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: Prologue-Christmas Day
One: The New Year
Edgar stood alone, staring at the empty chair. A week out from Christmas Eve and he didn’t want to move. The others had done everything they could to snap him out of it: hot cocoa, sugar cookies, Christmas crackers… nothing. Edgar, as North Pole Chief of Operations, had been the one in communication with Santa’s sleigh when they lost contact. If he lived to be thirty thousand, he’d never forget what he heard over that radio. Screams. Blinky shouting that they were under attack. Static. Then, a gut-churning eternity later, eight reindeer returned to the barn, their reins fluttering behind them, tattered ends that looked like they had been pecked through. Everyone turned to Edgar then, as he was technically in charge when Santa was gone. But he’d never had – nor wanted – the responsibility for this long.
Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was one of celebration at the Pole: parties, gatherings with friends, subversive meetups under the mistletoe, and one mega-blowout on the 31st before the whole Pole went on vacation for the month of January. Not this year. The past week had been chaos. Elves running everywhere, search parties scouring every corner of the Pole, trainers trying to get the reindeer to retrace their steps. All they had uncovered were a few chunks of vine and brown feathers stuck in the reins.
Now, as midnight hit Greenwich Mean Time, the rest of the senior staff was gathered with Edgar in Santa’s office, looking at his enormous green chair. Nobody had touched it in a week. Nobody wanted to.
Finally, a silver-haired elf from the licensing department cleared her throat. “Edgar?” she asked. “What do we do?”
He cleared his throat, wet his lips. He didn’t know if he was parched or just stalling, unwilling to say the only thing he could say.
“Cancel leave,” he said. “All of it. We need to keep looking.”
The other elves nodded, one at a time. It wasn’t the answer anyone wanted to hear, but it was the one that made the most sense. Nobody was particularly in the mood for a vacation anyway. How could anybody justify a month at the beach or riding roller coasters when Santa, Blinky, and Eleanor were missing? Everybody wanted to keep looking. The trouble was that nobody knew where to look.
“He has to be in the Real World somewhere” said Dale, the elf in charge of preadolescent surveillance. “We can keep up the search.”
“Of course you can,” said Jamie from Reindeer Care. “You guys watch the entire world. How hard can it be to find Santa?”
Dale shook her head. “We’re equipped to surveil children,” she said. “Our equipment is trained on them. We’ve got a computer system that analyzes the footage and alerts us if the kid does something naughty. Other than that, we never actually see them. We’re actually going to have to start combing through film, looking for some sort of trace of him. In footage of every child in the world. Even if we had a specific region to look in, some way to narrow it down–”
“Just do what you can, Dale.” Edgar put a hand on her shoulder and she nodded. He looked at the faces of the rest of the senior staff, their eyes pleading with him for some sort of guidance. He didn’t want this, he reminded himself. He never wanted this.
“What if we don’t find him?” Jamie finally said. “What if it’s February first and it’s time to start getting ready for next Christmas and there’s still no Santa Claus?”
Edgar nodded. It was exactly the question he’d been asking himself since he realized he was the one in charge. “Then we do our jobs,” he said. “Whatever it takes, we make sure that Christmas happens next year.”
December 31, 11:45 p.m.
New York City was cold. Oh, it usually was when Santa visited. They might not have a white Christmas every year, but it was usually at least chilly when he came through. Despite being open-air, his sleigh had precision climate control, and it never bothered him. Today it bothered him. It bothered him a lot.
Santa and Blinky had hitchhiked to Manhattan after they finally found the road outside of Rochester. It only took them two days to make it, with Santa using a tiny bit of his magic to make people treat them with good cheer along the way. In a way, Santa felt lucky they’d crashed in New York state. It wasn’t home, but no place in North America loved Christmas as much as New York City. His magic drained rapidly after Christmas was over, but he felt certain this was the one place he could cling to as much of it as possible.
But that magic was dying quickly. He’d managed to generate enough goodwill amongst his fellow men to get them some new clothes and a pair of cots at a shelter. But here it was, New Year’s Eve. No home or food, no sign of Eleanor, no sign of rescue.
At a quarter to midnight, Santa and Blinky were out on the street, miles away from Times Square and all the lunacy that gripped that piece of real estate on this day, still able to see the glittering ball from a distance. Santa sat down on the bottom stoop of a building, arms folded over his knees. Blinky was on the top stoop, making him eye-level with Santa. Across the street, with the shimmering ball above, a bar was loud and raucous with celebrants ready to bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the new.
“Well… happy new year, Santa.”
“Would that it were, Blinky,” he said. “In all the years we’ve been in operation, I’ve never felt as lost as I do right now.”
“There’s nobody you can call or something?”
“Like who? There aren’t any mortal telephones that can dial the North Pole, and that’s by design. Can you imagine the hassle if children could actually contact us there?”
“Anybody we can recruit to get us back? A non-holiday Icon like Sandman? Tooth Fairy?”
“The Icons only serve children. We couldn’t summon them, even if I punched your tooth out of your mouth.”
