harder to identify victim. That’s good. What else? No, I’m not squeamish about anything. This guy deserves any disgusting thing I can do to his dead body. Put it in a barrel full of lye and dump it in a swamp? Okay. Where do I get the barrel and lye, and do you recommend a particular swamp?”
Ember had seen ditsiness through the ages, but this blond bimbo took it to new heights. “Excuse me?”
Lifting an index finger to indicate pause, Sharlayne said, “Be with you in a minute, I promise,” then returned to her conversation and note taking. Finally, she thanked the person for the information and put the receiver down.
“Sorry.” Sharlayne turned one of those mega-watt runway smiles. “Boyfriend trouble, you know.”
Ember didn’t, but gave a curt nod.
“Now, how can I help you?” Sharlayne’s smile beamed toward Ember, then Tim, then back.
“We’re here to pick up a blood requisition,” Ember told her.
“Okay. Let me just see if your paperwork’s in order.”
“You have it. We handed it to you.”
“Oh, so I do.” Sharlayne laughed. Her eyes flicked to Tim and lingered on his face for a second before turning to the fake papers.
Fingering the talisman that hung from her neck, Ember watched Sharlayne. She was ready to cast a compliance spell, but one wasn’t needed.
“Everything seems to be okey dokey. Let me just get the units you’ll need.”
“Thanks. We’re in somewhat of a hurry.”
“Sure.” The phone rang and Sharlayne answered. Immediately, her face became tense and angry. “I can’t talk to you now. I told you. I’ll be busy until the morning when I get off. I’ll meet you then. Come to the alley. I’ll buzz you in. Bye.” She hung up the phone and stood looking at it. “You bastard,” she said. “You deserve to die.”
“Yeah. I’ll be right back with your order.”
Tim had taken on a hang-dog expression while listening to Sharlayne’s telephone conversations. As soon as Sharlayne left to get the blood units, he asked Ember, “That’s sad, isn’t it?”
His question made Ember realize she would have to get him to adjust his attitude as well as his stamina. Unless the queen was going through some anciently latent mothering phase or a really ugly feed-off-torturing-your-victim fixation, she would quickly tire of his wimpy behavior.
“It’s not our business. You need to concentrate on bulking up. No need to buy trouble.”
“But, if she’s caught by the authorities, her life will be ruined. Surely there’s some way to help her. For Christmas.”
Again, this preoccupation with Christmas sentiment. Another habit from which Ember would have to wean Tim so he could remain focused on pleasing the queen.
“What makes you think the victim deserves to die?”
“I’m still close to life. I understand desperation. This woman wouldn’t be resorting to these measures if she had any other options.”
Thinking it over, Ember considered whether Tim should feast on Sharlayne for his blood supply, then leave her to wreak the vengeance only a vampire could on the boyfriend. But, if that happened, the queen would be jealous of her consort paying attention to another female before he served as her Christmas confection.
Another option was to let Tim feed on the boyfriend. Again, not good, because an infusion of tainted blood could be detrimental to Tim in his weakened state, and the problem boyfriend sounded as if he was teaming with sour, unsavory plasma. When the queen sank her teeth into Tim, she could tell if he had supped on living instead of stored blood. Ember didn’t want to have to face the queen’s rage over Tim’s leaving a possibly vinegary taste in her mouth.
No. The better course was for Ember to take matters into her own hands. She accepted the supplies from Sharlayne, and nodded when Sharlayne wished them a Merry Christmas. She led the way back to the truck and motioned for Tim to take a seat and sip his blood units through a straw, like a child with a series of sanguine lunch box drinks. While he did that, she thought, going through different scenarios until she figured out what they should do.
“You’re thinking of a way to help her, aren’t you?” Tim asked, wiping away a drop of blood that slipped from the corner of his mouth.
“Don’t waste your nourishment. You’re going to need every ounce to be a match for the queen tonight.”
“How will you help Sharlayne?”
The way he said her name, Ember could almost imagine Tim had known Sharlayne before tonight. “By following the easiest course. We’ll wait in the truck until the boyfriend shows, then drive over him. Sharlayne can report it as a hit-and-run accident, and we’ll have time before daylight to get you home and tucked into bed.” She thought it better not to mention so he could rest up for his night as the queen’s Christmas gift to herself.
“You’re really a thoughtful person, Ember,” Tim said. “Don’t you wish you were free of the queen?”
For a moment, Ember felt a surge of pleasure at his compliment. Then she remembered being sold into servitude, spending all the centuries in service, and having no recollection of any lifetime before, except a longing for one thing.
“All I wish for is sleep. Contented, uninterrupted, wake-only-when-rested sleep. Now, pull the cape around you,” Ember admonished him. “It won’t do for first light to hit you and turn you into a pile of ash.”
They heard a car door slam and looked out to find the boyfriend approaching. Ember turned on the engine and put the truck in gear, aiming for the hulking young man.
He showed no fear in seeing the vehicle coming toward him and actually grappled with the grillwork and fender before going down. After being run over, he struggled to rise. Seeing that he still moved, Tim jumped out of the truck and lunged toward him.
“The dawn, you’ve forgotten the dawn,” Ember gasped as she tried to push open her locked door.
