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.
Her eyes hung in deep, black pits. The twinkle, which was usually so characteristic of Mrs. Claus’s presence at the Pole, had evaporated, swallowed by sleepless nights and a hollow feeling everyone in the workshop shared. Santa was the one who was lost, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at his wife. Any casual observer would insist Mrs. Claus was the one with no home.
“Any news, Mrs. C?” Edgar asked as he opened the office door, ushering her in. It was a routine at this point: he asked if there was any indication where her husband might be, she said there was not, repeat. It hardly seemed necessary — as if she would wait for their next daily briefing if there were any news, as if she wouldn’t simply burst into the office the moment she had the slightest indication what could have happened to him. But order had to be maintained, ritual had to be respected, and thus she came in with her bleary eyes and said what Edgar already knew: “No. No news.”
She took a seat in her husband’s chair and Edgar felt a slight tinge behind his eyes. He dismissed it, though, turning his attention to the paperwork she came to examine. “At least it seems as though manufacturing is in order.”
“Yeah, I never would have asked to run this place, but I can at least keep it going if I have to.”
“Thank Heavens for that, at least. I don’t know that I could have survived these last few months if I didn’t know you had things under control on this end, Edgar.”
“Oh, thanks.” He smiled at the compliment. She returned the smile, but not with her eyes. It didn’t seem there was any smile left behind her eyes.
“Is there anything left to try?” he asked.
“One last thing. It’s a desperation play, but I’ll try anything at this point.”
“What is it?”
“Tomorrow is Easter,” she said. “I’ve put word out to the Bunny.”
“The Bunny? What for?”
“He covers a lot of the same territory as Nick. I’ve asked him to keep a watch while he’s out and about. If there’s anything to be found, I’m hoping he can find it.”
Edgar nodded. It was, to be truthful, the most openly and sadly desperate thing he had ever heard, but he supposed he didn’t blame her for trying. Still, the Bunny dealt with children too Where could he search that the Elves hadn’t already checked? The whole concept sounded like a pipe dream, a despairing woman’s delusion.
“That’s a great idea,” he said.
Together, Edgar and Mrs. Claus reviewed the progress of the workshop, the distribution channels, and everything else he had taken on since the boss vanished. With each successive report, Mrs. Claus nodded and told him what a fine job he was doing. To his credit, Edgar managed to resist the urge to tell her, “Thank you, I know.”
March 31st, 4:55 p.m.
As he had four days a week for the past six weeks, Santa Claus packed away the tools he used at Homer’s Repairs in anticipation for the five o’clock close of the fix-it shop. Gary had helped him find the place, and it had taken only minutes with a broken watch and a cracked smartphone to convince Homer Hayes he could fix just about anything, and quick. “I ain’t seen hands like that since my daddy retired,” the gentle old man had told him. He looked older than Santa, of course, and was certainly older than the age “Nicholas Christopher” put on his job application, but Santa knew differently. Still, the graying men had bonded quickly, and the shop turned out to be a good fit. It wasn’t home, but at least he was working with his hands, which he didn’t get to do as much as he liked even at the Pole nowadays.
“See you Monday, Nick,” Homer said, closing up the shop behind them. “Happy Easter.”
Ah yes, Easter. It had only been two weeks since the St. Patrick’s Day fiasco, but Santa had no doubt he’d be summoned into action tonight. Easter was one of the big holidays, after all, with an Icon that was probably second only to himself in popularity. The good news was that, unlike Pat or the Old Year or even Cupid, the Easter Bunny’s job was fairly well-defined by mortal culture. It was just a matter of when the rabbit would hop in and make him start.
Arriving home home — well, Gary’s home — Santa walked in to find Blinky on the couch watching a movie as Gary shuffled about in the kitchen. He smiled, cheerful as always, but something about him looked… off.
“Is that lamb I smell?” Santa asked.
“Easter tradition where I grew up,” Gary said. “I’m getting it ready for tomorrow. How about you, Nick? Any big holiday traditions in your family?”
Santa shook his head. “No, Easter was never that big for us. We were more of a Christmas crowd.”
“I’ll bet. You sticking around for dinner tonight?”
