Santa’s Odyssey: Labor Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Nine: Labor Day

Penny crept down the lane, a somewhat pointless endeavor as a mail carrier going to Mrs. Claus’s home was in no way suspicious, but Mrs. Claus appreciated the effort. Still, if anybody actually were suspicious of her, she did herself no favors with her behavior. She clutched the mail to her chest like she was afraid it would try to escape, and her eyes flew to every home and bush on the route, as though someone would appear, pointing an accusatory finger at any moment. Mrs. Claus watched from the window, shaking her head. She was a loyal girl and a wonderful elf, but as a spy, she made an excellent letter carrier.

She sidled to the front door of the Claus home, glanced in every direction, and reached up to discreetly knock on the door. It was a noble effort, made entirely moot when Mrs. Claus opened the door seconds before her knuckles could make contact.

“Really, Penny, this is far more suspicious than if you simply came up here normally. Come inside.”

Mrs. Claus led Penny to the same kitchen table where she’d given her Edgar’s letter a few days earlier. The ream of papers was still where she left it, crumpled a bit from where she had clenched her fists, but still readable. The long and short of it was that, with Santa Claus missing in action, Edgar was exercising a nasty little clause (no relation) in the North Pole Charter. As current head of operations, if Santa was unable to complete his run on Christmas Eve, Edgar was within his rights to take command of the workshop and distribution centers of the Pole permanently. Even if Santa Claus were to return on December 26, the transfer of power would be complete and irreversible. Edgar, of course, made it seem far more charitable and magnanimous in his missive. “In the interests of the children,” he wrote, “and to ensure the continuance of the Christmas season for future generations as we have always maintained it for children in the past, I feel that this step is unavoidable.”

“Reindeer droppings,” Mrs. Claus hissed when she read it.

“What are we going to do?” Penny asked. “What he’s doing… it could destroy Christmas forever!”

Mrs. Claus laughed. “Oh, dear, don’t you watch any Hallmark Channel movies? Nothing can destroy Christmas forever. My husband will return in time to complete his scheduled Christmas Eve run, of that I have absolutely no doubt. No, that’s not what I’m worried about.”

“What, then?”

“I’m worried about this Christmas. Every child in the world, not getting what they really want, forced to make do with one of those… Edgarbots.” She nearly spat out the word, and Penny was certain she heard acid in the kind woman’s voice. “No, Santa Claus will be back in time to leave on the 24th of December, but we need to make certain that there are decent toys for him to deliver when he does.”

“How can we do that?”

“We need to get to work.”

That had finished their conversation the day Mrs. Claus received the letter. Since then, Penny had been doing reconnaissance, “stealthily” going around to different elves and asking how their work was going with the new regime in charge. It was time for her to report her findings.

“The elves aren’t happy,” she said. “I spoke to the department heads of dolls, stuffed animals, board games, and models and miniatures, and they all say that Edgar has completely gutted their quotas of toys for this year.”

“But they still have quotas?” she said.

“Yes. Even Edgar seems to recognize that some kids are going to want a teddy bear this Christmas.”

“And you say they’re all angry about it?”

“All of the ones I talked to. I didn’t talk to anyone in electronics — they’ve been too busy turning out Edgarbots.”

“Fine then. Put out the word. We’re going to have a little meeting. But don’t tell it to any elf you can’t trust to keep quiet.”

September 3, 6:15 p.m.

Gary and Eleanor walked into the apartment building, bags of Chinese food dangling from their arms, having acquired provisions for the evening. “I have to tell you, though,” he said, “I don’t really expect Santa to be there when we arrive. Labor Day is a holiday after all, and on pretty much all of them he’s been yanked away on some adventure or another.”

“I know, he’s been filling me in. Thanks for looking out for the boss while I’ve been away.”

“Oh come on, it’s Santa Claus. What kind of jerk would leave him out in the cold?”

“I’ve spent eight months out there, Gary. I think there are a lot of jerks that would have left him in the cold. And it’s not like you knew he was Santa Claus.”

He shrugged, reaching into his pocket for the key to his apartment. “I knew. Even before I knew, I knew.”

He opened the door, expecting to find his apartment empty or, at most, to find Blinky sitting alone, watching baseball, irritated that he had been left behind again but slightly grateful that there would be extra Chinese food. What he didn’t expect was to see Blinky on the couch between Santa Claus and a man wearing dusty work overalls and a construction hat. The man lifted a beer up to his lips, drops of it trickling into his curly black beard, and he tipped his hat towards Gary in salute.

“Oh. You’re here.”

“That I am, Gary!” Santa said, beaming.

“I sort of expected you to be gone. Learning your… whatever the lesson is for Labor Day.”

The man in the overalls laughed. “Gary — I can call you Gary, right?”

“Oh, sure.”

“Great. I’m Worth. Gary, we holiday icons base our days of power on what humans believe about them. My day is Labor Day. And you know what you mortals do on Labor Day?”

“Um… what?”

“You celebrate work by doing as little of it as possible.”

“AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE!” Santa and Blinky howled, raising their beers. The three of them clinked them together and they all took a drink.

“Well… great,” Gary said. “Do you like Chinese food?”

* * *

The assembly could not be held at Mrs. Claus’s home. Although she was by no means outside of her rights to call elves for a meeting with her, she had absolutely no faith in Edgar or his minions. She was certain that somebody was watching her at all times. Instead, Penny had volunteered the break room at the North Pole Post Office. It was Labor Day in the United States, and they respected many mortal holidays here. There would be nobody there for regular working hours, and the only people who would enter would be those that she and Penny had specifically invited.

It took about an hour and a half after Penny first unlocked the door before Mrs. Claus was satisfied that everybody who was planning to attend was in attendance. In the end, there were about a dozen elves, not counting Penny, each of them representing a different department in Santa’s workshop. She recognized most of them, and the few she didn’t know personally, Penny vouched for.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “And I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment, because I’ve always wanted to say this: I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all here tonight.”

“We’re not wondering,” said Lerty, head elf from the Models and Miniatures division. “You’re here because you want to kick Edgar’s sorry behind. Well, we’re in!”

She shook her head. “No, kicking him is not what this is about,” she said. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but Edgar has so far not done anything that’s outside of his rights as head of the workshop. Santa did leave him in charge, and even though his decisions to date have been outrageous, turning violent against him isn’t the answer.”

“We couldn’t if we wanted to,” Penny said. “He’s got a security detail, and they’re still so upset about the boss that they’re taking their jobs super-seriously. They’re the only elves outside of electronics that are doing whatever he wants, no questions asked.”

“What then?” asked Greenleaf. “We haven’t even made a quarter of the toy cars we usually have done by September, and we’ve almost bumped into the quota Edgar ordered for us.”

“And you can’t keep making them? You can’t surpass your quota?”

“We went past our quota in vinyl dolls,” Gossamer said. “As soon as we did, he diverted all of our elfpower into making more of the stupid Edgarbots.”

Mrs. Claus shook her head. “So clearly, we can’t just keep going on and hope he’ll let you do your jobs in peace.”

“But the orders!” Gossamer pulled out her Elfdroid phone and pulled up a spreadsheet. “Look, we’ve got just as many orders for the dolls as we ever have, but when we show them to Edgar he just revises the numbers down. He says his job is to anticipate what the kids will want by Christmas, and that by then all they’ll have on their mind is the robot. I don’t know what he’s planning, but it’s big.”

“Yeah,” Lerty snarled. “Because every mortal kid in the world is hoping to get a box with his stupid, punchable face on Christmas morning.”

“Well, it’s obvious what we have to do,” Mrs Claus said. “We have to keep making the other toys and cut back on the Edgarbots. But how are we going to get him to agree to it?”

“He’ll never agree to it!” Greenleaf shouted “He’s got an ego big enough to sink the Titanic!

“I have an idea,” Penny said. The elves turned to her, some looking surprised that she’d spoken up, but nobody was ready to dismiss any rational thought.

“Edgar is ignoring the numbers,” she said. “So what difference does it make if we give him the real ones?”

“Penny, dear, what do you mean?”

“Well, let’s say that Edgar orders fifty thousand toy cars, but we really need a hundred thousand.”

“A hundred?” Lerty shouted. “That wouldn’t even cover half–

“Oh, for Santa’s sake, Lerty, it’s a hypothetical. The specific numbers aren’t important!” Mrs. Claus glared at him and he shrank down.

“Anyway, let’s say we need a hundred thousand. We can’t tell him that they’ve made fifty thousand, because he’ll take the elves off that detail and send them into making more bots.

“Okay, we’ve established that.”

“So let’s say… oh… thirty thousand or so toy cars are made, but they aren’t accounted for.”

“So we make fifty, but we only tell him we made twenty?” Lerty said. “What good would that do?”

“You could keep making them,” Mrs. Claus said. “Well past your quota. That’s clever, dear. That’s very clever.”

“We’ll have to keep a separate set of books with the real numbers,” Greenleaf said, “But I’d definitely be willing to do that.”

“Ditto,” Gossamer said. The other department heads nodded in assent.

