A Christmas Kingdom

by M. Lopes da Silva

 

“Mistletoe Muffins?” Allison asked.

“No. They sound like they could be poisonous,” Ruby said.

Allison frowned, picked up her pencil, and scratched the offending muffins from her list. “Well, what about the Christmas Croissants?”

Ruby recoiled. “All that icing on a croissant? Are you sure about that?”

Allison’s pencil was busy. “O.K., O.K., fair point. Uh…the Peppermint Pie?”

“Did you actually like the Peppermint Pie?”

Allison groaned and buried her head in her arms. Wings of her blonde hair cuffed her wrists. “I’m never going to come up with a menu that’s Christmassy enough to keep this coffee shop open!”

The coffee shop in question oozed Christmas in every scrap of its décor. Fake pine wreaths and garlands festooned every surface that could take a thumbtack. Despite the surplus of holiday cheer, customers were in short supply. Two middle-aged white women wearing sweaters, scarves, and restrained gold jewelry ordered scones and lattes at the counter from Ruby. Allison sat at a table nearby, crowded by stacks of beige files and a laptop unhelpfully left open to a browser page with a search result for “fantasy beach vacations.” Her head remained firmly planted in her forearms.

Ruby handed the women their coffee and snacks, then made her way over to Allison’s table and sat down. “Hey, boss, I’m taking a break.”

“That’s fine. I’m having a breakdown,” Allison said to the table top.

Ruby scrubbed the stubble in her purple sidecut. “Maybe you could compete with the new coffee shop in town by, you know, not competing? We just try to do our best and not worry about the holiday menu this year.”

Allison’s head popped up. “Have you seen the line outside of The Caffeine Queen? We’ve never had a line! Never!”

Ruby shrugged. “It’s new. They’ll get tired of it eventually.”

“It’s been over a month, and there’s still a line. They did an advent calendar menu, Ruby – how can people get tired of that? They have a new item for every day up until Christmas!”

“Fair point.”

“Our regulars have stopped showing up. I haven’t seen Alonso in weeks, and it’s gingersnap pumpkin whip season. He never misses my gingersnap pumpkin whips.”

“Maybe he needed a year off from them.”

“Everybody in this town loves the holiday season. Only the most festive coffee shop is going to survive around here.”

“I dunno. I still think you should try selling to the hidden Grinch market. Maybe you’ll get some customers who could do with a little less of the holiday season around here.”

Now Allison looked up to study her friend. “Are you doing all right this year? You had holiday plans with your girlfriend, right?”

Ruby grimaced. “We had a fight a couple weeks ago after Thanksgiving, so Lacie asked for the rest of the holiday season off.”

Allison reflexively placed a hand on her friend’s. “Oh, no! I’m so sorry. I hope it wasn’t anything too toxic.”

“No, nothing like that. She’s just ready to leave this place. I guess I’m not, yet.”

“I didn’t know that you wanted to leave Hollyville.”

They went quiet, and a canned lite jazz version of “O Tannenbaum” filled the space between them.

“Eventually, I do,” Ruby said. “There’s not a lot of room for a bisexual white Latinx weirdo in Hollyville. It’s bad enough that my best friend is ‘the man’ I’ve got to stick it to.”

Allison’s eyes got wet. “I’m going to miss you so much!”

Ruby began blinking back her own tears. “Make enough money to start paying me some benefits, and you won’t have to miss me, bitch!”

They laughed. Their ragged, gasping laughter almost swallowed up the sound of the bells at the door.

Ruby started to get up, but Allison waved her friend back down. “You’re on break, remember?” Ruby relaxed and started fishing for her cell phone among the file stacks.

Allison put on a spare apron as she headed behind the counter, and half-sang her greeting to the new customer: “Welcome to the Holly Bean, the Jolliest Bean in Hollyville!”

When she saw who the customer was, she immediately wished she could stuff every last holly and jolly she’d just spilled right back into her mouth.

“Wow, you really seem to be into all of this,” said the inexplicably well-lit and incredibly handsome man who approached the counter.

Allison’s face turned a festive shade of red. It had been a few months since she’d dated anyone, and this stranger stirred up old feelings like a ghost. “You don’t like the holidays?” she asked.

“No, that’s more of my sister’s thing. Isn’t holly a berry, not a bean?”

“I told her that,” Ruby piped up from the table.

“It’s Hollyville,” Allison pleaded, “and a coffee shop, and they love Christmas here. That makes sense, right?”

“No,” Ruby and the stranger both asserted.

“Well, what can I get you?” Allison said sadly.

“Do you have an espresso that hasn’t been touched by the holiday spirit?”

“Coming right up.”

“So if you’re not a fan of Christmas, what exactly are you up to in Hollyville at this time of year?” Ruby asked.

“Ruby!” Allison said.

“What? It’s a valid question.”

“I’m here to provide ‘emotional support’, but mostly that just means I stand around and wait to be told when to have my picture taken. My little sister started a new business,” the stranger said.

The bean grinder stopped. Allison frowned. “What business?”

“Your competition, I believe.”

“The Caffeine Queen!” Ruby hissed.

