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.
Two: Valentine’s Day
Valentine’s Day at the North Pole was usually a time of celebration. After a month off, elves gathered together at massive parties and talked about how they’d spent their vacations, shared tales of adventures in the four corners of the holiday landscape, and exchanged coy little cards and messages. In truth, elves rarely needed much of an excuse to celebrate. This year, though, when they probably needed it more than ever, nobody was in the mood.
In Santa’s office, Edgar sat in front of the desk, a few phone books stacked up on the chair he’d pulled up to work. He was doing Santa’s job as best he could, but he still refused to sit behind the desk. That wasn’t his place, wasn’t his right. It wasn’t where he belonged.
Instead of vacations, they had formed search parties. Instead relaxing with beach reads, they had poured over intelligence reports from all over the world. Nothing had helped them figure out where Santa and the missing elves could have gone. Remarkably, trying to find a chubby older gentleman with a white beard was not the challenge. Finding the right one was. It was like looking for a needle in a stack of needles — men matching that description were practically omnipresent. Cross-referencing the search with a pair of little people had turned up some interesting matches in San Francisco, but nothing that was really useful.
A knock at the door prompted Edgar to close the laptop he’d been working on. It wasn’t doing any good anyway. He slid off the books and opened the door, admitting a sluggish Brownie named Chanticleer, one of the heads of the manufacturing department. He had a raft of papers held together with a clip, and a hangdog expression stained his face.
“Any luck?” he asked.
“Did you hear me screaming with joy and going on a hot chocolate bender?” Edgar snapped.
“No.” Chanticleer sighed. “I didn’t really think so, but… an elf has to hold out hope, right?”
“What do you want, Chant?”
He held out the papers. “Projections for this year. Toys, clothes, video games, candy. Orders haven’t started coming in yet, but based on the popularity of certain items and the demographic that we service, we’re trying to estimate how many we’ll need to make of everything.”
“We’re already behind.”
Edgar’s shoulders slumped and he felt an ulcer spontaneously begin carving a hole in his stomach lining. “Of course we are,” he said. “How bad is it?”
Chanticleer pulled himself up into the chair where Edgar had been sitting, perching atop his tower of phone books and laying the pages out on the desk. “It’s pretty bad,” he said. “We’re already a couple of weeks behind schedule.”
“Anything we haven’t overcome before?”
“No, but… it was different then, you know?”
Yes. Edgar knew.
“But I think I’ve got a few ideas that could help us streamline things and get back on schedule before things get too out of hand. Want to take a look?”
Edgar stammered for a second. He’d need to climb up and sit at the desk to see the papers, but Chanticleer was already in his spot. There was only one other place to sit in the office, and he didn’t feel right about it.
“Edgar? Are you okay?”
He blinked for a moment, then shivered. This was silly. It was just a chair.
“I’m fine,” he said, pulling himself into Santa’s seat. “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got going.”
February 14, 7:30 p.m.
It would happen tonight, Santa was sure of it.
He and Blinky had been thrust into their situation very abruptly, unceremoniously and he hadn’t exactly been given a primer on what to expect. Not every holiday even had an icon, exactly, to bear a grudge against him, so there was no visit to be had. Still, on Martin Luther King day he had felt a rather stronger-than-usual urge to stand up for the oppressed, and on Super Bowl Sunday he had a compulsion to add all NFL referees to the naughty list. Today he was feeling the odd effects of a mild hangover that he could only attribute to the fact that yesterday had been Mardi Gras.
Valentine’s Day, though… that was one of the big ones. Decorations in the stores, cards in the mail, overpriced flowers lining the streets, and chocolate/peanut butter hearts that inexplicably tasted better than the traditional cup shape of the candy. Most importantly, this day had its own icon, someone Santa knew, and knew well, and was expecting. So Santa did something a man who has to manufacture toys and plot out a delivery route that encompasses the entire world has to be able to do: he got ahead of the problem.
“I’m not sure about this, boss,” Blinky said.
“I’ve been around for centuries, Blinky. I’ve catered to the desires of billions of people. I think I know what humans want. Here, dry.”
He ran a plate under the water from the sink in front of him and passed it over to Blinky. The elf, towel in his hand, dutifully began to dry it. Although Gary Valechi had never asked the two of them to do household chores in the month and a half they’d been staying at his apartment, Santa insisted that they do something to show their gratitude to their new friend.
“You give train sets to kids, Santa. This is…”
“A wish is a wish, Blinky. And when that chubby little twerp with the wings gets here–”
Cupid’s voice rang out before he appeared. There was a loud “POP” in the air above the sink, and Blinky dropped a plate, smashing it on the ground. Cupid hung in the air, his tiny, aerodynamically dubious wings gently fluttering to keep him afloat. He did, of course, resemble a baby, only he was considerably larger than most of them… and most babies didn’t have a quiver of heart-shaped arrows strapped to their back. “Who you callin’ twerp, Big Boy?”