“Okay,” Lerty said, “But won’t he notice when he walks into the warehouse and he sees a hundred thousand toy cars where there are only supposed to be twenty?”

“He’s right. We can’t store them in the warehouse,” Greenleaf said. “What do we do with them until Christmas Eve?”

Mrs. Claus smiled. “We all have houses. We have attics and basements and closets. And we all have friends with attics and basements and closets. We take the extra inventory and we hide it in our own homes. Nobody outside of Edgar’s circle is happy with the way he’s running things. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find people willing to provide storage space.”

“Fine, fine,” Lerty said. “So we keep the stuff at home. But how do we get it there? It’s going to look awfully suspicious if we all walk out of work every evening carrying boxes of toys.”

Penny smiled. “You know who’s not suspicious carrying boxes when they leave work?”

“Who?”

“Mail carriers.”

Mrs. Claus clapped her hands together and laughed. It was a silver, glittering sound, one of the most beautiful sounds ever heard at the North Pole, and it was a sound that had not been heard in over eight months.

“Oh Penny, my darling,” she said. “We just might make a spy out of you yet.”

To be continued…

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Santa’s Odyssey: Warrenday

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Eight: Warrenday

By the end of August, the North Pole is traditionally in high gear. With two-thirds of the year gone, the orders for Christmas are beginning to take shape, the most popular toys and IPs are usually identified, and production is in overdrive for anything that could even potentially be that season’s number-one toy. Nobody wanted a repeat of the 1977 Star Wars fiasco.

As Mrs. Claus toured the shop, though, what she saw wasn’t what her husband would have wanted at all. Edgar’s snapping robot, proud in its display box, lined the aisles of the storeroom. There were literal tons of them, more even than she remembered seeing from the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle-Me-Elmos at the height of their respective crazes. What’s more, the factory floor was still humming with elves constructing even more of the robot.

Worst of all, for the first time she had the opportunity to examine the packaging. Most toy packages had a small emblem or logo representing the”manufacturer” (in essence, the licensee that the Pole had an arrangement with). In cases where the toy was a North Pole original, there were a few innocuous-sounding shadow companies that served the purpose.

This box, however, proudly proclaimed “Edgarbot! Another fine toy from North Pole, Inc!” And the logo for this new enterprise was an ice-blue stylized version of the workshop’s new boss, his face smiling from within a snowflake.

“EDGAR!” She snatched a box from one of the many towers of them, toppling a few hundred to the floor in the process. She threw open the door to Santa’s office to see him there,  sitting gleefully in her husband’s chair, looking over what she could only assume were manufacturing details for the Edgarbot.

“Mrs. Claus. How lovely to see you.”

“What is the meaning of this… this Vanity-Bot? Where are all the dolls? The toy trains? The teddy bears?”

“Oh, Mrs. Claus, we always adapt with the times. Those things still exist, but we feel they’re joining marbles and yo-yos as more of a niche toy. The mass market is moving towards flashier, more interactive types of entertainment.”

“Did the mass market demand that the packages have your picture on them? We’ve always used shell companies for this sort of thing, Edgar, it’s never been about us!”

“Which is another thing we feel needs to be adjusted. It’s the 21st Century, Mrs. Claus, it’s all about branding now. Do you think Disney became the largest media company in the world because people like mice? They turned a rodent into an icon, put his ears on an ice cream bar and now they have more power than most sovereign nations.”

“We don’t want power here, we want to make children happy!”

“And we will, we will… but what’s wrong with letting people know who did it? The mortals understand. They’ve been plastering your husband’s face all over their cities for years, every Christmas season.”

“He never asked them to do they did it because they love him.”

“And they’ll grow to love me as well.”

A knife twisted in Mrs. Claus’s gut as she looked into Edgar’s cool, elfin eyes.

“What’s the latest word on the search for my husband?”

“Nothing yet. I promise, we’ll alert you the moment we hear anything.”

For the first time, Mrs. Claus didn’t believe him.

August 30, 3 p.m.

The second half of the summer had been quiet for Santa, Blinky, and Gary. They’d had no visits from any icons since July 4, and aside from a compulsion to buy discounted pencils and notebooks during the back-to-school sales, Santa had felt no seasonal urges either. He had, however, felt a growing joy for the past week as they approached the 30th — the birthday of Gary’s son, Warren. Gary’s own birthday had been only a few days earlier, but the celebration was deliberately subdued as they prepared for Warren’s party. It would be the first time Gary got to spend the day with him in three years, and although he was going to have a proper party on Saturday with his friends, on Thursday afternoon Gary was determined to show the boy the time of his life. He’d originally thought to take him out for pizza and to an arcade, but Santa had convinced him to be a bit more creative.

“Dad!”

Warren bolted down the steps of his school and nearly knocked his father down with a hug. There was joy on his face an excitement that made Santa nearly burst. Although making children happy was his mission, he was rarely able to observe that moment of joy. By the time the children saw what miracles he had wrought, Santa was always long gone.

After hugging his father, Warren greeted Gary’s friends. “Hey, Nick! Hey, Bill!” The boy had, not surprisingly, taken to the two of them immediately. Santa was happy to note, however, that the child’s father was still paramount in his eyes.

“Where are we going?” Warren asked, climbing into the front seat of Gary’s car. It was a compact, and Santa had to hold his breath to squeeze into the backseat, but Warren had claimed right of passage in the front via a ritual known as “shotgun,” and Santa was nothing if not traditional.

“We have a little surprise for you, son. Nick has a few friends who hooked us up.”

Santa beamed while Warren looked quizzically in the rearview mirror. Although he had been cut off from his operations at the North Pole, Santa still knew a few people in the mortal world, particularly those who were in charge of what children enjoyed.

Gary parked his car in a garage a block away from a nondescript building, and Santa could tell Warren was confused. As they approached, though, and the blinking lights and colors in a third-story window were visible from the street, he started to get excited. As they opened the door, an outrush of air carried a balloon dog into the street, but Warren didn’t notice it at all.

“Where are we?” he asked in the elevator. Gary stayed silent, however, refusing to divulge anything until the doors opened and they stepped into a lobby decorated in cool blue and silver, with pulsating lights from every display. A young woman with dark hair and olive eyes beneath her glasses was waiting for them.

“You must be Warren. I’m Hasini. Welcome to Thundertop Games.”

“Thunderwhat?”

“You’ve heard of our games?” she said, smiling. “Have you ever played 14 Days?”

“Are you kidding? Everybody plays that!”

“Well, I was on the team that developed that game.”

“That’s a job?

Hasini laughed. “Well sure. You didn’t think the games just happened by themselves, did you? Hey, we’ve got a new 14 Days expansion pack in the works, but it’s not quite ready yet. Do you think you could help us test it out?”

Warren’s eyes bulged wide enough to serve a roast goose. “Really?”

“Thanks so much for this,” Gary said. Hasini just smiled.

“Anything for Nick.”

As she led Gary and Warren into the testing room, Santa and Blinky found a couch to wait on in the office lobby. Blinky smiled. “Amazing, Boss. Even out here, a million miles from home, you make magic happen.”

Santa laughed. “It’s not that amazing, Blinky. We’re past the dog days of summer, and my power is starting to build up again. Oh, it’s nowhere near what it’s going to be in the holidays, but it’s just enough to convince someone we’ve worked with before to do a small favor for me. Even if she doesn’t know who I really am.”

“I never understood the whole video game thing.”

“I liked the one with the gopher better than the one with the plumber.”

“Gopher?”

“Or… porcupine? Some kind of fast rodent. The kids liked him.”

As they waited they watched the flow of people going in and out of Thundertop Games. Most of them were younger — 20s or early 30s — many of them in jeans or unbuttoned shirts hanging on graphic tees. It was a far cry from the visits Santa had occasionally made to some of the larger, older toy companies from time to time. Everyone involved with the game company was dressed so casually it took a moment for Santa to be surprised at the man wearing the full red, blue, and yellow costume of a circus clown.

“Blinky… did you see that?”

“What, the guy dressed like Bozo got lost on his way to the TV studio?”

“Yes, him.”

“No, I didn’t see him. And if you know what’s good for you, you didn’t see him either.”

“But you see… the thing is…

“There’s a thing?”

“The thing, you see…”

“Oboy, a thing…”

“The thing is that I’m pretty sure nobody else saw him except for the two of us.”

Blinky sighed. “For Frosty’s sake, Boss, it’s not even a holiday!”

“It is for Warren.”

Santa rose and followed the path of the clown through the door to the Thundertop office. He was only slightly surprised that walking in did not take him into an office, but into a large room festooned with crepe, streamers, balloons, and an enormous banner that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY WARREN!”

“What’s all this?” Santa said.

“This is my staging area!” The clown burst from behind an enormous birthday cake in the center of the room. “This is where I go through the preparations to make Warren’s birthday the best it can be!”

“Dressed as a clown?”

“Bonbon the Birthday Clown, that’s me!”

“You know they make entire movies about how creepy you are these days, don’t you?”

Bonbon’s shoulders fell, but the smile on his face remained painted brightly on. “That stupid movie,” he said. “I know, kids don’t really like clowns anymore, but the mortals haven’t agreed on a different form for the birthday icon, so I’m stuck like this.”

