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.
Twelve: Christmas Eve
December 1, 2 p.m.
Edgar pursed his lips and adjusted his tie. He didn’t have a lot of meetings — at least, not many that he didn’t call himself — but Mrs. Claus did still have a certain ceremonial position at the North Pole that he felt he needed to respect… for now, anyway. He glanced back through the window, over the chilled landscape of the Pole, and tapped the button on his intercom. “Send her in.”
He hadn’t seen Mrs. Claus in person since the incident at her home, when the Edgarbots made their glorious debut. Since then, she had kept quiet as his robots quickly took over the security and distribution functions of all North Pole operations. Even the toys coming out of the workshop were transported by Edgarbot, all of whom were careful to document each scrap of tin, every coil of wire, every drop of paint that went in or came out. Edgar still wasn’t certain what Mrs. Claus’s operation had been up to prior to his coup, but he took satisfaction in the knowledge that he had ended it.
Mrs. Claus stomped into his office, hands crossed demurely, and she sat down in the seat opposite him. She was broken, defeated, he was certain. And yet somehow, her presence made him anxious. Her eyes were not those of a worn-down, conquered woman. Her eyes were like cold steel. And despite her best efforts to disguise it, Edgar was certain the corners of her mouth were twitching, curling into a smile.
“Edgar. What a pleasure to see you again.”
“And you, Mrs. Claus. I hope you don’t mind if I cut straight to the chase, but as I’m sure you know, this is our busy season, so I’m afraid I can’t give you too much time. Being the head of North Pole Operations is a taxing endeavor.”
“Now that you mention it, Edgar, that’s actually the reason I’m here.”
“What do you mean?”
“This whole ‘Head of North Pole Operations’ thing. You see… I’m afraid that’s not quite how it works.”
“What are you talking about?”
“Well, I’ve never really had a need to look at the North Pole Charter before. It’s a rather lengthy document, you see, something all of the holiday icons agreed upon eons ago, and I’ve honestly never had call to look at it before. But you see, now that my husband has been gone for nearly a year now… well, a friend of mine has called my attention to something rather interesting.”
“What are you talking about?” Edgar said. He would have been slightly mortified to realize he was repeating himself, but that sick, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was too distracting. Mrs. Claus stood up and walked to the door of the office, opening it to reveal a smiling pink bunny.
“Edgar, right?” he said. “Easter Bunny, pleased to meet you.”
“I know who you are,” Edgar said. “I’m afraid I don’t know why you’re here.”
“Well here’s the thing, Ed. I hear tell my old buddy Nick has gone missing and that you want to take over.”
“It’s not a matter of desire, Mr. Bunny. Santa Claus left me in charge when he left. I remain in charge until that day — hopefully — that he returns.”
“Oh, sure, sure. But Eddie, the thing is… you can’t do that.”
“What are you talking about?”
“You say that a lot, you know that? What I’m talking about is the North Pole Charter. It’s a mutually-agreed upon document among all the icons. If one of us is unable to fulfill his duties, the others have agreed to settle who gets his territory by demonstrating which of us is most capable of doing so.”
“How in the blazes are you supposed to do that?”
“A contest, Edgar,” Mrs. Claus said. “The holiday icons have the right to compete to take over North Pole Operations to prove which of them is the most suitable replacement for my husband.”
Edgar’s eyes began to ache, bulging with a combination of terror and rage. He looked back and forth between Mrs. Claus and the Easter Bunny, desperate for some sign that they were making this up, that they were full of nonsense, that this was not happening.
There was none.
“One week from today, Edgar,” Mrs. Claus said. “The icons who wish to compete have agreed to be here on December 8. We’ll be working with some elves I’ve personally selected to help prepare for the games. It’s going to be glorious.”
“December 8?” Edgar sputtered. “Why not Christmas Eve? Isn’t that more traditional?”
The Bunny laughed. “Christmas Eve? C’mon, Edgar. Whoever wins needs time to get their stuff together, don’t they?” He looked over at the Edgarbot standing sentinel next to the door. “Handsome fella,” he said. “I hear tell he’s programmed to annihilate any Santa imposters that try to get into the Pole.”
“Yeah… yes, that’s right.”
“They won’t blow up any of the other icons, will they?” He laughed –a tittering, tiny sort of sound that made Edgar’s flesh crawl.
“No… nobody else.”
“Awesome! See you then!”
He bounced out of the office, leaving Edgar and Mrs. Claus alone. The smile on her face was no longer disguised. His eyes began to burn.
“What are you doing?” he hissed. “What are you planning?”