“Oh come on, Cupid, I didn’t mean anything by it. Anyway, you’re not the only one whose form has changed because of human expectations. I didn’t always look like this, you know.”
“Yeah, but they changed you from a skinny old fart with whiskers to a chubby old fart with whiskers. You look like everybody’s favorite grandpa. I used to be a literal Greek god. I made Channing Tatum look like Mr. Potato Head! Now…”
“Yes, we all know about now.” He nodded towards the elf. “You remember Blinky, don’t you? He was one of the two elves on my sleigh when you shot me down.”
“Right. What happened to the other one?”
“We’ve been looking for her for six weeks,” Blinky snapped. “You don’t know anything about Eleanor, do you?”
“Sorry, can’t help you. My area of perception only extends to lovers. Which brings me to why I’m here.”
“Yes, we know,” Santa said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. You’re here to show me how hard it is to be you. We understand the protocol. But I’ve got news for you Cupid — I’m ahead of your game.”
“What are you talking about?”
Santa indicated the apartment they were standing in. From the clean, modern kitchen, they could see the tastefully decorated apartment, high-end television mounted to the wall between a pair of framed posters for old science fiction movies. “We’re in my friend Gary’s apartment. We met him on New Year’s Eve and he has been kind enough to let us stay here while we try to get ‘back on our feet’.”
“What? In New York, some guy is letting two complete strangers crash in his pad?”
“Well, I’m not really a stranger, am I? Gary is one of those grown-ups who never entirely stopped believing in me. On a subconscious level, I think he suspects who I really am, although he could never admit it to himself.”
“Fine, whatever. You’re living the Lifestyles of the Young and Yuppie. So what?”
“Well, Gary isn’t here tonight, is he?”
“I repeat: so what?”
“He’s out because I got him a date.”
Cupid’s jaw dangled. “You what?”
Santa beamed, terribly proud of the work he’d accomplished. “Oh yes. Down on the corner, you see, there’s this lovely young woman named Carrie. Works at a newsstand. I noticed Gary blushing every time he bought a newspaper from her, so I gave him a little nudge and convinced him to ask her on a date.”
“For tonight?” Cupid said.
“A first date.”
“On Valentine’s Day.”
Cupid glared at him, his wings beating faster, his face growing red.
“You’re even stupider than I thought,” he snapped.
“Hey!” Blinky hopped up on the counter and leaned in, eye-to-eye with Cupid. “You can’t talk to Santa that way!”
“It’s my day, shrimp, I’ll talk however I want!”
“What are you talking about?” Santa said. “It’s Valentine’s Day! I’m helping two people find love! That’s what you do!”
“Wrong!” Cupid reached into his quiver and pulled out a handful of arrows, shoving them under Santa’s nose. “That’s what these do! And they screw up more often than not! That’s not what Valentine’s Day is for, Egg Nog Breath!”
“I don’t understand. The cards, the flowers–”
“Yeah, yeah, and the candy and the jewelry too, right? It’s all crap, Santa. It’s all different ways for humans to cash in on something that should have a deeper meaning. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”
“Exactly. How long has your buddy been on his date?”
“He was supposed to pick her up at 6 o’clock.”
Cupid glanced at the clock on the wall. “Nearly two hours. Perfect. Why don’t we go take a look, see how things are going? Because unless you got lucky, crazy lucky, million-to-one winning the Powerball lucky, I think we’ll be able to see just why first dates on Valentine’s Day are a terrible idea.”
Cupid waved his bow over Santa’s head and the two of them were caught up in a swirl of white, pink, and red mists. Blinky and Gary’s apartment vanished, and Santa felt a sensation of movement. Very soon, they weren’t there anymore.
“You’re in for a rude awakening, Nicky,” Cupid said.
“I think you’re the one who’s going to be surprised,” Santa said. “You don’t know Gary like I do. He’s a good man, kind and generous. He’s got a good job working at a toy company, he takes care of his mother, he…”
“He’s blowing it.”
The mists cleared a little, and in the haze Santa saw Gary and Carrie, sitting at a table in a fine Chinese restaurant. Each of them had a bowl of soup and an egg roll in front of them. Carrie also had a phone out, casually tapping on her screen as she ate.
“How’s your soup?” Gary asked.
“Oh,” Carrie said. She lifted a spoonful to her mouth and sipped it. “Good.”
She turned back to her phone and Santa looked at Cupid. “I’ve heard more lively conversation from a pack of snowmen.”