“What’s your game going to be, then? Do I pop out of a cake? Blow up some balloons? Pin a tail on a donkey?”

“Well, that’s not really up to me, Santa. It’s up to Warren.”

The room swished and swirled, and chimes played the birthday song as the world shifted around them. The large, brightly-lit birthday room was replaced with a small room, much darker, with Gary and Warren sitting at a table, game controllers in their hands. In front of them was a large TV monitor, a pair of colorful sprites bounding around on the screen, zapping monsters and dodging fireballs from various monsters. They were laughing. They were smiling. In fact, in the almost nine months Santa Claus had known him, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Gary so happy.

“You see, Santa, our job is–”

“Are you serious?”

“Huh?”

“Bonbon, look at them. Gary’s birthday was Saturday. Warren’s birthday is today. Right now, right at this moment, they’re ecstatic, because they’re together. What do you think you or I could do that would make that any better?”

“Um… Cake?”

Santa shook his head. “I know you’re an Icon, I know that technically you fit all the qualifications that make the other Icons powerful. But birthdays aren’t like that, son. Most holidays — the good ones, at least — are about being with family or celebrating the spirit of giving or saluting something bigger than yourself. A birthday is different, though. A birthday is like your own personal little Christmas. It’s the one day of the year where it’s okay to be just a little bit selfish and want it to be all about you. Look at these two. They’ve already got everything that they could want. They’re together, they’re having fun, and they don’t have to learn any sort of lesson.”

Bonbon looked back and forth at them, playing their game and laughing. “Well heck. What am I supposed to do?”

“The same thing everybody does on somebody else’s birthday: you stand back and let them enjoy it.” He clapped Bonbon on his shoulder. “Stick around, I’ll save you a piece of cake.”

Bonbon walked back into the lobby and sat down between Santa and Blinky, who did his best to pretend he couldn’t see the clown. As he kept looking at him every 37 seconds, he was terribly unsuccessful. But after an hour of game time, Hasini led Warren and Gary back to the lobby. The childlike wonder in his eyes was tangible, and Warren was pretty excited too.

“That was so awesome!” he shouted.

“Remember,” Hasini said, “You can tell people that you played it, but you can’t tell them any of the content of the new levels until we release them next month, okay?”

“You got it!” he said. He and Gary walked on towards the elevator, and she winked at Santa.

“He’s going to tell every kid in his school,” she said. “We couldn’t pay for better marketing.”

Gary’s car was even tighter than it was on the way to Thundertop, with Bonbon wedged between Santa and Blinky in the back seat. The pizza place that had been the core of Gary’s original plan was now only the location of the afterparty, but it was still a party. There was music and more games and cake, from which Santa did indeed slip the gleeful Bonbon a healthy slice. As they ate and celebrated and pranced around, a group of costumed figures ran through the room. Some of them were cartoon characters, some superheroes, all of them doing their best to fire up the assorted kids there celebrating for assorted reasons.

While they rushed around the children, Santa realized that one of them was staring at him. A young man — or woman, he couldn’t really tell — in a Bixby Badger costume had frozen in place upon entering the room, and the cartoon eyes hadn’t left him since. He looked to Blinky to draw his attention to the situation, but the elf was already watching the badger’s every move.

Then, Bixby broke one of the cardinal rules of a a head character: he spoke.

“Santa?”

Santa Claus shuddered, trying to play it off like a laugh. “Oh, ho ho! Ahem. I mean, I get that a lot. It’s the beard, I suppo–”

“SANTA! AND BLINKY!”

“Um… Boss, they don’t usually know who I am.”

Bixby fumbled at his head, pulling it off and dropping it on the floor as she ran towards them, tackling Santa Claus with a hug.

“ELEANOR?”

Both elves and Santa Claus began speaking at once, a chorus of questions and statements along the lines of “Where have you been?” “I’ve been looking everywhere!” and “Are you okay?” After long moments of this, the questions stopped and were replaced by hugging and joyful tears.

“Dad?” Warren said. “Why is Bixby Badger hugging Nick and Bill?”

“I’m not sure, but I’ll bet Nick is going to have a heck of a story to go with it.”

* * *

Penny wandered down the rows of houses, coming up on Mrs. Claus’s home. She only had a couple of fliers, one envelope, and the invitation to the Labor Day Potluck that went into the mailbot of every elf, but she felt bad even going there. Mrs. Claus had seemed to sad, so desperate for days now, and it broke her heart every time she saw her.

She knocked at the door. “Mail call, Mrs. Claus! I think Yankee Candle sent you some coupons!”

When she knocked, the door swung open, slowly creaking along its hinges. She looked around the entryway to the Claus home, unaccustomed to the still, the quiet in the home.

“Mrs. Claus?”

She wasn’t supposed to do it, but Penny put down her mail bag on the porch and stepped into the home. The den was empty, as was the living room. When she stepped into the kitchen, she found her. Mrs. Claus sat at her table, her back to the door, a cup of coffee in front of her. She couldn’t feel it, of course, but somehow Penny had the idea that if she were to dip a finger in that coffee, it would be ice cold.

“Mrs. Claus? Are you okay?”

The cheerful old woman said nothing. She sat in silence, unmoving. She didn’t even register Penny’s presence, something that had never happened before.

“Okay. I’ll just leave your mail here, then.” She laid it out on the table one piece at a time. “Some store circulars. Looks like a letter from Edgar. And your invitation to the pot luck. Are you going to make that chocolate caramel popcorn like last year? Everyone loves–”

Mrs. Claus’s hand shot out, falling on Penny’s and pinning it to the table.

“Mrs. Claus?”

“Did you say a letter from Edgar?”

“Y-yes.”

She grabbed the envelope and ripped it open, pulling out a thick raft of pages. Penny stood behind her as she read. She didn’t know if she should — felt like she shouldn’t, in fact, but at the same time she couldn’t pull herself away.

“That treacherous… no-good… son of an…”

She turned and met Penny’s eyes. In all the years she’d worked the Claus’ mail route, Penny had never seen such pure, uncontrolled fury in her eyes.

“Penny… I need your help.”

 

To be continued…

Children’s Programming

If you have a child in your home, this means you will eventually be subjected to… drumroll please… children’s programming. Parents have had to deal with this since the advent of television, and while it’s easy to declare that today’s children’s TV is the worst of all time, the truth is that most kid shows have always sucked. I still occasionally apologize to my father for all the hours he spent sitting through episodes of He-Man when I was a kid.

Are there exceptions? Of course. Animaniacs was brilliant. Phineas and Ferb was a gem. But just like there are a thousand composers we’ve forgotten about for every Mozart, every Voltron has dozens of Tattooed Teenage Alien Fighters From Beverly Hills.

tiny beatsErin recently discovered a show on Hulu’s “baby” channel called Tiny Beats. In this show, bugs hear a strange sound and investigate it. Wordlessly. Every episode. While the same music plays. Over and over again. I am certain that when a sinner arrives in Hell, they hear the music from Tiny Beats on a permanent loop.

After I pointed this out to her, Erin flipped through Hulu Babies for an alternative. We wound up on a show called Hungry Henry. When she clicked play, a cat in a sombrero appeared on our TV and said, “Who is huuuuuuuuuuuungry?”

I looked at Erin. “I already like this better than the last show. I relate to Henry.”

HenryOn the show — and I must warn you, there are spoilers here — Henry went to a restaurant where the menu only has pictures and ordered “hot corn.” The chef then prevaricated for a few minutes until he confessed that — this was the dramatic act one turn — he had no corn. Henry, undaunted, set out on a quest to discover where corn comes from and bring it back to the restaurant instead of just going home and making it himself.

“I want this to be the whole show,” I said. “I want every episode to be Henry going to this same damn restaurant and ordering something, and they’re out, and he has to go find it.”

The second cartoon began. Henry went back to the restaurant. He ordered orange juice.

“Oh Henry, I’d be happy to make you orange juice, but I’m all out of oranges.”

“That IS the show!” I cheered. “This is BRILLIANT!”

So I highly recommend Hungry Henry for all you parents out there. And stay tuned next fall when I premiere my new show, Dumbfounded Douglas, about a dog whose wife sends him to the hardware store for a different mechanical part each episode, but the dog has no idea what he’s looking for and has to get an employee named Larry to help him. It’s going to be a smash.

You may have heard, Blake and Erin have a baby, so he hopes you’ll allow him to remind you he’s got a bunch of books and short stories for sale on Amazon, and suggest you follow his author’s page on Facebook.

Santa’s Odyssey: Independence Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Seven: Independence Day

Penelope was an elf from the mail room. The most important part of her job, one she took very seriously, was to collect the letters from children all over the world, open them, and catalogue their requests. Other elves would then cross-reference the letters with the naughty and nice list, determine to what extent the orders would be fulfilled, and then send the information on to the packaging department. It was, arguably, one of the most critical jobs at the North Pole. However, during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, children were not yet concerned with Christmas and writing their letters to Santa, so mail room elves — although omnipresent at the Pole — had a lot of downtime. They wandered the factory, delivering catalogues and magazines and birthday cards to those elves who were receiving them, and spending a lot of time talking to the people they were delivering to simply because they had no other way to occupy their time.