Santa shot his elf a dirty look, and Blinky shrugged. “Hey, if you’ve got a better suggestion…”
Santa sighed. “All I’ve got is a headache. I wish everyone would just be quiet.”
“Aw, the bar’s not that bad from out here, boss.”
“It’s not the bar, it’s everyone else.”
“What are you talking about? There’s nobody else here.”
Santa looked around, realizing for the first time that he and the elf were alone on the sidewalk. “If there’s no one here, where are the voices coming from?”
Not for the first time since the crash, Blinky looked worried. “What voices, boss?”
Gotta be better than last year…
…gonna lose weight, go back to the gym, give up the fast food…
…this year, I swear, I’m going to get a new job…
…he doesn’t propose by Valentine’s Day that’s IT, it’s OVER…
…has to be better than last year.
“Blinky?” Santa asked. “What’s happening?”
A slow tapping sound echoed down the street. Santa looked up to see an old man – an ancient man, in fact – staggering down the sidewalk, cane in hand. They saw this man just a week ago, but already he looked so much older than he had then. “Ah, Santa Claus,” he said. “I told you we’d meet again tonight.”
“Santa, who is that?” Blinky asked.
“It’s the Old Year,” Santa said. The old man laughed.
“Only for another eleven minutes, Claus!” he said. “Then I become the New Year all over again. Or, more accurately, you will.”
“What’s he talking about, boss?”
“Like we told you, little elf, this year your master is taking on the duties of each of us Icons. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Santa, you’re already hearing the prayers.”
“Prayers? For what?”
“For the New Year, of course!”
In his head, the voices started to get louder. Pleas for money, for health, for children, for love. One woman’s voice swore that this was the year she would visit Europe, another was begging this year to be the one when she found a job in which she could finally afford day care. A man asked if this year he would get a new car, a young one swore with all his might that he was going to buckle down this semester and study, dammit, because he was lucky not to have been thrown out of school already, and if he didn’t fix things it would break his grandmother’s heart. One girl wanted a puppy this year. A boy promised to make the baseball team. A man said he’d try to go vegan, while his wife anxiously promised to get him to stop spending so much time on the internet. More than one voice, more than one chilling voice, asked that please could nobody else die this year, because they couldn’t take any more.
Santa grabbed Blinky’s arm trying not to tip over. He looked up, gasping, while the Old Year’s face continued to grow more wrinkles, longer whiskers, eyes sinking into their sockets and cheeks hollowing before their eyes. “What are you doing to me?” he asked.
“Nothing I don’t endure every single year,” he said. “You’re lucky I come first, Claus. You still have a good deal of your power. Christmas technically lasts until January 6, after all, so your residual magic is probably making this easier on you. Can you imagine if you had to listen to these voices in June?”
“Boss, what’s happening to you?”
“Prayers… cries… people pleading… people everywhere.”
“Prayers for the New Year, Claus.”
“It’s overwhelming,” he said, squeezing Blinky’s arm even tighter. “Everybody wants something. Everybody needs something.”
“Boss, you hear people ask for things all the time. It’s your job!”
“I hear children, Blinky. This…”
“Yes, adults are quite different, aren’t they, Claus?”
…going to learn to speak Mandarin this year…
…this glass of champagne and then that’s it, I’m done drinking…
…just so tired of being alone…
“They’re all in pain!” Santa shouted. “They’re all in misery!”
“Oh, not all of them,” the Old Year said. “Just the loudest ones.” In the distance people in Times Square were howling with joy. The countdown had reached one minute to midnight. He looked down at Santa, his face almost skeletal now as the skin pulled taught against his leering skull.
“I don’t understand!” Santa slumped forward, grabbing the Old Year by his cloak. “Isn’t anyone happy tonight?”
“Of course they are,” the Old Year said. “But they don’t need us, do they? That’s the incredible thing about the New Year, Claus. As a marking of time, it’s really quite meaningless. It’s arbitrary. The mortals could have decided the year ended any time they wanted – the beginning of July, the day the crops were planted. It doesn’t mark someone’s birthday or a historical anniversary or any of the things some of the other holidays do. Closing one calendar and opening the next is irrelevant. But they’ve placed so much emphasis on it, haven’t they? They pretend that things are ending, that it’s a time when everything else can start over.”
The countdown was happening. Santa could almost hear it over the voices in his head.
…this is it…
…it all starts now…
…thank God it’s over…
“Don’t you understand why you’re hearing from people in misery, Claus? Because nobody needs a New Year more than someone whose Old Year was agony.”
He closed his eyes as the voices behind them turned into an incomprehensible din, a sickening miasma of prayers and hopes and grief. Screams and cries of celebration broke – from Times Square, from the bar across the street, from all directions. Santa thought that the voices would stop, but if anything, they got louder.
…show them some real fireworks at the office…
…dammit, I knew she’d kiss somebody else at midnight…
…last glass of ch—ah, but I’m still AT the party, right?
“Why isn’t it stopping?” Santa asked. “Why isn’t it stopping?”