“I actually think I may have plans.” He took a closer look at his mortal friend, and his brain clicked on what had been nagging him since he walked through the door. “Gary, what is that under your lip?”
Gary reached up and brushed his fingers beneath his lip, ruffling the strands of an unfortunate soul patch. “Like it? I figured as long as we were trying new looks…” He pointed to the shamrock on Santa’s face and the old man’s cheeks turned rosy.
“Yes, well, we all make mistakes, Gary.” He patted his friend on the shoulder and returned to the living room, where Blinky was engrossed in his film.
“The Sound of Music? How many times have you seen this, Blinky?”
“There’s no such thing as too many times with Julie Andrews, Boss,” he said. “Or Rita Moreno. Ah, Bernadette Peters! I tell you, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”
“I suppose not… eh, Blinky? Is everybody around here experimenting with new looks?”
“What do you mean?”
“When’s the last time you shaved?”
“Shaved? Boss, Elves don’t have facial hair.”
“Well, your father must have been part goblin, because there’s definite fuzz on your cheeks.”
Blinky touched his face and alarm exploded in his eyes. “What the holly… Santa, what’s going on?”
“It’s not just your hair, Blinky, your ears are getting longer!”
“Wha– whacht’s wrong? Why chan’t I talch?”
“Your teeth are getting longer!”
As Santa watched, Blinky began to shrink. Fur sprouted all over his body and his ears elongated and slid to the top of his head. He hunched forward, legs turning to plump haunches, and whiskers sprouted from the sides of his pinkening nose. As the wailing sound of Santa’s name faded from his lips, Blinky twitched and convulsed and rolled onto the couch, now fully transformed into a fluffy little brown rabbit.
Santa’s ice-blue eyes saw red. “Bunny!” he shouted. “Come out!”
He half-expected the Easter Bunny to stroll out at he bellowed for him, but nothing happened. After a few long moments of watching, he went back to the kitchen. “Gary, have you seen anything–”
Sitting on Gary’s kitchen counter, casually munching on a half-chopped head of lettuce, was another rabbit, this one white with an unfortunate patch of brown fur beneath its mouth.
Behind him, Santa heard a chuckling sound. He spun around to face the Easter Bunny, leaning on a cane in the shape of a large carrot, clutching his gut with laughter.
“Come on, Santa, I thought you’d appreciate a good joke. Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day too, you know.”
“Don’t remind me,” Santa said. “An excuse for people to behave like idiots but still delude themselves into thinking they can keep off the naughty list. I suppose I should expect a visit from that idiotic clown tomorrow as well?”
The Bunny’s right ear tipped in a puzzled expression, then popped back up with laughter when he realized what Santa was talking about. “Oh, the clown! No, no, Santa, he probably won’t bother you tomorrow. He’s got his own deal.”
“All that matters is, until tomorrow morning, you’re all mine.”
* * *
The Rabbit’s Burrow, as it turned out, was exactly as Santa would have expected. Although deep underground, with earthen floors, walls, and ceilings, it was far from gloomy. In fact, virtually every surface was festooned with bright colors, pastel banners, ribbons of crepe and festive mounts of Easter grass in every variety imaginable. Along with the decorations were bunnies, dozens of them, each about the size of Pat the Leprechaun. They wore vibant bows around their necks or in their ears, each carrying an assortment of candy, toys, and eggs. The treasures were taken to the center of the cavern, where an enormous Easter Basket stood, and they filled it dutifully.
“Looks like a busy day for you,” Santa said.
“You know it. I think every rabbit in the world is down here right now. Well… except for the ones in the accounting department.”
“Accounting department? Why do you need an accounting department?”
“Aw, Santa. Don’t you know that rabbits multiply?” He bellowed with laughter, slapping his haunches over how clever his joke was. “Ah, it only happens like every sixty years, but I love when April Fool’s Day and Easter go together.”
Santa did not have to struggle to refrain from laughing.
“So I just deliver the goods, right?” Santa asked. “That should be simple enough. This, at least, I’m used to.” He looked at the basket, towering over him, but felt no intimidation. His sack of toys on Christmas Eve dwarfed this basket, but when he reached out for it, it always adjusted to fit his grip. He had a suspicion the basket would do the same. He was right.