Penny, as it turned out, was the perfect information-gathering elf for Mrs. Claus.

“Morning, Mrs. C!” Penny called out, knocking on her door. “I’ve got your new Oriental Trading for this month!”

Mrs. Claus opened the door, beaming. “Wonderful dear. Would you care to come in for some cookies? Star-shaped, freshly baked.”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Penny glanced behind her at the elves walking by on the street. Several of them waved to Mrs. Claus. None of them paid any attention to Penny. This was as it should be. She stepped into the Claus home and closed the door.

“Well?”

“I’ve been talking to people like you asked, Mrs. C. ‘Hey, how’s life down on the factory floor? Is everything getting done? How is it, working for Edgar?’ Stuff like that.”

“Yes, I know what you were supposed to ask, tell me the answers.”

“Well, old Menelaus down in toy trains, he’s like, ‘Edgar is Edgar, y’know? He doesn’t let up.’ And Archie in wrapping told me, ‘Getting it done? What is there to wrap in July?’ Oh, and Telly said–”

Mrs. Claus put her hands up. “Penny, dear, please. Just give me the synopsis.”

“People aren’t happy.”

“Why not? Aren’t they getting their work done?”

“Yeah, but they aren’t really proud of the work. They say it’s going too fast, taking up too many resources. A lot of them aren’t pleased with that robot game he’s pushing so hard. They’re afraid kids will catch their fingers and get hurt.”

“I thought Edgar said he fixed that problem.”

“He researched it, but when he found out how much time it would add on the assembly line to put on some sort of finger guard, he nixed it.”

Mrs. Claus’s cheeks drained. “That’s inexcusable. He’s actually placing the speed of the line ahead of the safety of the children?”

“And it’s not just the robot. There are other toys too — an electronic game where the battery casing comes loose too easy, a doll with hair that can be pulled out by a baby… When the boss was here, people would show him these problems and he’d demand they got fixed. Edgar just looks into how much it costs or how long it would take to fix and lets most of them roll by.”

“That’s it. I’m going to have a little talk with him right now.”

“Beg your pardon, Mrs. C., but I don’t think that will do any good.”

“Why not?”

“Because a lot of people have come to him with these complaints, and nobody has listened. A few people have even been fired.”

Fired? How do you fire an elf?”

“I don’t know, but I’m told Benjy got kicked off the Bobblehead line and nobody has seen him since.”

“Well I’m going to put a stop to it! I’ll throw Edgar out on his ear!”

“How? The boss left Edgar in charge until he got back. You know how elves are. They’re not going to disobey an order from the big guy himself. Not even if you tell them to.”

Mrs. Claus sat down and covered her face. “We have a big problem, don’t we?”

“Yeah.” Penny peeked around. “Um… didn’t you say something about star-shaped cookies?”

July 4, 10:14 a.m.

The door to the apartment opened and there he stood in his finery: blue coat, red and white striped pants, brilliantly star-spangled top hat. His eye glinted and his beard curled against his chest. “Santa Claus!” he boomed. “The time has come–”

“Hey, Sam,” Santa said. He and Gary were on the couch, watching the pregame for the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, Blinky in the kitchen marinating a few steaks. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Uncle Sam looked at them, dumbfounded. “What… your mortal friend… aren’t you even a little surprised?”

“It’s the Fourth of July, Sam,” Santa said. “I would have been more surprised if you didn’t show up.”

“But… Gary…”

Gary beamed. “You know me?”

“You’re an American, aren’t you? I know all of my nieces and nephews, Gary. But how do you know me?”

“Santa filled me in on what’s been happening. You guys really won’t let him go back to the North Pole? Aren’t you afraid Christmas is going to suck this year?”

Sam glowered. “You know, Gary, I have my own problems to worry about.”

“No kidding. I watch the news. It’s got to be a rough time to be you.”

Sam sat down on the couch between them, and glanced at the TV. “Nathan’s?”

“You know it.”

He sighed. “You know something, Gary? It is a rough time to be me. People are fighting, people don’t trust each other, everyone is convinced the darkest of days have come. You know what makes it really hard, though?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s always this way.”

“What are you talking about? Just a few years ago–”

“It was the other side that was up in arms. And before that, everyone was terrified. And earlier was that whole Watergate thing. And the Civil War, you remember that? Do you really think this country today is more divided than it was in the 1860s? Heck, even World War II was a mess. Today, your movies make it look like it was some huge, unifying moment when all of America came together and united against a common enemy and all that. But there were millions of people who didn’t support the war, even after Pearl Harbor. There were even groups that were pro-Germany.”

“I know. I took history class.”

“You know it, Gary, but do you ever really think about it? About what it was like? Or do you just watch The Fighting Sullivans and assume it was always that way?”

“The Fighting who?”

Saving Private Ryan,” Santa said. “You’ve got to update your references, Sam.”

“So Santa is supposed to be doing your job, right? What is that, exactly? It’s not like you deliver candy or fireworks or anything.”

“It’s going to be another internal one, isn’t it?” Santa asked. “On a lot of these holidays, the icons just absorb the emotion of the moment. Is that what we’re doing today, Sam?”

Sam looked to Santa, then to Gary. “You know what? It’s the Fourth of July. Let’s go to a barbecue.”

To Gary’s shock — but not Santa’s — before he even finished saying it they were outside. No longer sitting in Gary’s apartment, they were in a park. It was a long one, near a road that trickled with cars every few seconds. There were huge trees scattered for optimum shade and lots of benches surrounding play areas. Dozens of people were there with pets, coolers, and folding chairs. Children played on swings, a baseball game raged in the distance, and a half-dozen men in khaki shorts holding bottles of beer stood around a series of grills, each with a different meat. Gary saw hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, brisket… his mouth began to water.

“Where are we?” Gary asked.

“America,” Sam said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s any more specific than that. Tell me, what do you see here?”

“Lunch?”

“Well, yes. But there are people here from different families, different races, different cultures. Eating together.”

“It’s your melting pot,” Santa said. “Good for you.”

“This is what it should be,” Sam said. “Now take a look at another park.”

As he said it, Gary saw a blonde-haired woman looking in their direction. There was a moment of shock and she started to shout at them, but he never heard what she was going to say. After a brief ripple of disorientation, the happy people with their delectable brisket were gone. Instead, there was a mob. Actually, Gary realized, there were two mobs. On one side, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts denouncing the administration, their policies, and America in general. On the other, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts in support of the administration, their policies, and America in general. Gary missed the brisket.

“This looks more like the news.”

“Of course it does,” Santa said. “Now tell me, Gary, what do you think there are more of today? Parks like this one, or parks like the one we were at before?”

“The first one, I hope.”

“Of course there are. But which one do you think will get more coverage on the news?”

Gary didn’t have to answer.

Sam shoved his hands down deep into his pockets and sighed. “My nieces and nephews, all of them. And they have so much more in common than they realize.”

“But the differences are toxic,” Gary said

Santa shook his head. “No. Differences are inevitable among mortals. If you go to the North Pole, you’ll see elves that all have the same goals and the same ideas, and they’re all doing what they’re told without question. And it works fine for me. But mortals need those differences. The problem isn’t that people have differences. It’s that they don’t listen to them.”

As the two mobs screamed at each other, the cars on the road crept past slowly. Most of them, at least. It was, after all, the Fourth of July, and it always seemed like there was somebody who wanted to celebrate his independence by doing something stupid. The screeching sound came first, but it was far too late to arrest the progress of the Jeep that didn’t realize it was driving past a protest. It slammed into the back of a compact car, which jolted forward and hit an SUV, which in turn skidded into the opposite lane of traffic and was hit again. By the time the chain reaction ended, some seven cars had been hit, were smoking, and were no longer moving.

The mobs had stopped screaming. It was silent.

“Oh my god, where’s my phone?” Gary said. “I need to call–”

“Don’t do anything,” Santa said. “Watch this. Sam didn’t pick this park by accident.”

As Gary watched, the picket signs fell and the mobs rushed towards the wreck. People pulled open the doors to the smashed cars, helping people out if they could. Someone in a shirt with an X through the president’s face took off his belt and handed it to a woman whose shirt bore an eagle with talons ripping up a United Nations seal, and together they put a tourniquet on an old woman who bled from the arm. The door to the SUV was blocked by the second car that had struck it. Six people grabbed the smaller car and began to count. “ONE! TWO! THREE! HEAVE!” With their backs turned and the fronts of their shirts obscured, Gary had no idea who had originally been in which group.

“There’s a metaphor here, isn’t it?” he said.

“No subtle enough?” Sam asked.

“No really, no.”

Sam smiled. “Well, that’s America for you too. We pretty much gave up on subtlety when we put on costumes and dumped a bunch of tea into the harbor.”

“So what’s the lesson here, Gary?” Santa asked. “Stating the implied moral out loud is also pretty American.”

“The differences between people aren’t as important as what makes them the same, I get it.”

“Almost.”