“Well what did you expect? The humans put so much stupid pressure on themselves for this holiday. They have to find someone, they have to fall in love. Then the slightest thing goes wrong and they decide the entire thing is a disaster. How can you possibly live up to those expectations? Hell, I knew Zeus in his prime and even he would have had trouble performing under those circumstances.”
“But what happened? What went wrong?”
Cupid twisted his arm in the air and a phone appeared. He grinned. “Let’s find out.”
“How, you’re going to call them?”
“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “She’s been live-tweeting the whole date.” He tapped the screen a few times and brought up Carrie’s feed. Scrolling back to a few minutes after six, he found what he was looking for and laughed.
“What? What’s so funny?”
“Here it is, Santa. The genesis of romance.” He held the phone out to Santa could read what she’d posted.
“This guy got a taxi instead of an Uber. #AuspiciousStart.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Santa said. “She checked out on Gary for not using Uber?”
“You think that’s the stupidest reason anyone has ever given up on a date?”
“Well… I guess not, but… is that really the only problem?”
“Naw. She was also bothered that he ordered an unsweetened tea because ‘Hashtag Who Drinks That?’ And he put hot mustard on his egg roll — ‘Hashtag Nasty Sauce.’ Oh, and why are they sitting so close to the kitchen?”
“What? But that’s not even his fault!”
“Once a human gives up, it doesn’t really matter.”
“Well what about Gary? What’s his side of it?”
“I dunno, he hasn’t been tweeting. But look at him, Santa.” Cupid adjusted the point of view of their image so they were looking straight at Gary. He wasn’t on his phone, but he was slumped over, not making eye contact, chewing on his egg roll with hot mustard. He looked, Santa realized, the same way he did when he left the party on New Year’s Eve.
“Your friend is smarter than you are. He knows this is all donezo, and he can’t be bothered to put in any more effort than she is, even if he’s not going to be rude about it. And then, once this date is put out of its misery, he’s going to go home alone and be even more depressed than he would have been if you hadn’t done anything in the first place.”
“I don’t understand. What went wrong?”
“What went wrong is that you went Hallmark, Chubbs. This isn’t what Valentine’s Day is. It never should have been. Good grief, it started by commemorating a guy who got executed for trying to give comfort to persecuted Christians under the Roman empire. How the hell we went from that to a 64-count box of assorted chocolates is beyond me.”
“Fine then. Enlighten me Cupid. What is this supposed to be about?”
Cupid looked deeper into the mists, glancing around the Chinese restaurant. His eyes fell on a table across the restaurant and he grinned.
“Try this one on for size, Santa.”
Their perspective changed again, and Santa found himself looking at another couple. Steven Morten. Gayle Abrams-Morten. Married six years. Two children. Their first night out together in nine months. Each of these facts clicked into Santa’s head the same way the prayers for a New Year had on December 31. As he watched them, Santa could feel how each of them was feeling. It was love, deep love. But it was… cool.
“Check the phone,” Cupid said. Santa realized that he was holding the phone now, and that it was open to Gayle’s Facebook page. He scrolled down. Three pictures of her with the kids. A post asking where to get an oil change. Another picture of the kids. A tag from someone asking if she remembered some music video from high school. Two more of Gayle and the kids. A Spongebob meme.
“Where’s her husband?” Santa asked.
“Click the other tab.”
He did. Steven’s page was more of the same. Him with the children, expressing how much he loved them, he loved them, he loved the Rangers even if this wouldn’t be their year to hoist the Stanley cup, he loved the kids.
“They’re tired, Big Guy. Day in, day out. Nobody is mad here, there hasn’t been a fight. They’ve just been together so long and done so much that they’re… tired.”
“This is almost as sad as Gary and Carrie.”
Cupid rolled his eyes. “Do you hear it when you say it out loud? ‘Gary and Carrie?’ Man, what were you thinking?”
“Forget them for a minute. What about Steven and Gayle? What do we do?”
“Well, that’s what you have to figure out, isn’t it?”
“I… fine. Give me an arrow.”
“Nope. Arrows spark passion. There’s no shortcut to reheat it. You’re gonna have to work for this one.”
Santa reached out into the mist. As he did, he felt sparks of memory. Their first date. The day Steven asked Gayle to marry him. Their wedding. The births of each of their children. The big moments, the huge moments, the moments that are etched into the DNA of any relationship. What was he supposed to do? Remind them of their children? Pointless, the children never left their minds. Recreate their first date? It had been to a Chinese restaurant — this one, in fact. What else was he going to do? Play the song from their wedding dance? Santa pictured himself standing outside the restaurant with a boom box on his shoulders, then immediately pictured himself getting a restraining order.
