Jesse answered the phone when I called Debbie's house. I asked if I could speak to her. "You could if she was up." He laughed. "Do you know what time it is?"

I checked my watch: a few minutes before seven A.M. "Oh," I said, crestfallen. "Sorry. I didn't realize. Did I wake you?"

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"No," he said. "I have to head into the office, so it's business as usual for me. You just caught me, in fact - I was on my way out the door when the phone rang."

"You're working on Christmas Eve?"

"No rest for the wicked." He laughed. "But I'll only be there a couple of hours. Tying up some loose ends before the Christmas break. I'll be back in plenty of time for dinner. Speaking of which, are we to expect you or not?"

"Yes, please," I said. "That's why I was calling, to say I could come."

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"Great!" He sounded genuinely pleased. "How about Evra?"

"Can't make it," I said. "He's still not feeling well."

"Too bad. Listen, do you want me to wake Debbie? I can -?

"That's okay," I said quickly. "Just let her know I'll be there. Two o'clock?"

"Two's fine," Jesse said. "See you later, Darren."

"Bye, Jesse."

I hung up and went straight to bed. My head was still buzzing from all the talking me and Mr. Crepsley had been doing, but I forced my eyes shut and concentrated on sweet thoughts. A few minutes later, my tired body drifted off to sleep and I slept like a baby until one in the afternoon, when the alarm clock went off.

My ribs were aching as I got up, and my stomach was purple and blue with bruises where Murlough had head-butted me. It wasn't too bad after a few minutes of walking around, but I was careful not to make any sudden movements and bent down as little as possible.

I had a good shower, then sprayed deodorant all over myself when I was dry - the smell of the sewers was hard to get rid of. I dressed and picked up a bottle of wine Mr. Crepsley had bought for me to give to Debbie's parents.

I knocked on Debbie's back door as Mr. Crepsley had advised. Donna opened it. "Darren!" she said, kissing me on both cheeks. "Merry Christmas!"

"Merry Christmas," I replied.

"Why didn't you use the front door?" she asked.

"I didn't want to dirty your carpets," I said, scraping my shoes on the mat inside the door. "My shoes are wet from the dirty slush."

"Silly." She smiled. "As if anyone cares about carpets at Christmas. Debbie!" she called upstairs. "There's a handsome pirate here to see you."

"Hi," Debbie said, coming down the stairs. She kissed me on both cheeks as well. "Dad told me you called. What's in the bag?"

I pulled out the bottle of wine. "For your parents," I said. "My dad gave it to me to bring over."

"Oh, Darren, that's sweet," said Donna. She took the wine and called to Jesse, "Look what Darren brought."

"Ah! Vino!" Jesse's eyes lit up. "Better than the wine we bought. We invited the right man over. We should have him around more often. Where's the corkscrew?"

"Wait awhile." Donna laughed. "Dinner isn't ready yet. I'll stick it in the fridge. You head for the living room. I'll yell when it's time."

We ate some cheese and crackers while we were waiting, and Debbie asked me if my dad had decided about moving on yet. I said he had, and that we were leaving tonight.

" Tonight?" She looked dismayed. "Nobody travels anywhere except home on Christmas Eve. I should go over to that hotel, drag him out, and -?

"That's where we're going," I interrupted. "Home. Mom and Dad are getting together again, just for Christmas Day, to give Evra and me a treat. It's supposed to be a surprise, but I heard him on the phone this morning. That's why I called so early - I was excited."

"Oh." I could tell Debbie was upset by the news, but she put on a brave face. "That's great. I bet it's the best present you could have hoped for. Maybe they'll patch things up and get back together for good."

"Maybe," I said.

"So this is your last afternoon together," Jesse remarked. "Fate has driven the young romantics apart."

" Da-a-a-ad!" Debbie moaned, punching him. "Don't say things like that! It's embarrassing!"

"That's what fathers are for." Jesse grinned. "It's our job to embarrass our daughters in front of boyfriends."

Debbie scowled at him, but I could see she was enjoying the attention.

The meal was delicious. Donna had put all her years of expertise to great use. The turkey and ham practically melted in my mouth. The roasted potatoes were crisp and the turnip was sweet as candy. Everything looked fantastic and tasted even better.

Jesse told a few jokes that had us all in stitches, and Donna did her party trick: balancing a roll on her nose. Debbie took a mouthful of water and gargled her way through "Silent Night." Then it was my turn to do a little entertaining.

"This meal is so good." I sighed. "I could even eat the cutlery." While everybody laughed, I picked up a spoon, bit off the head, chewed it into tiny pieces, and swallowed.

Three pairs of eyes practically popped out of their sockets.

"How did you do that?" Debbie squealed.

"You pick up more than dust when you're on the road," I said, winking at her.

"It was a fake spoon!" Jesse roared. "He's putting us on."

"Give me yours," I told him. He hesitated, tested his spoon to make sure it was real, then passed it over. It didn't take long to gulp it down, my tough vampire teeth making quick work of it.

"That's incredible!" Jesse gasped, clapping wildly. "Let's try a ladle."

"Hold it!" Donna yelled as Jesse reached across the table. "These are part of a set and hard to replace. You'll be letting him loose on my grandmother's good china next."

"Why not?" Jesse said. "I never really liked those old plates."

"Watch it," Donna warned, tweaking his nose, "or I'll make you eat the plates."

Debbie was smiling, and she leaned over to squeeze my hand.

"I feel thirsty after those spoons," I joked, rising to my feet. "I think it's time for the wine now." I paused. "Is it okay for Debbie and me to have some wine?"

Donna hesitated, but Jesse smiled and said, "Come on, Donna - it's Christmas!"

"Well... okay." Donna sighed. "But just this once." She looked up at me. "Do you want me to open the bottle?" she asked, getting up.

"On second thought, not at all," I said, gently pushing her back down. "You've been serving all afternoon. It's time someone waited on you for a change."

"Hear that?" Donna beamed at the other two. "I think I'll exchange Debbie for Darren. He'd be much more useful to have around."

"That's it!" Debbie snorted. "No presents for you tomorrow!"

I was smiling to myself as I grabbed the wine from the fridge and peeled back the tinfoil from the top. The corkscrew was in the sink. I rinsed it, then opened the bottle. I sniffed - I didn't know much about wine, but it certainly smelled nice - and found four clean glasses. I went through my pockets for a couple of seconds, then fiddled with three of the glasses. Next I poured the wine and returned to the table.

"Hurray!" Jesse shouted when he saw me coming.

"What took you so long?" Debbie asked. "We were about to send a search party to look for you."

"Took me a while to get the cork out," I said. "I'm not used to it."

"You should have just bitten the top off," Jesse joked.

"I didn't think of that," I said seriously. "I'll do it next time. Thanks for the advice."

Jesse stared at me uncertainly. "You almost had me going!" He laughed suddenly, shaking a finger. "You almost had me going!"

His repetition reminded me momentarily of Murlough, but I quickly put all thoughts of the vampaneze out of my mind and raised my glass.

"A toast," I declared. "To the Hemlocks. Their name might be poison, but their hospitality is first class. Cheers!" I'd rehearsed the toast earlier, and it came out as well as I'd hoped. They groaned, then laughed and raised their glasses, clinking them against mine.

"Cheers," Debbie said.

"Cheers," Donna added.

"Bottoms up!" Jesse chuckled.

And we took a sip.

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