“Why don’t we fast-forward a little?” Sam asked. There was a ripple and Gary glanced down at his watch. It jumped ahead by two hours. One last tow truck was pulling away the SUV, the ambulances were gone, and except for some broken glass on the road, one could be forgiven for not knowing there had been a crash at all. The protesters had returned to the park and were picking up their signs.

“So they just go home now? Having learned a valuable lesson?”

“Hey, who’s that clown in the Uncle Sam costume?” one of the protesters asked, pointing.

“He can see you?” Gary asked.

“We’ve already gone through that,” Santa said. “Try to keep up.”

The protester waved his sign at them. “What’s it like, wearing a symbol of fascism?”

“Leave him alone!” one of the picketers from the other side shouted. “He can wear anything he wants! Ever heard of ‘America’?”

The anger rippled back through the respective mobs and they started screaming at each other again. Gary’s eyes bugged out, looking back and forth in disbelief. “But… just a minute ago…”

“My favorite thing about my nieces and nephews is how quickly they come together when they need each other,” Sam said. “My least favorite thing is how quickly they forget about that when they don’t. Come on.”

The trio blipped one last time and they were back in Gary’s apartment. Santa sat down and picked up the remote control. “Good, they’re going to replay the hot dog eating contest. Gary, it’s true that the differences aren’t that important, but that’s not what Sam was getting at. The tragedy is when people refuse to accept those differences. And I’m not even talking about the big things like race or religion, I mean when people get infuriated over something as simple as a costume. If your country seems divided, it’s not because people are farther apart than they used to be, it’s because you’ve been convinced that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically evil.”

“You said that very well, Santa.”

“It’s the same with the holidays, Sam. I knew what you were going to angle at before you even showed up.”

“So what do we do about it?” Gary asked. “I mean… how do we fix it?”

“You really want to know? How to fix something, I mean?”

“Well… yeah.”

He smiled. “Well, that alone puts you ahead of most people. Most of them would rather shout about the problem than actually solve it. But it’s simple — turn off the 24-hour news cycle of catastrophe, go out and talk to my other kids, and actually listen to them. And if you disagree, try to figure out why they believe what they believe instead of just deciding they’re stupid and have nothing to contribute. Most of the time, you’ll find that real solutions lie somewhere in-between.”

“You’re making a speech again, Sam.”

He laughed. “One last thing Americans are good at, Santa. Okay, I’ll go now. Have a hot dog for me.”

As he shimmered away, Blinky came in from the kitchen. He frowned. “Sam?”

“Yep,” Santa said.

“I figured. Well, the steaks are done.”

“Great, I’m starving.” Gary trotted off to the kitchen and Santa sighed.

“How was you Independence Day lesson?”

“It’s the same one people learn every year, Blinky. It would be nice if it would last, but… well, you know Americans.”

“Yep.” He patted Santa on the back. “Look on the bright side. At least there aren’t any holidays in August.”

* * *

Jim Clark put another hot dog on another bun, looking out at the small woman sitting on a bench by herself. He came to this park every year. He brought his kids here, had met his wife at one of these picnics. He saw the same faces one fourth of July after another, watched as children grew up and had families of their own. He had never seen this woman before, nor had he seen anyone at the barbecue look so despondent.

“Hot dog?” he asked her.

She smiled, but there was no joy in her face as she took the food. “Thank you.”

“Miss, are you okay?”

“I just…” She reached up and wiped her eye. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”

To be continued…

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: Father’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Six: Father’s Day

When Mrs. Claus walked onto the factory floor, she was taken aback at just how briskly everything was moving. Toys were assembled, painted, packaged and stored away quickly, efficiently. As rapidly as the parts appeared on the assembly line, a set of elfin hands snatched them up and turned them into something certain to delight a child come December. It would have been a remarkable thing to behold, if not for a lack of… Mrs. Claus rolled it over in her head. What was wrong? They toys were being made, were waiting in stacks of product as substantial as anything the workshop had constructed in the past. Perhaps even more — it was only mid-June, after all, and some of the shelves were as laden as she’d seen them by the Fourth of July.

It was the music, she realized. Or rather, the lack of it. In times past, the workshop was a constant source of singing, humming, whistling. There would always be someone happily creating a tune of some sort, either alone or in concert with their fellows. Today, as Mrs. Claus looked out over the thrumming heart of her husband’s operation, she heard nothing but the snapping, hammering, and rustling that was the inescapable byproduct of the work. Although the North Pole had a fully-functioning Multiplex (one could watch It’s a Wonderful Life any night of the year), horror films had never been popular there. This, then, was the first time Mrs. Claus had ever noticed how uncomfortable silence could truly be.

“Ah, Mrs. Claus! I was told you were visiting the factory floor today.” Edgar approached, a clipboard-laden assistant hustling along and trying her best to keep up.

She nodded to him. “Edgar. It seems as though you’ve got everything running smoothly.”

“Well, I don’t like to brag, but I am proud of how many toy cars we’ve turned out this week. You know, if it weren’t for the Lego people, we would technically be the largest tire manufacturer in the world.”

“How lovely.”

“What brings you here today?”

“I just wanted to be sure things were on track. I suppose I needn’t have bothered, you’ve done just fine.”

“Well, I don’t blame you for checking up on us, but thank you for saying so.”

Mrs. Claus watched again as the parts for the toys were rolled out, this time following along the line as an elf snapped on a set of arms and legs, then passed it down to someone else who checked the circuitry inside. As it moved along, she recognized what was being assembled.

“Edgar, isn’t that the toy we discussed a month ago? The one we decided was unsafe?”

“We re-evaluated it before we put it into production, don’t worry.”

“And you solved the problems?”

“We re-evaluated it, yes,” he said still smiling. She looked at his smile, curious as to what lay behind it. She had known Edgar for a very long time. He was known for his attention to detail and dedication to the work — it was why Santa had made him second in charge of the shop, after all — but Mrs. Claus also remembered how fiercely he had campaigned for that position. It was another trait he had, not as celebrated as his efficiency, but no less prevalent.

“I don’t suppose you have any news about Santa Claus?”

“Well, we’re still looking, but… I mean I need to prioritize. I’ve spent my time in the factory lately.”

“Of course. The children should come first, after all.”

“Yes, they certainly should.”

She nodded again and presented him with a smile as mirthless as his own. As she walked away, Edgar’s assistant handed him a clipboard with a list of names. Edgar looked down at it and his smile grew wider.

June 17, 8:45 a.m.

The breakfast Gary made for Santa and Blinky was, not to oversell it, magnificent. Eggs Benedict, fresh orange juice, a cheese plate… It was the best meal either of them had eaten since they were so unceremoniously ejected from the North Pole.

“You know, Gary, just because we’re old enough to be your two dads didn’t mean you had to do anything special for us today.”

Gary chuckled, wiping up some hollandaise sauce with a toast triangle. “Well, I lost my own Dad years ago, Bill. I just thought it would be nice to celebrate again.”

Santa and Blinky exchanged glances. It had been a month since they learned about Warren, but neither of them had attempted to broach the subject of their host’s son. Today, of all days, it felt to Santa as though he should do… well, something. As Gary gathered up the dishes and asked his guests what their plans were for the day, though, it was clear he had none of his own.

“Come on, Boss,” Blinky had asked him the night before. “Can’t you do anything?”

“It’s June, Blinky. My power is at as low a point as it gets. At least next month I’ll get a little boost from Christmas in July sales, but now? So far removed from the Pole? I’m practically mortal again.”

“Mortals can talk Boss.”

“Well… yes.”

But talking had proved difficult. After several aborted attempts, Santa concluded it was remarkably difficult to ask somebody about their estranged wife and child when there was no logical, mortal way to explain how you knew about such things. He’d dropped broad hints, mentioned Father’s Day repeatedly and asked Gary if he was going to do anything, and even made repeated references to Warren Buffet in the hopes that the name would stir conversation, but he was unsuccessful. Gary didn’t blink. And as he gathered up their breakfast dishes, Santa was resigning himself to the fact that he’d failed in this task, which — for today at least — had even superseded returning to the Pole on his list of priorities.

As Gary walked off to the bathroom to take a shower, Santa and Blinky sat across from each other, Blinky still rolling a few pieces of fruit around on his plate. “Boss, we’ve gotta say something to him. Do something.”

“What? Are we supposed to come up with some wacky scheme to trick him into calling his ex-wife? This isn’t some sitcom, Blinky.”

“You could just try being straight with him.”

By now, Santa wasn’t even a little surprised that a third party had joined them at the table. The man next to them had a craggy but unlined face with dark hair scattered with salt in his whiskers. He had on a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a hideous tie hanging loosely around his neck. Someone trying to guess his age could land anywhere between 30 and 60, and nobody would argue with them.

“Hello, Father,” Santa said.

“This is Father?” Blinky asked. “The Father’s Day Father?”

“Being a father is a biological function. Almost anybody with the right parts can do it. It might be a cliche, but I think being a Dad is much harder.”

“Well, you know, he’s Father Christmas.”

He rolled his eyes. “Right. Like that’s the same thing. Finish your fruit, Blinky, do you think that stuff grows on trees?”