“Santa?” Blinky asked. “Where’d the Old Year go?”
Santa opened his eyes and looked down. The Old Year was, in fact, gone, his cloak lying on the ground in front of them. Lying in front and… moving. Santa reached down and pulled the cloak aside. On the ground, wearing a smirk that one would never have expected in one so young, was a newborn baby.
“It’s not stopping, Santa, because it’s not over yet.” The newborn rocked up onto his bottom, smiling up at Santa and Blinky. “People don’t stop asking at midnight. It takes a few days, even weeks sometimes before they stop asking the New Year to be different than the old one.”
“But… all of those cries… all that pain. What are we supposed to do?”
The infant looked surprised. “Do? Santa, you’re already doing it. You’re hearing them.”
“Aren’t I supposed to help them?”
“They’re not kids, Santa. They don’t want dolls and candy. How are you gonna help them? Give Tory Kittridge a new job? Find a way to make Edna Carson’s son call her for a change?” He stood up, grabbing Santa’s beard and pulling it down until they were eye-to-eye. “You got a cure for cancer in that sack of yours, Santa?”
He let go of the beard and Santa rocked back onto the stoop, staring up into the sky. His stomach was curdling, despite the fact that there was relatively little inside it. As he gasped, the voices continued, although they started to settle a bit.
“Here’s the harsh truth most humans don’t want to admit, Santa. No matter how much they want to believe it, the year doesn’t control anything. If something is going to change, it has to come from them. But who wants to hear that? It’s not my fault I’m broke! It’s not my fault I’m lonely! It’s not my fault I’m sick! No! It’s just this crummy year.” The cynicism coming from such a young face was almost comical. Santa may have laughed if he weren’t trying to prevent the conflicting voices in his head from driving him mad.
“Nah,” New Year said. “There’s nothing you can do to help them, Santa. They have to help themselves. All you get to do is listen to each and every prayer they have.”
He patted Santa on the cheek, smiling. “Well, I’ve said my peace. Have fun on the next holiday. Someone will be there to hold your hand then, too.”
Santa watched as the New Year, still waddling around in a baby’s body, gathered up his cloak and toddled away. As he did so, the voices, the prayers, the pleading in his mind continued.
“Boss, are you all right?”
“It’s too much, Blinky. It’s just too much.”
He put his head down on the stoop, trying not to allow tears to break his eyes. Across the street, the doors to the bar had been thrown open and people were cheering in the fact that they all had to buy a new calendar, and nothing else. Santa rolled his head and looked up at the stars in the cold January morning.
“How am I going to do this? How can I handle an entire year of this? We’re lost, we’re alone, we…”
“Hey, are you all right?”
Santa tilted his head and looked at the man approaching them. He was coming from the direction of the bar, a few chunks of confetti fell from his shoulders as he walked, but he didn’t have the joyous expression that most of the revelers wore. He was a bulky man, with deep brown hair and a tiny scar in his upper lip, which was pulled down into a look of concern.
“It’s nothing that should worry you, young man,” he said.
“Are you sure? You sounded pretty downbeat.” He reached out and Santa realized he’d heard this man’s voice before, only moments before. He was one of the many, many people who was pleading for a better year.
“I’ll be fine.”
“Come on, pal, it’s Christmas.”
Blinky frowned. “It’s January First.”
“Yeah, and like my grandmother always told me, Christmas lasts until the sixth. Epiphany. You’ve heard of the twelve days of Christmas right?”
Santa looked the man in the eye, and for the first time since his sleigh went down, a small smile crept onto his face. “Have I met you before, son?”
“Could be. It’s a big city.” He held out his hand. “Gary Valechi. You?”
“Nick. And this is Bill.”
Gary Valechi. Nice list. Asked for a Super Nintendo when he was seven years old.
“Look, the party across the street turned out to be… not what I wanted. I was going to go get something to eat. You guys want to join me? My treat.”
Santa and Blinky exchanged a look, and Blinky shrugged.
“All right, Gary,” Santa said. “Maybe there’s a little Christmas left out here after all.”
* * *
In Central Park, Chuck Parker listened to people cheering all over the city. Must have been New Year’s Eve again. Eh. December, January, Christmas, New Year… out here, it was pretty much all the same. The only thing about the holidays ending was that people got a little less generous with their spare change. Whatever, he made it through last year, he’d make it through this one.
He shuffled down to a bench, one of his favorites, and pulled his coat tight around him. Someone had left a pile of newspaper on his bench, filthy animals in this city, and as he lay down to stretch out, he kicked at the paper to clear it out.
“Ow! Watch it!”
A hand grabbed at the paper and yanked it away. Beneath was a small, angelic face fringed by silvery golden hair. Her face was dirty, but unwrinkled and unmarred, and the green hat atop her head was cocked at an angle.
“Kid, what are you doing out here?”
“I’m no kid,” she said.
“Well I ain’t seen you around here before. You lost?”
She looked up into the sky, staring as if she were looking for something. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”
To be continued…