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.
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.”
“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.
“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?”
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?”
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.”
“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.”
“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…