“Nothing at all,” she said. “The Bunny came to me this morning with this glorious news. I just wanted to be here to give it to you in person.” She stood up, still smiling. “It was as wonderful as I had hoped,” she said.
December 8, 12 p.m.
The workshop was empty. The elves had cleared away the tables, the tools, the toys, the supplies, and left an enormous arena. They had quickly erected grandstands from which they could watch the proceedings, and Edgar stood at the catwalk outside his office, looking down at everything in a panic. One by one, he watched the icons march in — the Bunny was first, then Cupid, then Uncle Sam. The Jack O’Lantern, Leprechaun, and Worth came in as a trio, followed by Mother and Dad. Tom the Turkey and Bobo the Birthday Clown were fashionably late. Finally the Old Year came in with a cane, completing the set. Edgar had been part of North Pole Operations for centuries, and he had never seen any of these icons before. Their presence felt like a personal invasion. This was his home, his place. He had earned it.
Dad walked into the center of the arena, smiling out at the crowd. He didn’t need a microphone, he just turned on his Dad Voice and it echoed into every corner of the factory. “Ladies and gentlemen! Elves of all ages! Assembled beloved icons of the holidays! Welcome!”
There was a bounding cheer from across the factory, and Dad’s smile made Edgar’s gut curdle. “Today, in the absence of our dear friend Santa Claus, five icons will compete to determine who will take up his mantle–”
Edgar’s voice cracked through the workshop, and everyone turned up at him.
“I beg your pardon?” Dad said.
“I can read the North Pole Charter too!” he said. “You icons get to compete to take up Santa’s job, but as the interim head of operations, I have the right to compete too!”
Dad glanced over at the Easter Bunny, standing next to Mrs. Claus. He shrugged and nodded.
“Okay, then,” he said. “Five beloved holiday icons! The Easter Bunny! Uncle Sam! Pat the Leprechaun! Mother! Bobo the Birthday Clown!” He glanced around. “And… Edgar, apparently! Let the games begin!”
The six competitors came down to the center of the area, and Dad snapped his fingers. The elves he’d worked with to help prepare the games bolted into action, building an obstacle course of toys, Christmas decorations, hedges, live pets, and a finish line at a Christmas tree. “The first task is a timed run at a delivery obstacle course! The two slowest times will be eliminated!”
Edgar peered out across the obstacle course. It would have to begin here. Edgar had never been a delivery elf, so navigating the course of family effluvia was not immediately in his wheelhouse. Still, all he needed to do was outpace two of the also-rans. The Easter Bunny would probably be a contender here, but when did Uncle Sam have to deliver any gifts? Or the St. Patrick’s Day Leprechaun?
He drew the short straw and was assigned the first run, which actually made him breathe a sigh of relief. If nothing else, he would get to set the pace. Dad picked up a starter pistol and raised it in one hand, a stopwatch in the other. “On your mark…” he said. “Get set… Go!”
The pistol cracked and Edgar leapt into action. He grabbed a bright red gift from a table and charged into the obstacle course. He bounced over an icy roof and slid down a chimney, rolling into a makeshift living room. A dog started to bark at him, but he hurdled it and landed on the other side, narrowly avoiding a child’s electric drum, which he knew from walking the factory floor would start chiming like mad if he so much as brushed against it. Gliding past a lava walk made of scattered Lego bricks, he slid under the Christmas Tree and slipped his gift soundlessly into place, coming out the other side and pounding a red button that signalled the end of his run.
“Seventy-two seconds!” Dad announced. “That’s the time to beat!”
Horatio from electronics patted him on the back. “Nice job, Boss. Let’s see those other icons beat that!”
“Fourteen seconds!” Dad shouted. “The Easter Bunny sets the new record!”
“Aw, fudgesicles,” Horatio mumbled.
Edgar glared at him, then plopped down on bench to watch the remaining four contestants. To his relief, Bobo the clown was next and fouled things up completely, stopping to pet the dog and howling at an imagined sleeping child to come downstairs and get a balloon animal. Birthdays, Edgar thought, were not made for stealth. With the clown’s dismal failure, he only had to wait out one other icon. Mother also swept through the obstacle course with aplomb, and the Leprechaun did surprisingly well, but Uncle Sam fumbled his way through, ending the course with a dismal 116 second time. Sam and Bobo were eliminated after the first round.
“Round two!” Dad announced. “Reindeer chariot race!”