His right nostril went up briefly at the name. “The very same,” he said. “I detest the place.”

A canned lite jazz version of “It’s the Most Wonderful Time of the Year” filled the space between them.

#

           

“So, what do you do?” Allison asked.

“Well …” The stranger glanced around, then leaned in close. “I’m really a prince – from a very small country. A kingdom overseas. My sister is a princess.”

“You sound British,” Allison said. But she sat down at the table next to Ruby and the stranger.

“Foniberg was colonized by the English, but became an independent country again over the last century.”

“How do you spell that?” Ruby asked, squinting at her phone.

“With an f,” the stranger replied. “F-O-N-I, then berg.”

Ruby tapped her phone, then looked up at the stranger. “Are you Prince Stephen?”

“Yes.”

“So who’s next in line, you or your sister? Is your country patriarchal?”

“Why is a princess from Foniberg starting up a coffee shop in Hollyville, U.S.A.?” Allison wondered aloud, cutting Ruby off.

“Because she’s trying to shirk her responsibilities to the kingdom as a princess. I just want her back home with the family for Christmas, but she has these wild ideas about ‘America’ and ‘a coffee shop’.”

“Can’t your sister just go home with you for the holidays?” Allison asked hopefully. Ruby looked at her boss and furrowed her brow into a question, but Allison ignored it.

“I wish she would. Our mother the queen is getting on in years, and we’re worried it might be her last Christmas.”

Allison had always loved fairy tales: brave princes and princesses, wicked queens and magic mirrors. Now a fairy tale was happening around her. A handsome stranger had transformed into Prince Stephen of Foniberg. He not only wanted her help, he wanted to help her. She found herself distracted by the scent of his cologne, the rhythm of her own heart in her chest. He reached over and lightly touched her wrist. His winter-dry fingertips rasped audibly along her skin. She shivered and withdrew her arm. She didn’t want to play the fool.

“I’ve never heard of Foniberg,” Allison said.

“I’d never heard of Hollyville until a few months ago,” he countered.

“Then we’re even,” Prince Stephen said. Allison laughed, and Ruby managed a slight smile.

#

           

They began to scheme. Nothing illegal, just a plan to remind Prince Stephen’s sister that Christmas was a wonderful time to be spent with the family in Foniberg – far, far away from the town of humbug Hollyville.

           

The details of the plan kept sliding around. Ruby looked increasingly distant. Allison knew that the plan wasn’t very good, but Prince Stephen was so incredibly handsome, and his enthusiasm made a hidden dimple appear in his right cheek.

           

“What’s Foniberg like during Christmas?” Allison asked.

           

“Beautiful. It’s a little like Hollyville in some ways – full of charming decorations and holiday cheer. But my town is surrounded by the forest, and at the center of it all there’s a castle.”

           

“Is it a big castle?”

           

He laughed. “Not really, no! It’s a very small castle for a very small kingdom, all wrapped up with nutmeg and bows.” He stood up and went for his coat. Ruby frowned and turned to Allison.

           

“Something’s not right. A lot of somethings, maybe,” Ruby said.

           

“Remember to lock up when you’re done in here,” Allison said as she stood up and got her coat.

           

“I thought you were going to close with me tonight.”

           

Allison frowned. “That’s right. I forgot.” She started to remove the coat she’d just put on.

           

Ruby shook her head. “Never mind. You take off. You’re halfway to outer space right now anyway.”

           

Allison had forgotten how lightheaded another person could make her feel. “The right person,” she said out loud.

           

“What?” Ruby asked.

           

“Nothing.”

           

Ruby rolled her eyes.

 

Allison stepped into the stinging cold of the parking lot. The chill broke her reveries. She felt her skin crawl deep within the woolen caverns of her double-knit sweater.

           

The white twinkle lights strung in a nearby tree blinked off and on with the gusting wind. Allison began to hurry towards her car. She could feel someone at her back. The presence – the someone – was bigger than her. Much, much bigger. She leaned forward, subconsciously slanting her body to avoid colliding with the someone. Her skipping, halting steps quickly tripped into a full run. She was running.

           

The moon was full, but now its shape was smeary with something that was not atmosphere or weather. Allison stared. Then she began to laugh because she was not running, she was falling, and the moon bent and squashed like an insect across a windshield.

 

#

           

Allison awoke in a four-poster bed draped with expensive scarlet curtains. Allison did not own a four-poster bed. She sat up quickly and found herself wearing an inexplicably fancy, yet modest nightgown.

           

There was a knock at the door – a door that Allison had never seen before. It was painted a queasy green shade to match the rest of the paneling in the strange room that Allison found herself in. Her heart raced.

           

“May I come in?” a strange woman’s voice asked on the other side of the door.

           

“Who is it?” Allison called.

           

“It’s Sarah.”

           

Allison stared at the door blankly. She didn’t know anyone named Sarah.

           

“May I come in now?”

           

“All right,” Allison said.

           

The door was opened by a young woman who resembled Prince Stephen – especially around the nose and eyebrows.

           

“Who are you?” Allison asked, trying to keep the panic out of her voice.