Once the enormous bulk of the basket had become portable, Santa picked it up and glanced at the Bunny. “So, how do we do this?”
“Well, I usually load the kids’ baskets with candy first, then–”
“No, I mean… How do you get there? I don’t see a sleigh.”
The Bunny’s whiskers pricked with laughter, and Santa thought he was about to be the recipient of another delightful early April Fool’s gag, but instead, the Bunny twirled his carrot-cane in the air and brought it down, walloping him on the head. The impact only hurt for a moment, but Santa barely noticed it in contrast to the other sensation he felt. His legs tightened and compacted, and he felt an odd coiling in his knees, like springs tensing. Then, like springs, his legs popped out, and Santa bounded into the air. Zooming up, he hurtled through a tunnel in the Earth and up into the night sky… and he kept going. Air whipped his face and his beard beat against his chest like a flag in a gale. He tried to shut his eyes against the wind, but opened them out of instinct when he felt himself arching downwards. In a sight that reminded him far too much of his sleigh crashing, he careened into an empty field some short miles from a small town. When he struck the Earth, though, instead of cutting a scar across the countryside, he bounced. This leap sent him, in a much smaller arc, towards the town. He bounced again, and again, each bounce smaller than the last, until he rolled to a dizzying stop at the end of a neighborhood near the town’s edge.
He rolled to his knees, trying not to throw up, and saw the Bunny bounding towards him in neat, dainty hops. “Santa, you’ve got to work on the landings.”
“Please,” he wheezed, “get a sleigh.”
After too many minutes of allowing his stomach to settle, Santa walked to the first house on the street. He grabbed a flower trellis on the side of the little home, rattling it to test its strength.
“What are you doing?” the Bunny asked.
“Looking for a way to get to the chimney.”
“The chim — geez, Santa, that’s not how we do it here.” He whipped his carrot-cane again, popping Santa once more and driving him underground. Santa rolled through a tunnel that he was fairly certain hadn’t existed seconds before, bursting out on the floor of a charmingly-decorated country kitchen. The Bunny slipped out of the hole behind him, then folded his arms to watch.
There were two empty baskets on the dining room table and a familiar voice clicked in Santa’s head. Dylan and Emily Peterson. Nice list. Dylan wants a Lego X-Wing and Emily wants a science kit.
He shook his head. That was a Christmas order. He focused in on the voice again.
Dylan is allergic to peanuts and Emily loves white chocolate.
Santa smiled, reaching into his own basket. He loaded the baskets on the table with appropriate candy, then tossed in a few small toys and a stuffed bunny for each. That done, a tray of brilliantly colored hard-boiled eggs appeared in his basket. He lay the tray on the table and carefully arranged the eggs in a pyramid shape, then surrounded them in a garland of purple Easter grass for good measure. Satisfied with his work, he turned to leave, but the Bunny was glaring at him.
“Okay, so what did you do wrong?”
“What? Nothing! Didn’t I give them the right candy?”
“And the right toys for each child?”
“Yeah, sure, for Easter.”
“And aren’t the eggs arranged in a visually appealing tableau?”
“Gorgeous. And that’s the problem.”
“What are you talking about?”
The Bunny picked up an orange-and-yellow egg from the top of the pyramid and cracked it open on Santa’s forehead. He peeled away the layer of shell and casually began to munch. “It’s Easter, Kringlebrain. You’re supposed to hide them.”
* * *
Once Santa got over the mental obstacle of having to conceal the evidence of his work, the evening ran much more smoothly. In essence, mechanically at least, the Easter Bunny’s task was very similar to his own. There was more candy and fewer toys, but going from house to house quickly and quietly as a rabbit was second nature to him. If anything slowed him down, it was finding places to hide the eggs that weren’t so obvious the children would finish the hunt in thirty seconds, but not so difficult that they would face an unexpected stench in a few days. The Bunny stayed quiet for much of the night, but put his enormous, lucky foot down on one specific point: hiding eggs under the couch was a bad idea.
After a long night nearly as prolonged as a Christmas Eve, Santa took one last enormous bounce and returned to the Burrow, rolling right into a cavern wall upon landing.
