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.
- Prologue-Christmas Day
- One-The New Year
- Two-Valentine’s Day
- Three-St. Patrick’s Day
- Five-Mother’s Day
- Six-Father’s Day
- Seven-Independence Day
By the end of August, the North Pole is traditionally in high gear. With two-thirds of the year gone, the orders for Christmas are beginning to take shape, the most popular toys and IPs are usually identified, and production is in overdrive for anything that could even potentially be that season’s number-one toy. Nobody wanted a repeat of the 1977 Star Wars fiasco.
As Mrs. Claus toured the shop, though, what she saw wasn’t what her husband would have wanted at all. Edgar’s snapping robot, proud in its display box, lined the aisles of the storeroom. There were literal tons of them, more even than she remembered seeing from the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle-Me-Elmos at the height of their respective crazes. What’s more, the factory floor was still humming with elves constructing even more of the robot.
Worst of all, for the first time she had the opportunity to examine the packaging. Most toy packages had a small emblem or logo representing the”manufacturer” (in essence, the licensee that the Pole had an arrangement with). In cases where the toy was a North Pole original, there were a few innocuous-sounding shadow companies that served the purpose.
This box, however, proudly proclaimed “Edgarbot! Another fine toy from North Pole, Inc!” And the logo for this new enterprise was an ice-blue stylized version of the workshop’s new boss, his face smiling from within a snowflake.
“EDGAR!” She snatched a box from one of the many towers of them, toppling a few hundred to the floor in the process. She threw open the door to Santa’s office to see him there, sitting gleefully in her husband’s chair, looking over what she could only assume were manufacturing details for the Edgarbot.
“Mrs. Claus. How lovely to see you.”
“What is the meaning of this… this Vanity-Bot? Where are all the dolls? The toy trains? The teddy bears?”
“Oh, Mrs. Claus, we always adapt with the times. Those things still exist, but we feel they’re joining marbles and yo-yos as more of a niche toy. The mass market is moving towards flashier, more interactive types of entertainment.”
“Did the mass market demand that the packages have your picture on them? We’ve always used shell companies for this sort of thing, Edgar, it’s never been about us!”
“Which is another thing we feel needs to be adjusted. It’s the 21st Century, Mrs. Claus, it’s all about branding now. Do you think Disney became the largest media company in the world because people like mice? They turned a rodent into an icon, put his ears on an ice cream bar and now they have more power than most sovereign nations.”
“We don’t want power here, we want to make children happy!”
“And we will, we will… but what’s wrong with letting people know who did it? The mortals understand. They’ve been plastering your husband’s face all over their cities for years, every Christmas season.”
“He never asked them to do they did it because they love him.”
“And they’ll grow to love me as well.”
A knife twisted in Mrs. Claus’s gut as she looked into Edgar’s cool, elfin eyes.
“What’s the latest word on the search for my husband?”
“Nothing yet. I promise, we’ll alert you the moment we hear anything.”
For the first time, Mrs. Claus didn’t believe him.
August 30, 3 p.m.
The second half of the summer had been quiet for Santa, Blinky, and Gary. They’d had no visits from any icons since July 4, and aside from a compulsion to buy discounted pencils and notebooks during the back-to-school sales, Santa had felt no seasonal urges either. He had, however, felt a growing joy for the past week as they approached the 30th — the birthday of Gary’s son, Warren. Gary’s own birthday had been only a few days earlier, but the celebration was deliberately subdued as they prepared for Warren’s party. It would be the first time Gary got to spend the day with him in three years, and although he was going to have a proper party on Saturday with his friends, on Thursday afternoon Gary was determined to show the boy the time of his life. He’d originally thought to take him out for pizza and to an arcade, but Santa had convinced him to be a bit more creative.
Warren bolted down the steps of his school and nearly knocked his father down with a hug. There was joy on his face an excitement that made Santa nearly burst. Although making children happy was his mission, he was rarely able to observe that moment of joy. By the time the children saw what miracles he had wrought, Santa was always long gone.
After hugging his father, Warren greeted Gary’s friends. “Hey, Nick! Hey, Bill!” The boy had, not surprisingly, taken to the two of them immediately. Santa was happy to note, however, that the child’s father was still paramount in his eyes.
“Where are we going?” Warren asked, climbing into the front seat of Gary’s car. It was a compact, and Santa had to hold his breath to squeeze into the backseat, but Warren had claimed right of passage in the front via a ritual known as “shotgun,” and Santa was nothing if not traditional.
“We have a little surprise for you, son. Nick has a few friends who hooked us up.”