A group of elves came in, each leading a reindeer pulling a miniature “miniature sleigh” behind it. Edgar had worked with reindeer at one point, and smiled — he could certainly do this better than the others. He had been hoping for one of the reindeer he knew personally, Comet or Donner or somebody, but instead it looked like the A-team was sitting this out. Sparkles and Schnitzel weren’t bad reindeer, but they weren’t top notch. Still, he could handle them.
Edgar, Mother, Pat, and the Easter Bunny each took their place on one of the chariots. Again, Dad raised his starter pistol. “The last two contestants to cross the finish line will be eliminated!” he shouted. “On your mark… get set…”
The gun fired and the reindeer burst to life. Edgar grabbed the reins and deftly steered the reindeer into the course laid out across the workshop. It went outside, rushing through forest and field covered in snow, but it was his home territory. He knew every inch of this property. There was no way the others would defeat him.
“Whoa! Hey! Yaaaa, mule!” The Easter Bunny was the first to spin out and crash, unable to get a decent grip on the reins with his padded paws.
“Looks like your rabbit feet aren’t so lucky, boyo!” Pat howled, laughing. He pulled on his own reigns and took a sharp turn, edging past Mother. Edgar glanced back just enough to see him darting around with precision. What kinds of vehicles did leprechauns steer, he wondered. He would have to look it up. Maybe some time after New Year’s.
Around the third curve outside, Edgar saw a trio of Edgarbots in their patrol. He glanced at them, then back at his competitors, all of whom trailed him. “Edgarbots!” he shouted. “Block the pass!”
He rushed past them as the robots fell onto each other, falling across the route and making it impassible. He laughed, cracking the reigns and speeding around a curve. He heard Mother shout, then a crash, and he suppressed a smile. Hopefully she wasn’t hurt too badly. After all, nobody wanted to damage Mother.
As he turned the corner into the factory, he heard cheers and applause. How nice — his elves were rooting for him. And why not? He was one of them. It was long past time for one of them take charge of the operation.
When his reindeer trotted inside, his heart fell. The elves were cheering, gleeful, but their glee was not for him. Pat’s chariot was parked at the finish line, and the little leprechaun sat atop it, arms extended, basking in their glee.
“How did you–”
“You should have seen it, Edgar!” Chanticleer burbled. “He practically flew in!”
Edgar clenched his fist, trying to contain the acid spit in his mouth. “Lovely tattoo there on your face, Pat,” he said. “Very tasteful.”
“It’s been a corker of a year, Eddo,” he said. “How about we finish this?”
Edgar glared at Dad. “What’s the last competition?”
“The most important one of all,” Dad said, announcing it to the howling throng. Mrs. Claus sat next to the Old Year, Jack O’Lantern behind her. The pumpkin’s smile was permanently carved into place, but the other two didn’t need to look so damned happy.
“Ladies, gentlemen, and icons,” Dad said, “It’s time for the final competition! Pat the Leprechaun versus Edgar the Elf! Winner takes up the sacred responsibility of being the Christmas icon! And that winner–”
“What’s the jingle-jangled competition, Dad?” Edgar screamed.
Dad glanced at him, frowning. “You know, son, I’m not used to being spoken to that way. I’ll let it slide since you’re under a little pressure. But since you asked…”
He waved to a pair of tables covered in red sheets. At his signal, a pair of elves whipped the sheets away, revealing boxes of parts. “The icon of Christmas, above all else, has to be able to make a child happy. And how can anyone do that if he can’t assemble a simple toy? In these boxes are enough parts to make one thousand nutcracker dolls. The winner will be the one who puts together the most in five minutes. On your mark…”
Assembling toys? Edgar chuckled. He could do that in his sleep.
“Get ready to crumble, you drunken sot,” he snapped.
He sprang to the table and grabbed a torso, then started rummaging through the boxes looking for heads. Behind him, Pat the Leprechaun just stood there, watching, making no move towards his own boxes.
“Better hurry up!” Edgar snarled. “I’ve got three put together already!”
“I know my capabilities, Edgar,” Pat said. “Just as I know yours. Just like I know you’ll cut corners and skip steps, and the nutcrackers you assemble won’t be worth a damn.”
He dropped the legs he was holding and turned, looking at the Leprechaun. “What are you talking about?” he said.
“The Bunny was right. You have been saying that a lot lately. I don’t remember hearing it quite so much last year.”