“You still need to work on that, Hoss.”
“Is that it?”
“That’s it. Nothing left but for the mortals to eat ham and candy and go to church one of two times this year.”
“Hmm. We really do have a lot in common.”
“I’ve always thought so. I mean… too many people forget it, but our holidays are kind of the two ends of a cycle, aren’t they? You’re birth, I’m rebirth. And it’s all about the same guy.”
“Yes. Tell me, Bunny, how do you think that guy would feel about you all keeping me away from my home like this? Away from my wife?”
“Ah, she’s fine, Santa. Talked to her the other day.”
“Nice gal. Wanted to know if I’d seen you.”
“What did you say?”
“I told her I’d let her know if I ran into you on my rounds.” He laughed. “The beauty part is that they weren’t my rounds this year, so technically I’m not breaking a promise if I keep my mouth shut.”
“Oh come on. It wasn’t that bad, was it?”
Santa didn’t answer. He was fuming too much to form words.
“You know, Santa, the others almost didn’t even bring me in on this whole thing. If you’re the number one Holiday Icon, most of the others consider me number two. At least, the ones whose egos don’t get in the way. They didn’t know if I would be on their side or not.”
“But you were on ‘their side,’ weren’t you? When it counted?”
“Eh, I straddle the line. I do a lot of the same work as you, get way less adulation. I get where they’re coming from, but I get where you come from too. We’re the top two because we do the most work.”
“Just send me back to Gary’s, Rabbit. And turn my friends back to normal.”
“I changed them back as soon as we left. I’m not cruel. But as far as sending you there… you could just stay here. I wouldn’t mind a partner.”
“Are you joking?’
“C’mon, E.B. and the S.C.! The Big Two Icons of the Big Two Holidays! Wouldn’t that be a blast?”
“And how do you think your friends would take that?”
The Bunny scratched his chin, whiskers bouncing. “I suppose you’re right. It’s really easy to piss off Cupid. Okay, then, buckle up.”
He whipped his carrot-cane around one last time, but this time Santa was prepared. He ducked and let the cane swish over his head, and as he looked down, he saw one last egg in the basket still dangling from his arm. It was larger than a softball, and shimmered like enamel. Red and green stripes wrapped around it, and it was topped with a clear snowflake pattern. He was still staring at the egg when Blinky grabbed his arm.
“Boss? Are you okay?”
Santa looked around. They were back in their little room in Gary’s home, the egg still in his basket.
“I’m fine, Blinky. Are you and Gary okay?”
“We’re fine. In fact, except for running out of lettuce, Gary didn’t even notice anything had happened. You?”
“Just another long night.” He picked up the enamel egg, turning it over and looking at it from all angles. “At least I have a souvenir this time.”
“You had a souvenir last time, Boss.” Blinky chuckled. “Looks like there’s a catch on the side of the egg. Does it open?”
Santa thumbed the switch on the side of the egg, quickly realizing his mistake. The top of the egg popped open and, from within, a pressurized jet of air sprayed an absurd amount of whipped cream into his face. The Bunny’s laughter echoed in his ears until he snapped the egg shut. Sheepishly, Blinky handed him a towel.
“Happy Easter, Boss?”
“April Fool’s, Blinky.”
* * *
It was, to Ophelia Hendricks’s way of thinking, the greatest Easter Egg hunt she had ever hosted. The food was perfect, the eggs were meticulously hand-painted and all of her grandchildren were at the estate to participate. Even the Bunny she hired was perfect — barely taller than most of the children, but somehow still cheerful, expressive, and interactive beneath the head of the costume. The children were having a ball, and when the Bunny slipped into the house for a break, Ophelia slipped in after.
“You were marvelous! Simply marvelous! The best Easter Bunny we’ve ever had, sir!”
The Bunny took off its head to reveal a small, smiling blonde woman with glittering eyes. “It’s ma’am, actually, but thank you.”
“My dear, I’ve been hiring Paulsen Party Planning for years, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before. Are you new?”
“New to town. New to Paulsen’s. New to kids’ parties.”
“Well, you’re doing a fabulous job.”
“Thanks. It’s not home, but at least I’m starting to feel like I fit in.”
To be continued…