Tim’s cape unfurled as he rushed his hapless victim. For the first time, Tim looked like a true vampire. The queen might have appreciated the transformation, but not what happened next. Just as Tim sunk his gleaming fangs into the boyfriend’s neck, the sun shone over the horizon.
Tim threw his head back as if the sun had jolted him. For a moment, he seemed stunned. Then, the lips around the blood dripping fangs relaxed into a beatific, peaceful smile, just before he crumbled into dust.
“No,” Ember cried, as she stepped out of the truck into the alley. She didn’t know if her wail was more for Tim’s loss or her own misfortune.
How could he do this to his queen, she agonizingly wondered. How could he do it to her after she had complied with all his requests?
Ember looked in disgust at the mess she would have to clean up. This is what came of Christmas kindness. It backfired on you, leaving you holding the bag, taking the blame, suffering the punishment for another’s altruism.
Well, it was done now. She’d have to deal with it, explain it to the queen, and take the consequences.
Suddenly, she saw Sharlayne coming out of the blood bank door into the alley. Great. Another complication to resolve. Ember reached for her talisman, expecting to use a forgetfulness spell.
“Wait,” Sharlayne said, this time holding up a hand instead of an index finger. The ditsiness was gone. She walked with assurance. Ember recognized Sharlayne as a transformed woman of purpose, and wondered about the decorative box Sharlayne clutched to her side with the hand that wasn’t raised.
“Tim was my kinsman,” Sharlayne explained. “He and I always had a way of connecting that went beyond words. Our parents used to accuse us of being able to read each other’s minds.”
Ember felt vindicated, yet annoyed. She had suspected Tim and Sharlayne were able to communicate. If she hadn’t been so preoccupied with the Queen’s errands, she would have acted upon it and prevented this mess. “I thought you could.”
Sharlayne hesitated before conceding, “Well, it had its uses. Tim became an accountant with a small company. When he questioned unorthodox spending practices, he was beaten to a pulp by the company president’s henchman, this thug,” she pointed at the presumed boyfriend, “who left him for dead in an alley, not unlike this one. There, your mistress found him, and claimed him as her own.
“When he learned he would be brought to the blood bank, he sent word to me. I work for the hospital system and convinced a co-worker to let me take his Christmas Eve shift. Already that brute had tried to blackmail my family, so it was easy for me to lure him into this alley for a payoff.”
Still fingering the talisman, Ember said, “You’ve gone to a lot of trouble. What do you want?”
“Only my kinsman’s ashes. I’ll explain to my family he was killed in an accident. We can bury him among our own.”
Sharlayne’s eyes looked into Ember’s as Tim’s had--sad, yet knowing--sending a silent invitation for Ember to rejoin humanity, if just for a few moments. Sharlayne’s words triggered a memory in Ember. Hadn’t she had kinsmen once? What had happened to her family? She lost track when she fled to America centuries ago. With the queen.
“What about revenge?” Ember asked.
“I have plans for the president of the company where Tim worked,” Sharlayne said, her lips curving into a smile that mimicked Tim’s dying countenance. “But, I have no quarrel with your mistress. She simply took advantage of a situation.”
Watching for Ember’s reaction, Sharlayne paused. When there was none, Sharlayne continued, “Perhaps you also may take advantage of a situation. Tim wanted it to help you, too. That was the last thought he sent to me.”
Ember’s mind had been reeling with all the details she would have handle to take care the incident. Now, Sharlayne’s words brought a sudden and pervasive calm to Ember’s senses. What was done had been done. The only reasonable response was to benefit from what had happened.
“You take the ashes. I’ll dispose of the body,” she told Sharlayne.
“Thank you,” Sharlayne said as she stooped to brush the ashes into the decorative box. “And Merry Christmas.”
If Ember had to hear those words one more time, she might scream in frustration. Such a waste of words and breath, she thought as she hauled the body into the back of the truck.
Yet, she supposed that was part of the charm of the story. The savior comes in the way he is most needed. Not as an all-powerful ruler, but a humble child who has to use all his resources to face the difficulties life imposed.
Not unlike Tim. Not unlike herself.
On the drive back to the queen’s secluded mansion, early Christmas morning, Ember considered her options. The queen would be displeased with losing her “bloody good trifle,” but she might find the presumed boyfriend an adequate substitute morsel.
A few hours earlier, that result might had suited Ember, even if it required that she return to the endless, monotonous servitude she had been experiencing for so long. But, she wasn’t the old, sparkless Ember.
She thought of the moment when Tim pounced on his victim. Did she have that kind of bravery? Could she tell the Queen she had lost Tim, face down the Queen’s wrath, and--this was the prospect that Ember found so irresistible--defiantly remove the talisman to provoke the Queen to break the binding spell?
While at a stop sign, Ember saw a robed father wearily trudging to the end of the driveway for the morning paper. Ember nodded. The father waved and said, “Up all night. What we won’t do to make a good Christmas for our children. At least I’ll get to sleep tonight.”
“Indeed,” Ember replied before she drove forward.
For the first time in centuries, Ember’s body filled with relief and glee, a true lightening of the burden of continual vigilant servitude, a possibility for sleep. She could see Tim’s probing eyes in her mind and had the feeling he was smiling at her.
Maybe this year, Ember had received a Christmas present after all. Thank you, Tim, she thought.