Without another word, Pat walked up to his boxes and began to work. He barely even needed to glance in the boxes, he simply reached in, pulled out a part that was exactly the part he needed, and attached it to the part in his other hand, then repeated the process. His hands were a blur, his face was stone, and before the eyes of the crowd the pile of completed nutcrackers began to grow. Edgar fumbled, dropping the nutcracker he was working on and breaking the torso in half in the process, but didn’t take his eyes off the leprechaun. How many toys had be built already? Twenty? Thirty? The pile was growing, and Edgar’s three looked incredibly meager. He turned back to his own boxes, grabbing a new torso and looking for a head to put on it. When he glanced up again, the pile of nutcrackers was eclipsed only by the pile of empty boxes by the leprechaun’s workstation. By the time the clock passed two minutes, all of his boxes were empty, and a legion of nutcrackers stood sentinel over them.
Edgar sputtered and stumbled through his task for the final three minutes of the contest, but it was already over. Half of the toys he put together fell apart even as he put them on the table, the other half looked hastily-assembled and shoddy, especially in comparison to Pat’s army of perfect, flawless toys. When Dad finally held up his stopwatch and shouted, “Time’s up!” even Edgar thought it a mercy.
“How did you do that?” he said. “How could you have possibly…”
“Dad,” Pat said. “The result?”
Dad looked at the two tables of nutcrackers — one full, proud, and perfect, the other a jumbled mess, and didn’t even have to say a word. He went over and grabbed Pat’s hand, raising it above his head.
“The winner!” he cried. “The new head of operations for the North Pole! Is Pat the–”
“Don’t be ridiculous, boyo!” Pat shoved his way through the crowd, pushing past an assembled throng of shocked elves to stand in front of Dad and the other Pat, the one who had just mastered the contest. “You know as well as I do that ain’t no leprechaun who just conquered your little winter Olympics!”
The room was filled with gasps and shouts. Mrs. Claus stood up, her jaw open, eyes popped in shock. Flanking her, the Old Year and the Easter Bunny were both smiling.
“Who is that?” she asked.
The other Pat — the one who had beaten Edgar so handily — smiled with a grin that looked beautifully, tantalizingly familiar, and he snapped his fingers. Tendrils of green smoke appeared around him, swirling, but they were soon joined by a second strain, smoke of brilliant red. The column grew to the size of a full adult, grew out quite a bit as well, and dissipated. Pat was gone. In his place was the bold, beaming form of Santa Claus.
“You’re going on the naughty list for a long time, Edgar,” he said.
Edgar looked up at him, horrified, then bolted for the door. He didn’t get far, though, finding the way blocked by a wall of elves. In the front, glaring at him, were Blinky and Eleanor.
“Edgar,” Blinky said. “You have got to learn a little self-control.”
Edgar looked in panic, pointing at the Edgarbots at the door. “Edgarbot! Remember your programming! Annihilate the Santa imposter!” he pointed to Santa, who was just watching the whole spectacle, amused. The Edgarbot looked in his direction and his eyes glowed, scanning.
“Negative,” he said. “Subject does not meet the programmed description.”
“It’s the tattoo,” Santa said. “Like I said, it’s been a corker of a year. So, these are the Edgarbots, eh?”
He walked up to the robot, peering into its eye. “Robot! Who are you programmed to obey?”
“Edgarbots are designed to follow the commands of the head of North Pole Operations.”
“And as of thirty seconds ago, who is that?”
The robot said nothing for a few moments, seeming to process the query. Finally, it said quite clearly, “You, sir.”
“Wonderful,” Santa said. “Then you have two commands. First, take Edgar and confine him to quarters. Second, deactivate all the Edgarbots. Permanently.”
The robots didn’t need to think for another second. They grabbed Edgar, each by one arm, and hauled him away. Blinky brushed his hands. “Throw him in the dungeon, Boss!”
“Oh Blinky, don’t be ridiculous. We don’t have a dungeon. Still, I think a century or two in the sanding department might teach Edgar some much-needed humility. Can’t have the children getting splinters, can we?”
The clamor and joy around them was almost a whirlwind, but Santa held up his hands and beckoned for the elves to calm down. “My friends, please, I’m overjoyed to see all of you too, but there’s so much to do! I promise I’ll tell you everything later, but for now–”
The elves parted and slowly, gingerly, almost scared, Mrs. Claus stepped forward. Her eyes were huge with equal parts hope and fear. “Nicholas? Is it really you?”
“It’s me. I’m so sorry I’ve been gone, but–”
“How can it be you? Where have you been?”
“It’s not his fault, Mrs. C,” the Easter Bunny said. “We… um… we maybe did a bad thing.”
“How do I know it’s really you?” she asked, ignoring the Bunny altogether. “Tell me something Santa would know. Go get the first thing you ever made for me and bring it here.”