Blinky looked down at the cherries and orange slices on his plate, then back up at the father. “Yes.”

“So what’s the task going to be today, Dad?” Santa asked. “You’re going to whisk me away, make me spy on some father and son until I come to some realization about the nature of their relationship? Because I think I already know–”

He raised a hand, shaking his head. “No, that’s not my gig. That feels more like Mother.”

“She was a little mad when I talked to her.”

“Well, she’s always felt like you take the kids’ attention away from her.”

“And you don’t?”

“I’m used to it. You know, Mom has that tendency to protect her child. Always. In perpetuity. In the animal kingdom, the female of the species is far more dangerous than the male when her den is in trouble.”

“And fathers don’t protect?”

“Of course we do. But it’s different for fathers. Fathers know that, sooner or later, it’s time for the child to move on. Sometimes, Nick, I think you actually help with that. It gives us a small period of time, even from the time they’re little, where they don’t look to their parents for everything. Even if they’re wrong.”

“Wow,” Blinky said. “That was almost insightful. I’m impressed.”

The father smiled. “Hi, Impressed! I’m Dad.”

Blinky groaned and looked to Santa.

“Look, if you’re going to set him up like that, there’s nothing I can do.”

“So what’s the deal with your friend? Why isn’t he going to see his son today?”

“From what we’ve gathered, it’s his ex-wife. She doesn’t want anything to do with him, and Gary seems to have accepted that.”

“That’s not how it works. Not for a true father.”

“You know that and I know that. I don’t think anybody ever told Gary.”

Gary, carrying his shoes but otherwise cleaned and dressed, walked into the room. “Oh. Who’s your friend?”

“Um…”

The icon stood up, tightening his tie. “I’m Dad. Gary, right?”

“Dad?”

“Yes, Dad. The Father’s Day Dad. Like this guy here is Santa Claus?”

Santa and Blinky’s jaws fell. If he had been mortal, Santa was sure he’d be in the midst of a heart attack. But Gary just looked at them quizzically. “Well yeah, he’s Santa Claus, but I’ve never heard of some anthropomorphic personification of Father’s Day walking around.”

Somehow, Santa and Blinky’s jaws fell further.

“You know?” Blinky said.

“I’m not an idiot, guys. I mean, granted, it’s a little farfetched, but sooner or later you have to accept reality, no matter how ridiculous it seems. Long white beard, fixes everything, associates with a little person — no offense.”

“But–”

“You were hanging out with a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m pretty sure I found some rabbit hair on my counter on Easter — why did you think I let you guys stay here for so long?”

“Look, this isn’t about him,” Dad said. “What’s with you, son? Why aren’t you going to see Warren today?”

This time it was Gary’s turn to look shocked. Santa smiled. “We weren’t the only ones with secrets, my friend.”

“Come on, Gar, it’s Father’s Day. You shouldn’t be here with us. You should be with your kid.”

“How do you even know about Warren?”

“I heard you talking to your mother.”

“How did–”

“Santa Claus. I have methods. But I don’t know why. Tell us what happened.”

“It’s just… it’s his mother. She left, she decided she wanted a whole new life, and that didn’t include me. Who am I to tell her she’s wrong?”

“If it was just her, nobody,” Santa said. “But it’s not just her, is it?”

“No, but–”

“In the long run, Gary, what’s more important? Tricia’s privacy, or Warren having his father?”

“You don’t understand, Nick.”

“You’re right. I don’t.”

Gary stammered, looking Santa in the eye. He didn’t say anything intelligible, but there was a bead in the corner of his eye. He trembled, but turned and walked out.

“That could have gone better,” Blinky said.

“I’m not so sure.” Dad jerked his head in the direction of Gary’s bedroom. “He’s going to be on the phone right now.”

“Doing what?”

Dad smiled, then twirled his hand in the air. A drinking glass appeared.

“You’re not going to put that against the door to listen in, are you?”

“It’s a metaphor,” Dad said. “I’ve got my own ways.” The glass expanded, the outer rim ballooning until it was the size of the TV in Gary’s living room. Inside, they saw Gary staring at his phone, tapping the screen to pull up his contacts. The image focused on the name TRICIA. Instead of clicking on it, Gary just peered down at the screen.

“Come on, Gary,” Santa said.

“Go in there, Boss. Tell him something.”

“I can’t make him do it,” Santa said. “He has to want to do it.”

The phone trembled in Gary’s hands. Eventually, they realized it was the hands themselves shaking. Santa didn’t know he was holding his breath until Gary finally tapped the screen, and he let the breath out.

“Tricia? Yeah, it’s me. I want to come over. Yes, today. Well, if we’re being honest here I don’t particularly want to see you either, but I deserve to see him.”

“Tell him, Gary,” Blinky shouted, pumping his first in the air.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but this isn’t about you. Yeah, there are things that aren’t about you.”

Dad grinned. “Daaaaaaaaang, Son.”

“The judge, that’s who. Remember the term ‘shared custody’? Yeah, I just remembered it too. I’ll be there in an hour. What? Tell him the truth. Tell him he’s going to spend the day with his Dad.”

Gary turned off the phone, and his face fell into his hands. Dad made the image evaporate before the inevitable happened, and the three of them sat in silence for a long moment. Blinky looked around at the other two, finally clearing his throat. “It’s not as satisfying as it was when you could just slam the phone down, is it?”

A few minutes later Gary, composed, came out of the bedroom with his car keys. “I’ll be back tonight, guys. We can talk about the whole Santa thing then.”

“No rush,” Blinky said. “There are a few weeks until Independence Day.”

“I’m sure that will make sense later.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

He left the apartment and Dad stood up. “Well, Nick, nicely done. You handled that like a Dad.”

“Wait, that’s it? We’re done?”

“Dads don’t muck around. We just do what we have to do. Mostly because we want to get home in time to watch the game.”

“Oh, is there a game today?” Blinky asked.

“You a Mets fan?”

“Gary is. I’ve kind of gotten into it.” He went into the living room and turned the TV on. “Do you need to be going right away? Santa isn’t a huge sports guy, I wouldn’t mind having someone to watch it with.”

Dad smiled and popped open the can of beer that he hadn’t been holding seconds earlier. “I got a little time,” he said.

* * *

Across town, in a small apartment with a small television. Eleanor was also watching the game. It was nice to have a weekend off for a change. She liked her job, but everybody needed a break. Fortunately for her, people didn’t typically throw parties for Father’s Day.

 

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: Mother’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Five: Mother’s Day

It wasn’t what the boss would have done, but it was pretty good.

Edgar rolled the toy over in his hands: an action figure not unlike many others, but with a few significant differences. It was longer, for one thing, but those 12-inch figures were becoming more popular. It wasn’t a generic soldier or superhero or video game warrior, but rather a sort of robot that concealed a secret. Again, nothing new. Transforming toys had been huge for decades. This one, however, didn’t turn into a car or a dinosaur. He tapped a button on the figure’s hip and his chest popped open, displaying a series of flashing lights, knobs, and switches. The lights flashed in a specific sequence: yellow, red, blue, blue. And Edgar’s thumbs hit the switches, trying to make the lights duplicate the pattern. He was successful the first time. The second sequence was more complicated: green, yellow, red, red, green. But again, he was successful. Third: blue, green, red, green, red, yellow. This time he slipped up, thumbing the green switch instead of the yellow, and when he did so the figure blared a horn and the open chest snapped shut. Edgar yanked his fingers from the opening just in time, then laughed as the figure’s eyes flashed and an electronic voice declared his failure.

“This is great!” he said. “It’s like that light game inside a toy! Kids are going to love this!”

Mrs. Claus, sitting in on the toy meeting, picked it up and rolled it over in her hands. “It snaps shut awfully quickly,” she said.

Horatio, the elf in charge of electronics nodded. “That’s part of the incentive. You have to do it right and do it fast, or you risk getting your fingers chomped.”

“The edges are rubber, it doesn’t hurt to get chomped,” Edgar said. He hit the switch to open the chest and ignored the lights. When the timer ran out, it snapped shut, harmlessly, on his fingers. “See? It’s perfectly safe”

“Is it?” Mrs. Claus pushed the button and opened the figure again. “Look, the rubber doesn’t reach all the way to the joint.”

“So? It covers most of it. Look, your fingers can’t even get into the part that’s not rubberized.”

My fingers can’t,” she said, “But you didn’t make this toy for me. Children have very tiny fingers, Edgar. Much smaller than mine.”

“Well…”

“Or even yours.”

He sighed. “That’s true.”

Mrs. Claus stood up. “I like the initiative, boys. I like that you’re trying new things and not allowing the… tornadic quality of this year to hold you back. But ask yourselves, would Santa approve a toy like this?”

Neither Edgar nor Horatio had any answer, which to Mrs. Claus, was answer enough. She smiled tenderly and left the room.

“Sorry, Edgar,” Horatio said. “I’ll go back to the drawing board.”

“Yeah,” Edgar said.

Then he sighed again.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“No, this is too good. We need to do something with this.” He handed the toy back to Horatio. “Look it over. See if there’s anything you can do about the pinchy part. But if you can’t, just roll with it.”

