This is a Christmas story—well, vignette—I wrote for the writing group I’m in. It does, as is my wont, feature anthropomorphic animal characters. (Bonus candy cane points to those who guess why the main character is the species she is.)
The bell on the diner’s door jangled, stilled, jangled again spasmodically as a blast of cool air came in from the mostly-empty city street outside. “Hi, Frank,” Jean said, before she’d looked up from the counter, cleaning rag still in hand.
He could have looked worse, but he was an hour and three coffees away from looking sober. As he fumbled his way past the door, the tiger waved grandly. “Merry Christmas!” He managed a credibly straight line to a seat at the counter right in front of the collie; she was setting down a full cup of coffee—one sugar, two creams—as he thumped heavily into place.
“Merry Christmas, Frank,” she said, glancing at the clock. Eleven-thirty. “Shouldn’t you be in bed waiting for dancing sugar plums?”
“Feh,” Frank said, reaching to straighten his collar and instead just mangling it more. She leaned forward to straighten it for him as he kept speaking. “No Christmas bonus this year, you know. Bastards.” She knew; his office hadn’t given him a bonus for the last eight years and she heard about it every year in late December. He hadn’t been in Joe’s on Christmas Eve in five years, though, back when Gracey and he had separated. They’d gotten back together by the next Easter. “What the hell is a sugar plum, anyway?”
“An old-fashioned candy.”
“You’re so smart,” Frank said, with the dopey sincerity of a professional drinker. “But this is the last Christmas Eve I can spend at Joe’s. Gracey’s pissed, but I hadda spend at least part of it here.”
“Thanks, Frank,” she said. “I’ll get you a breakfast going.” She put in the tiger’s usual order and headed over to one of the few other occupied tables with the coffee. She didn’t need the reminder that Joe’s was closing for good in six days.
Nick, the wolf sitting there, straightened out of his own slouch as she approached. “Thank you.” He’d finished his own dinner an hour ago, and a pie slice on top of that. Now he just sat with a coffee, a cigarette and a laptop. She knew he was a jazz player, and the gig he’d been expecting to be at tonight had been cancelled.
“No problem,” she said, smiling.
He grinned back. “So why are you always in a diner on Christmas Eve, Jean?”
She paused, tail curling down. “It’s what I do for a living.”
“Why? I been coming here fifteen years and you’ve been here all that time.” He took a drag on the cigarette, then waved it in an arc, the tip tracing a dimly glowing line. “All of us, we got nowhere to go. Didn’t you?”
Jean considered this a moment. “People with nowhere to go end up somewhere, Nick, so somebody’s got to be wherever they are.”
Blinding white light suddenly flooded the diner, overwhelming the old incandescents inside and the blue neon that normally shone through the window. Jean turned toward the big windows, shielding her eyes. She thought she could make a figure out in the light walking toward the door.
“They’ve found me!” Frank cried. Rather than running, he slid out of his seat to the floor. Jean glanced down at him, sighing, then looked back up.
The door opened, and they could hear the sound of a truck engine running. A fox stepped inside. He stood tall, over six feet, and he wore a white business suit, expertly tailored. After a moment, the truck engine and the light went off, and two more foxes stepped in, shorter but just as dapper, flanking him. She wondered if they were about to whip out submachine guns; this all felt disturbingly like a TV gangster movie.
“Happy Christmas, Jean,” the fox said.
The collie squinted, frowning. “Do I know you?”
“No, you don’t,” he said, stepping forward with a smile. “But you’re indirect family to me, just like you’ve been to everyone who’s come through here late at night.”
“Right,” she said, cautiously. “Can I get you and your friends anything?”
“I can’t be here for long. I’ve got a lot of places to be tonight.”
“Right,” she said again, and put a hand on her hip. “You’re not exactly what I picture when I think of Santa.”
He laughed, and the other two foxes smirked. “If I could bring you any gift, Jean, what would it be?”
“Can I say world peace?”
“You can, but that’s a tough one.”
“Well, there’s...” She hadn’t had a working car for nearly a decade. She’d never been able to afford more than a studio flat in an older building. She’d never traveled. A couple times she thought she’d been in love, but she’d spent the last ten years secretly hoping her Prince Charming would just wander into Joe’s and order biscuits.
Sighing, the collie shook her head. “You know what? I’d just keep Joe’s open.”
He nodded, as if he’d expected that answer. “My father spent a lot of time here. He used to say you saved his life.”
“I’ve never saved anyone’s life, unless you count keeping Mrs. Abernathy from swallowing a chicken bone twelve years ago.”
“You saved my life,” Frank said from the floor. “A few times now.”
Jean stared at him, then looked over at Nick. The wolf shrugged and grinned. “You mighta done that for me by some measures,” he said.
“So what,” she said at length, “you’re back to thank me?”
He nodded. “Yes.” He leaned forward, and gave her a soft kiss on the muzzle. “Thank you.”
The collie’s eyes widened. She felt like she should slap him, but she didn’t.
The lights and truck engine came on outside again. “You’ll see me again after New Year’s,” the fox said.
“It’ll be closed then.”
“It can’t be. I have to come back for biscuits,” he replied, stepping back outside.
She blinked, twice, as the lights receded.
“Christmas angel, or Christmas fruitcake?” Nick said with a grin, lighting a new cigarette.
“For tonight, we’ll go with angel,” Jean said after a moment.
“Order up!” the unseen cook called, and she headed behind the counter to pick up Frank’s plate.