Santa balked. “Are you mad, woman? That ice sculpture has been in the garden for over a thousand years! It wouldn’t last ten minutes in the heat of this warehouse!”
Her eyes filled again, this time with tears. She started to talk, started to sputter, but finally just rushed forward and embraced her husband, her arms around him for the first time in nearly a year.
“Nicholas, I… I just…”
“I know,” he said. “Me too.” He patted her shoulders. “I’m told that you’re the reason we’ll actually have enough toys to hand out this year, instead of having to saddle every child with an Edgarbot. Look at that. The year Mrs. Claus saved Christmas.”
She laughed and held him, and neither of them wanted to let go.
The icons assembled behind her, a few of them glancing around. “Well…” the Bunny finally said. “We should be going. Um, Mr. C will fill you in on what went on… sorry again, Santa.” He bounded away.
“Really sorry,” Pat said. “You’re all right, lad.”
One by one, the icons flittered out of existence, until only one was left. Santa looked up from his embrace, peering into the eyes of the Jack O’Lantern, who peered back at him.
“It’s not over yet, Santa,” he said. “You know this.”
He faded away, and Santa’s smile fell.
“I know,” he said.
December 24, 10:42 p.m.
Gary leaned on the doorway to his guest room, looking at the bed. It had been empty for a month, but now it was occupied again. Warren was fast asleep, eyes shut, smile etched on his face. Gary hadn’t been able to watch his son sleep in years, hadn’t seen him do it on Christmas Eve in even longer. His ex-wife hadn’t put up the fight he had expected when he said he wanted the boy to spend Christmas Eve at his home. Evidently, she’d discovered that having a break from her child once in a while wasn’t such a terrible thing after all.
Satisfied that Warren wouldn’t wake up, Gary stole away into his own bedroom closet and took out some brilliantly wrapped packages, bringing them into the living room to place under the tree. He was only mildly surprised to find there were packages already there. He was slightly more surprised that the man who delivered them was there too.
“Nick! I was afraid I would never see you again!”
Santa smiled and gave his friend a hug. “After the year we had together, Gary, it would have been a terrible injustice if you hadn’t. Now, I am terribly busy tonight, but I’ve got a few minutes to spare. Can I trouble you for a glass of milk?”
Gary poured, Santa drank, and he told him the tale of his return to the North Pole — ousting Edgar, taking back control of his operation, and securing a staunch promise from all of the icons that none of them would ever interfere in the operations of another, ever again. Santa himself had sworn the same covenant, and they all considered it mystic and binding.
“Hell of a time,” Gary said.
“That it was, lad.”
“What did Jack mean, though? When he told you it wasn’t over?”
Santa’s jolly visage cracked. He reached into his bag and withdrew a small package, wrapped in green paper, with Gary’s name on it. “Gary, you have been the finest mortal friend I’ve had in centuries. You’re a good man, a kind man, and you don’t deserve what I’m about to say to you.”
“What do you mean, Santa?”
“Icons are supposed to be intangible to mortals. We exist because you have faith in us, because you believe in us. There’s a terrible irony here. If people knew for certain that we were real, their faith would erode and our powers would go away.”
“I’ll never tell anybody, Santa. You know that.”
“I know, Gary. I know you mean that. But the reason I tried to hide who I was from you at the beginning was to avoid this very moment. And from the moment you told me you knew who I was, I knew it was coming. It’s iron-clad. I have no choice.”
“You’re scaring me, Santa.”
“There’s nothing to be scared of, lad. You’re going to be fine.” He handed him the gift. “You’re just not going to remember.”
“Not remember? Not remember you?”
“Not the truth, not as I am. You’ll remember friendship. You’ll remember someone who was there for you. You’ll remember that you’re loved.” He placed a hand on Gary’s shoulder. “You’ll remember the important things.”
“But I won’t remember Santa Claus?”
“You’ll believe in Santa Claus. You won’t remember that he slept in your guest room for eleven months.”
He looked down at the package in his hands. “I… I think I would rather remember.”
“I would rather that too.”
They looked down at the package. “I guess I just open it?”
“I’m going to miss you, Nick. And Blinky and… Eleanor.”
“I’ll miss you too, Gary. But I’ll see you around.”
“Will I see you?”
Santa shook his head.
Gary sighed and grabbed the red ribbon on his gift. He pulled it open. And he fell promptly asleep.
Santa laid him on the couch, then munched the cookies Warren had left out earlier. He looked down at Gary, then at the item from his gift, the one he clutched in his hand.
“Nice list,” he said. “Always the nice list.”
And putting a finger aside of his nose, Santa Claus vanished.
To be continued…