“Really? But Edgar, Mrs. Claus said–”

“Mrs. Claus isn’t in charge of the workshop, Horatio. Go on. Get to work.”

May 13, 8 a.m.

Santa and Blinky were sitting at Gary’s kitchen table, spreading jam on toast, when their mortal host came into the room. Unusually, for a weekend, he was wearing khaki pants, a light green dress shirt, and a tie.

“Big plans today?” Blinky asked.

“Plans with Mom.”

“Oh? What’s the occasion?”

Gary opened the fridge and took out a bundle of flowers. “It’s Mother’s Day, guys.”

Santa froze, toast halfway to his mouth. “Mother’s Day?”

“Yeah. I mean, I guess I figured you guys wouldn’t have any plans, since you’re…” He trailed off, realizing even as he said it that he was saying something stupid.

“It’s okay, Gary,” Santa said, letting him off the hook. “You’re right, our own mothers aren’t with us anymore. I guess I’m just surprised that it escaped my notice entirely.” In truth, he’d been so busy in the last month that he had stopped paying attention to the holiday calendar. After the Easter Bunny’s offer to let him stay in the Burrow, Santa had doubled down on ways to get back to the North Pole where they belonged. Blinky pointed out that Pole surveillance concentrated on children, but they had spent virtually no time in the presence of anyone younger than 30.

“Mortals are touchy about this sort of thing,” Santa said. “You and I know we mean no harm, but that doesn’t mean we can just start walking around an elementary school without being arrested.”

“Well… not since you got your ink, anyway.”

Instead, they had spent more time in places where children were likely to be: parks, toy stores, the zoo. Even then, they had decided to pace themselves. It would be far too suspicious if they went to any one place too often, except perhaps for Central Park. Even there, though, they couldn’t simply congregate around a playground. They became “walkers,” ostensibly roaming the park for exercise, but always doing so during peak family times. In fact, they had planned to do so today, but now Santa wondered if Mother’s Day would reduce the number of children available as they took their mothers out for brunch. Not that it mattered. It was a holiday. He would have other work to do.

“So what are you doing with your Mom?” Blinky asked.

“The usual. Taking her out to lunch. Trying not to let my blood pressure erupt.”

“Is it that bad? Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention your mother before. Or the rest of your family, for that matter.”

“It’s… it’s Mom, you know. I love her. You love your Mom. But that doesn’t mean she can’t destroy you with a single question.” He saluted his roommates and quietly left.

“That’s rather fatalistic,” Santa said. He thought back to his own mother — a kind woman, but already old when he was born. She was slender, and had a face creased and wrinkled by a lifetime of toil. His parents had been relatively wealthy, but in the third century, in the country he called Myra but that today’s mortals called Turkey, even the relatively wealthy were weathered by modern standards.

“Nicholas,” she whispered to him. “What in the world have you been doing with yourself?”

The question stung him. Although he remembered her fondly, he hadn’t thought of her this way in centuries — interrogating him, asking about what he was doing with his life. Those concerns had faded some time after he became a bishop, long before he transformed into the immortal icon he was.

“I asked you a question, Nicholas.”

“Boss…” Blinky tugged on his arm. “Who’s that?”

Santa looked at his elf with a start. “You see her too?”

“Well… yeah.”

He looked back up at the old woman, lined jowls turned down and eyes glaring without approval. It was a look his mother had given him so rarely, but he knew, it was as sharp as a razor. “Of course,” he said. “Blinky, this creature looks like the woman who gave me birth, but it’s not.”

“Who is it, then?”

“It’s Mother.”

The woman’s cheeks turned into a sly smile and she popped away, reappearing instantly as a short, elfin woman with silver hair. “Hello, Blinky.”

“Mama?”

“Not your mother, Blinky,” Santa said.

“Not your mother specifically,” she amended. “Everyone’s Mother.”

“That isn’t how it works,” Santa said.

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “The representation of everyone’s Mother. Is that more to your liking, Nicholas?”

“I suppose it will do. So, it’s your day of power now — what task are you sloughing off on me?”

“Actually, there isn’t that much for me to do today. Typically, most people don’t need help to remember to do something for their mothers. The number of long-distance telephone calls made today are staggering.

“Then what are you here for?”

“People always remember their mothers, but sometimes they have difficulty relating to their mothers.”

“Tell me about it,” Blinky said. “You should have heard Mama when I told her I wasn’t going into bicycle maintenance like my father. It’s like being a security elf was somehow beneath the family or something.” He sighed. “I miss Mama.”

“Everyone who had a true mother does. That’s why we try to make them feel appreciated while they’re with us.” She snapped her fingers and a burst of wind blasted Santa in the face. He shut his eyes until the arctic blast faded, and opened them — not surprisingly — in a different place.

“Boss?” Blinky said. “What happened there?”

“I think we’re going to see people relate, Blinky.”

Instead of Gary’s apartment, the three of them found themselves in a lovely, terribly busy restaurant. Waiters and waitresses in ties bustled about taking orders, distributing drinks, and handing out flowers to every table, because literally every table in the place featured at least one woman who was clearly a mother. There were young mothers with babies on their knees, veteran mothers telling their children to calm down and eat their pasta, worn down mothers with their faces covered as their teenagers groaned that they were stuck there instead of being at home playing games with their friends, and seasoned mothers with adult children who realized that their teenage selves had been little asses and were now attempting to make up for it. In that final category, it seemed, there was their friend Gary.

“Hide, Boss! Before Gary realizes we just popped in!”

“Don’t worry, Blinky. I know how this works. They can’t see us.”

Mother smiled and pointed back to the restaurant. The woman sitting with Gary couldn’t have been more clearly his mother if she were wearing a sign. They shared colorization of the skin, hair, and eyes, and the small smile on her face matched the one Gary tended to use when he thought — erroneously or not — that he had been particularly sly. Although she kept that smile trained on him, she was saying little. Not many people were. The room, Santa realized, was more than 70 percent sons sitting in awkward silence with their mothers, not making a peep over the rattle of cutlery, the sound of food being dropped at a table, or the blaring of an ambulance as it drove past the restaurant.

“Nicholas, you wanted to know my task?” Mother asked.

“I’ve already figured it out,” he said. “It’s like New Year’s Eve, isn’t it? I’m just supposed to stand here and feel what these mothers are all feeling.”

She clicked her tongue at him: “Tsk tsk. Oh, Nicholas. You prove what children have proven since the beginning. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you understand it at all.”

“Cover your ears, Blinky,” Santa said. “Take a candle off the table and stuff them with wax. No reason both of us need to listen to this.”

“Nicholas, who is my day of power for?”

“That’s an absurd question. It’s for mothers. It’s right there in the name.”

“And with that,” she said, “you prove my point.” She snapped her fingers and Santa felt a tugging in his mind. He felt emotion not his own bubble up inside his chest, and his eyes fell upon Gary’s mother.

Unease. A nervous sort of tension. Dread that a particular subject matter would come up, a sense of inevitably about the conversation. Other feelings, less specific: guilt, gratitude, concern, all intertwined and inextricable. Beneath them, stronger than any of the other feelings, but never at the forefront: love. It had been so many centuries since he had felt this way, but Santa Claus knew, he was feeling like a son.

“So,” Gary’s mother said, wiping the corners of her mouth. “Where is Warren today?”

The fear of the unwanted conversation lurched forward in Santa’s throat. He didn’t know who Warren was, only that Gary did not want to discuss him.

“He’s with his mother, of course.”

“Oh. Well, naturally dear, but I had rather hoped he could spare an hour or two for me.”

There was a trickle of discomfort in Santa’s spine, and he started to understand why Gary was reluctant to have this conversation. “I don’t think it’s that he can’t, Mom.”

“Then what’s the matter? Why don’t we call Tricia and–”

“I can’t call Tricia.”

“Why not?”

“I just… it’s complicated.”

She frowned at him. “Gary, I’m not one of your Facebook friends. Don’t give me that ‘it’s complicated’ nonsense. Tell me the truth.”

His stomach felt a heavy, bloating feeling that echoed itself in Santa’s gut. “She doesn’t want to see me, okay? She made that very clear.”

“What? Why not?”

“She said I’m the past. She wants to concentrate on the future.”

“You’re the past? That very well may work when some relationships end, Gary, but the two of you have a child together. You can never stay in the past.”

Santa and Blinky both gasped at the same time. “Gary’s a dad?” Blinky said. “Santa, how come we didn’t know about this?”

“I haven’t seen the boy,” Santa said. “Gary doesn’t even have any pictures of him in the apartment.” His own confusion melded with Gary’s feelings — anguish at the conversation, regret and loss at the thought of Warren — and he felt very much like the spirit of Christmas was about to return his fruitcake.

“I don’t know what you want me to do about it, Mom,” he said.

“For God’s sake, Gary, stand up for yourself. I don’t care if Tricia doesn’t want to see you. I don’t care if Tricia hates you, you’re still his father, and a boy needs a father.”