He reached again, brushing aside the big moments. He saw smaller ones now: birthdays, Mae’s first day in preschool, Arlen’s first cold. He saw Steven taking Gayle’s car in for new tires, saw Gayle picking up Steven’s clothes from the dry cleaners, saw Steven washing the dishes even though it was Gayle’s turn because she’d had a bad day at work, saw Gayle making Steven hot chocolate when she woke up before him on a snowy morning in January.
He saw something small, something sweet. And most importantly, something that was already in Gayle’s purse.
The waiter approached their table as they finished their meal, smiling. “Would you care for any dessert?”
Steven was about to say something, but Gayle held her hand up, shaking her head. “No thanks, just the check.”
The waiter nodded and lay a black folder on the table walking off. Steven looked at his wife, puzzled. “No dessert? Not even those pineapple tarts they make?”
“Eh, those are okay,” she said. “I have something better.” She looked in both directions, surreptitiously, and reached into her purse. From within, she drew two small tupperware containers, and slid one across the table to her husband.
He popped open the lid of the container and smiled. “You made creme brulee?”
“It’s not hot, but I know it’s your favorite.”
His smile got wider, then shrank a little. “Sorry I’ve been so busy lately.”
“I’ve been busy too. It’s not your fault. Maybe we should get your folks to babysit a little more often.”
“Yeah, maybe we should,” he said. He leaned across the table and kissed her, and she kissed back. As they did, the mists closed around them, and Santa and Cupid found themselves back in Gary’s apartment.
“Boss?” Blinky dropped the dustpan he was using to sweep up the broken plate. “Boss, where did you go?”
“He was learning a lesson, Jingles,” Cupid said. “So what exactly did you learn, Kringle?”
“Fine, I get it,” he said. “It’s the little things that count, right.”
Cupid shook his head. “Man, for somebody who’s supposed to be so good at giving people what they want, you still miss the obvious, don’t you? Look, I’ll spell it out for you. Your day is about the big, ginormous things that kids spend all year waiting for. But focusing on the big things on Valentine’s Day is a recipe for disaster.”
Santa thought about Gayle. About Steven. About creme brulee.
“Sometimes you just need to take the time to celebrate what you already have,” he said.
“Now you’re getting it. I’m sure your missus will be happy to see you taking that approach.”
Santa glowered at him. “My missus is back at the Pole. And I’m missing Valentine’s Day with her because of your stupid little games.”
“Maybe, but you guys can have more Valentine’s Days until the end of time. Folks like Steven and Gayle? If they’re lucky, they’ll get what? Forty? Fifty? If they’re unlucky, this might be the last one.”
“The same is true for Christmases, you know.”
“Sure, sure. But that’s not my department, is it?” Cupid flapped his little wings and bobbed in the air. “Well, I’ve said my peace. Happy Valentine’s Day, Tubbs. Shorty. I’ll probably see you again before this is all over.”
Santa was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean, but a swirl of pink and white made took the cherub away, leaving the two of them alone.
“I really dislike that guy,” Blinky said.
“Hmph.” Santa walked back to the sink. “Come on, let’s finish these dishes. I want to get this apartment in shape before Gary gets home.. I have a feeling his date hasn’t gone as well as we would like.”
* * *
“Would you care for any dessert?”
Carrie shot a filthy look at the waitress. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. “The chicken was dry, the egg rolls had so much salt my lips are burning, and the tea may as well have been water. I’m not trusting you people to scoop out ice cream. Just give him the check, twerp.”
The waitress’s eyes grew wide and watered. Her hands fumbling, she put the folder down on the table and walked off without saying a word. Gary’s face was turning red as he reached for the bill.
“Was that really necessary? She didn’t make the food, you know.”
“Then she can pass the message on to whoever did.”
“And what about that last crack? That was unnecessary.”
Carrie laughed. “Come on, what is she? Three feet two? It’s like having a third grader wait on the table.” She chuckled at her own wit and turned back to her phone. Gary put his credit card on the folder and sat in silence as the waitress retrieved it and brought it back. Of the three of them, the only sounds made were Carrie occasionally giggling at something on Instagram. Gary picked up the bill and looked down, trying to do math. A twenty percent tip would have been about twelve dollars. Under GRATUITY, he scribbled “$30” and added it to the total, then wrote “I’m sorry” underneath.
Carrie led the way out of the restaurant, not even noticing that Gary didn’t immediately follow her. Instead, he stopped at the host’s podium, where a kind-eyed man was coordinating the restaurant’s many, many customers. “Excuse me,” Gary said, “are you the manager?”
“Yes sir, I am.”
“I just wanted to let you know our waitress was wonderful. Just a charming, lovely person.”
“Oh, thank you sir. Who was your waitress this evening?”
Gary glanced down at his receipt for her name. “Eleanor,” he said. “Her name is Eleanor.”
To be continued…