           

Sarah smiled as she entered the room. “That flight must’ve taken a lot out of you. You really don’t remember any of it?”

           

Allison frowned. A silvery flash of memory slipped away from her. “I remember – something. I don’t know what.”

           

“Next time, don’t drink so much on the plane! I’m Stephen’s sister, Sarah.”

           

“Princess Sarah,” Allison said, aghast. “I’m so embarrassed – ”

           

“Oh, you don’t have to use the ‘princess’ with me.”

           

“Sarah, I’m sorry but I don’t remember meeting you. Or the flight, or…where am I?”

           

The princess giggled, clapping her hands with glee. “You’re in the kingdom of Foniberg!”

           

“Oh my god,” Allison said. “Ruby! I need to phone the store back home. Do you have a phone I could – ”

           

“Good morning, Sleeping Beauty!” Prince Stephen entered the room with a smile. He wore a plaid scarf and a woolen overcoat, and threw a pair of gloves at Allison which she caught automatically. “Are you ready to help pick out the royal Foniberg Christmas tree? It’s a family tradition!”

           

She stood there, gaping at the prince for a moment until she pulled herself together. “Actually, I need to call my friend back home. Is there a phone I can use?”

           

“The castle hasn’t had a telephone installed, but we can go use the one in town. The Christmas trees, however, are in the other direction.”

           

He smiled at her, and she agreed to make the call after they chose a tree.

 

#

           

The sky didn’t look right. It was murky, but sometimes the clouds broke and the sun seemed more like a smudged fingerprint than a fixed point. And there was an odor, faint but persistent; a boggy, rotten smell that never left the air.

           

Still, she took the sleigh ride wedged between the prince and the princess, behind the prancing Clydesdale merrily churning up the snow. The trees smelled appropriately piney, but the air seemed stale somehow.

           

She turned to Prince Stephen, then suppressed a gasp. A long, thick hair had sprouted from his neck. It was amber-colored, lighter than his brunette locks, and curling smoothly like an antenna. Allison blinked. No, she was very sure that it was an antenna. The filament twitched with a tentative flinch completely unrelated to the jerking of the sleigh or the weak wind pushing against them. But she was also very certain that antennas sprouted from the tops of heads and not necks, so the idea that an antenna was sticking out of Prince Stephen’s neck was probably nonsense. Probably.

           

She stared straight ahead. A light sweat bloomed beneath her knit bobble cap.

           

If she listened closely, she could faintly hear soft scraping, rustling noises on either side of her.

 

#

           

They came to a place far from the center of town and the castle. Although pine trees loomed all around them, the air still felt as stale as a warehouse’s. Allison shivered even though it was reasonably warm between the royal siblings. The sleigh came to a stop in the snow, and the soft white murk suspended in the atmosphere cleared.

           

There was a smudgy specter, screaming muffled cries and beating the air with heavy, resonant thuds. Allison stared, uncomprehending. The blurry figure sort of looked like Ruby – or Ruby on the other side of warped and heavy glass.

           

Or, not glass.

           

She was beating the air.

           

Allison found herself running towards Ruby. She ran and ran until she collided with the thick, clear dome of chitin between them.

           

“Ruby!” Allison screamed.

           

Ruby’s cries were muffled, outside, in another world far away from Allison.

           

“She’s probably telling you to run,” Sarah said.

           

Allison turned around. Sarah and Prince Stephen now had mouths like mantises, all pincers and proboscises thrusting through lips, but still they managed to talk.

           

“Are you going to eat me?” Allison asked.

           

Sarah and Prince Stephen laughed. “We don’t eat people. We eat the same kind of things you do. But the kingdom eats people, and we serve the kingdom.”

           

Allison thought she had misheard. “What?”

           

“This place – do you really think that you’re outside right now, Allison? Look up. Smell the air. You’re already being digested.”

           

There was a rank, boggy thickness to the atmosphere. It slid like thin fabric across her skin. Allison shook her head sharply and looked up. There were clouds in the sky.

           

“It can’t be true! There are clouds!” She pointed at them. “And there’s trees! And snow!”

           

“Allison,” Prince Stephen said gently, “there are clouds inside of giant malls. The clouds don’t mean anything. Just relax and help us pick out a tree. It’s easier if you get into the spirit of things.”

           

Prince Stephen scratched at his scalp. The antenna sticking out of his neck danced in time with every scratch. Allison’s skin prickled. She was faintly itchy all over. She glanced down. Her eyes stung with the effort of looking. Her hand was a bright, festive red.

           

The coffee shops. The Holly Bean. Her boyfriends. Her best friend. They all fell away, and Allison helped pick out a Christmas tree in the tick-like belly of the kingdom. When the clouds along the Hollyville mountain range broke, the kingdom’s translucent, chitinous thorax shone like the dome of an old-fashioned snowglobe, the illusion disturbed only by Ruby’s tiny figure beating against the glass.    

 

M. Lopes da Silva is a bisexual author and fine artist living in Los Angeles. Her work frequently explores themes of obsession and anatomy, and boldly celebrates the fantastic and strange. She likes to put fairy and folk tales in everything she makes. She tends unruly roses and cats alongside her partner, a film critic.

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