As Gary’s mother exploded, Santa felt that tugging again. He’d heard the term “emotional roller coaster” used over and over again, but this time it seemed literal. The pain and discomfort he was feeling for Gary suddenly left his body and he rolled somehow into a new host. There was pain there, still, but a different kind of pain. Anger, most of it for this “Tricia,” but some of it for Gary as well. Loss. Responsibility, as if he was somehow the reason Gary didn’t want to do what he needed to do. Love. Deep, burning love like nothing Santa had known.

He was feeling the love of a mother from the inside. It was sweet, and beautiful, and perfect, and horrible, the last because if Gary could not find it within himself to take a stand, it clearly meant that she had done something wrong. It was her fault.

“That’s ridiculous,” Santa whispered. “She did her best. She tried as hard as a mother could.”

Didn’t matter. Her child’s failures were her own.

“Stop it,” Santa said. “Stop it, this is too much, this–”

“Oh, dear Nicholas, this is what mothers do. How about that one over there?”

She pointed to one of the tables with a young mother and he felt inside her head — terror that she was somehow ruining her baby’s life at just six months old, concern that she wasn’t feeding her often enough, frustration that she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a year… love beyond what she had thought possible.

“Or that young man?”

Again, the roller coaster banked and Santa was inside one of the teenagers. Boredom at being here with his mom. Anger that he wasn’t with his friends. An absolute certainty that she couldn’t understand anything about how he was feeling, because really, what adult could? But still love, and this time laced with a little guilt, because he was starting to mature to the point where he kind of knew he was being an unreasonable jerk, but had not yet matured enough to the point where he could stop being an unreasonable jerk.

“You’ll love this one,” Mother said, and Santa felt the roller coaster plunge. He was in the head of Gary’s waitress now, looking at all these mothers and children together. She was tired. Her feet hurt. Her head hurt. Most of all, her heart hurt. She had thought taking an extra shift at work today would keep her mind occupied, but that was stupid. Instead she got to spend her entire day trying to put on a brave face and wandering around happy, whole families. It was Mother’s Day, and she had nothing else to do. It was Mother’s Day, and she was surrounded by people who were not like her, by people who still had their reason to celebrate, and it was eating at her soul.

“Tell me when you get it,” Mother said.

“I get it. I get it,” Santa said, gasping for breath.

“Wonderful,” she said. “Tell me.”

“It’s not just about celebrating your mother. It’s about celebrating the relationship.”

The winds blew again and Santa and Blinky shut their eyes against them. When they opened, Santa was not surprised to find himself back in Gary’s apartment. Blinky flopped onto the couch. “Geez, Boss,” he said, “I didn’t think you’d get Ebenezer Scrooged quite so much.”

“Tell me, Nicholas,” Mother asked, “Now that you’ve had a glimpse of my Day, how do you feel?”

Santa only had to think for a moment, but he was nonetheless surprised by his answer. “Good,” he said. “I don’t believe I’m saying it, but I feel good. Even the fear and the frustration I felt… there was true love at its core.”

“Poor Nicholas. You have all the children of the world, but you can never know the love of being a true parent, can you?”

Her words hung in Santa’s ears. It was a thought that had occurred to him many times over the years, even had been the subject of long conversations with his wife, but it was not an idea he had entirely made his peace with. “It’s my lot,” he said. “I have all of none of them, so I have some of all of them.”

“But Nicholas, be honest. Isn’t all the love of even one child greater than some of every child there is? Now that you’ve tasted it, I mean?”

Santa’s blood chilled. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

She held out her hand. “You could feel this way all the time, you know. If you come with me. I know you turned down the Rabbit, but this is different, isn’t it?” He looked at her hand — soft, warm, inviting. He felt pangs of loss as her features once again became those of his own mother. He remembered her. He missed her. And, after all, the past five months had left him in a hell of a place. He wanted to feel safe, wanted to feel protected. What better way to feel that way all the time than with Mother?

As his hand reached out towards her, Blinky grabbed it and pulled it down. “Boss, wait a sec. What are you doing?”

“She’s right, Blinky. This will be perfect. This will be safe.

“What about your job? You think Christmas is going to be the same if you bail out? It’s almost died before. Remember Oliver Cromwell?”

“This is different, Blinky. It will be fine without me.”

“Yeah? Who are the kids going to write letters to, Harvey the Holiday Rabbit? Come on, this isn’t you! This is dangerous!”

Blinky gave a hard yank on Santa’s sleeve and the icon looked down at him. What was he saying? What danger could he possibly be in from–

Santa turned on Mother, eyes flashing. “How dare you?”

She shrugged. “It was worth a try. It’s May, after all, Christmas is about as far from people’s minds as it gets. If you could ever have been destroyed, it would be now.”

“Destroyed? Why in the world would you even want to destroy me? You’re MOTHER. Your children love me!”

“You’re a thief, Nicholas! You consume my children’s love at the end of every year. No one ever thanks Mother, they all want their precious Santa. Well let me tell you something, there is nothing fiercer than Mother protecting her young.”

“I’ve never hurt any child.”

“You keep them away from me. It’s crime enough.” She turned at him and the expression on her face cut into him like a battleaxe to the gut. Santa had never seen anything so horrible, so mournful, so absolutely devastating as hate on Mother’s face.

“You’re nothing. Your power, right now, is nothing,” she snarled. “I’ll have to tell Father how you behaved.”

With that, she was gone.

* * *

There are certain elements of life that are consistent among all intelligent species, mortal and immortal alike. One of these is that being called in to speak to an authority figure — be it parent, principal, or employer — is always a cause for nerves. Eleanor felt this keenly as she was asked to visit with Sally Mendoza the day after Mother’s Day.

“You wanted to see me?” she asked.

Sally motioned to the empty chair across from her desk, the same one Eleanor had sat in for her job interview. “Yes, dear. I wanted to talk to you about your performance.”

“Ms. Mendoza, I’m sorry. I’ve only been here two months, but I’ve been trying my hardest. If people aren’t enjoying my performances or if I’m not fast or funny enough or if–”

Eleanor’s voice trailed off as she realized Sally was laughing. Her face grew small and her tone became quiet. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.

“Eleanor, dear, you have nothing to be sorry about. I asked you here because your work has been exemplary.

Her smile broke. “Really?”

“To a person, everyone who has booked you for a party has given you a glowing review. Even yesterday, when you were helping bus tables for the Mother’s Day Luncheon, the talk of the town was how sweet and friendly the new girl is.”

“Oh, thank you, Ms. Mendoza!”

“In fact, I think we may have been wasting your talents.”

“I… I’m afraid I’m confused. I thought you said I’m doing good.”

Well, dear, you’re doing very well. And you are. So well, in fact, that I think it’s been a mistake to put you in the head costumes so often.”

Eleanor’s smile brightened. “You mean–”

“How would you like to be a face character, dear? Really interact with the children?”

“I’d feel right at home, Ms. Mendoza.”

To be continued…

 

Find me at the Forge

ForgedFirst thing’s first — to all the new folks we met at Free Comic Book Day who bought one of my books or picked up a bookmark: hello! It was great meeting you! Eddie says you were his favorite!

Next, those of you who follow me on Facebook or Twitter (and really, why wouldn’t you?) may have noticed more writing activity from me this week, specifically a piece on Superman and Superboy, a review of Avengers #1, and a piece on why I love Free Comic Book Day. You may also have noticed these articles are appearing at a new website, ForgedBy4.com. I though that a little introduction was in order.

Many years ago, I got my start in Geek Punditry at a website called Comixtreme. I was on staff there for years writing columns and reviews and I loved doing it. But CX was a forum-based site and, like many other such sites, it died a slow death after Facebook came along and changed the landscape of social media. I also had an increasingly chaotic personal life at the time, and I fell out of writing such things almost altogether. For some time now, though, I’ve had an itch to get back into it, which I’ve tried to scratch with personal blogs and social media.

It wasn’t the same.

A few weeks ago I was contacted by one of the old CX crew, Craig Reade, asking what I thought modern social media was lacking. Without any other information, but suspecting what he was getting at, I told him “If you’re trying to get something started again, I’m in.”

Craig has assembled a small (but growing) group of old Comixtreme mates and some newcomers for the new ForgedBy4, a site to celebrate the things we love about Pop Culture. Our coverage will be there to accentuate the positive: no 15-point bullet lists about why your favorite superhero would be a terrible person in real life or why everyone in your favorite movie will probably die after the credits roll. That doesn’t mean there will be no criticism or analysis, just that if one of the site’s contributing writers is talking about something, we’re approaching it from a place of fondness and affection. If you want negativity, there’s the entire rest of the internet.

We’ll have a social media presence, of course. We’re on Facebook and Twitter, and we even have a Subreddit. But our heart and soul is old-school. We’re bringing back the forum as our main place for conversation, and we hope you’ll all take a few minutes to sign up (for free) and join in. Sure, you can read our articles if you aren’t a member, but we think the experience will be richer if you are. And if you’re not really sure what you would get out of a forum experience… well, Craig explains it better than I could.

My personal blog isn’t going anywhere, of course. I’ll still be here with updates of Santa’s Odyssey and whatever else strikes my fancy, but my Geek Punditry will now be concentrated on the Forge.

Join us, won’t you?