Santa beamed while Warren looked quizzically in the rearview mirror. Although he had been cut off from his operations at the North Pole, Santa still knew a few people in the mortal world, particularly those who were in charge of what children enjoyed.
Gary parked his car in a garage a block away from a nondescript building, and Santa could tell Warren was confused. As they approached, though, and the blinking lights and colors in a third-story window were visible from the street, he started to get excited. As they opened the door, an outrush of air carried a balloon dog into the street, but Warren didn’t notice it at all.
“Where are we?” he asked in the elevator. Gary stayed silent, however, refusing to divulge anything until the doors opened and they stepped into a lobby decorated in cool blue and silver, with pulsating lights from every display. A young woman with dark hair and olive eyes beneath her glasses was waiting for them.
“You must be Warren. I’m Hasini. Welcome to Thundertop Games.”
“You’ve heard of our games?” she said, smiling. “Have you ever played 14 Days?”
“Are you kidding? Everybody plays that!”
“Well, I was on the team that developed that game.”
“That’s a job?”
Hasini laughed. “Well sure. You didn’t think the games just happened by themselves, did you? Hey, we’ve got a new 14 Days expansion pack in the works, but it’s not quite ready yet. Do you think you could help us test it out?”
Warren’s eyes bulged wide enough to serve a roast goose. “Really?”
“Thanks so much for this,” Gary said. Hasini just smiled.
“Anything for Nick.”
As she led Gary and Warren into the testing room, Santa and Blinky found a couch to wait on in the office lobby. Blinky smiled. “Amazing, Boss. Even out here, a million miles from home, you make magic happen.”
Santa laughed. “It’s not that amazing, Blinky. We’re past the dog days of summer, and my power is starting to build up again. Oh, it’s nowhere near what it’s going to be in the holidays, but it’s just enough to convince someone we’ve worked with before to do a small favor for me. Even if she doesn’t know who I really am.”
“I never understood the whole video game thing.”
“I liked the one with the gopher better than the one with the plumber.”
“Or… porcupine? Some kind of fast rodent. The kids liked him.”
As they waited they watched the flow of people going in and out of Thundertop Games. Most of them were younger — 20s or early 30s — many of them in jeans or unbuttoned shirts hanging on graphic tees. It was a far cry from the visits Santa had occasionally made to some of the larger, older toy companies from time to time. Everyone involved with the game company was dressed so casually it took a moment for Santa to be surprised at the man wearing the full red, blue, and yellow costume of a circus clown.
“Blinky… did you see that?”
“What, the guy dressed like Bozo got lost on his way to the TV studio?”
“No, I didn’t see him. And if you know what’s good for you, you didn’t see him either.”
“But you see… the thing is…
“There’s a thing?”
“The thing, you see…”
“Oboy, a thing…”
“The thing is that I’m pretty sure nobody else saw him except for the two of us.”
Blinky sighed. “For Frosty’s sake, Boss, it’s not even a holiday!”
“It is for Warren.”
Santa rose and followed the path of the clown through the door to the Thundertop office. He was only slightly surprised that walking in did not take him into an office, but into a large room festooned with crepe, streamers, balloons, and an enormous banner that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY WARREN!”
“What’s all this?” Santa said.
“This is my staging area!” The clown burst from behind an enormous birthday cake in the center of the room. “This is where I go through the preparations to make Warren’s birthday the best it can be!”
“Dressed as a clown?”
“Bonbon the Birthday Clown, that’s me!”
“You know they make entire movies about how creepy you are these days, don’t you?”
Bonbon’s shoulders fell, but the smile on his face remained painted brightly on. “That stupid movie,” he said. “I know, kids don’t really like clowns anymore, but the mortals haven’t agreed on a different form for the birthday icon, so I’m stuck like this.”
“What’s your game going to be, then? Do I pop out of a cake? Blow up some balloons? Pin a tail on a donkey?”
“Well, that’s not really up to me, Santa. It’s up to Warren.”
The room swished and swirled, and chimes played the birthday song as the world shifted around them. The large, brightly-lit birthday room was replaced with a small room, much darker, with Gary and Warren sitting at a table, game controllers in their hands. In front of them was a large TV monitor, a pair of colorful sprites bounding around on the screen, zapping monsters and dodging fireballs from various monsters. They were laughing. They were smiling. In fact, in the almost nine months Santa Claus had known him, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Gary so happy.
“You see, Santa, our job is–”
“Are you serious?”
“Bonbon, look at them. Gary’s birthday was Saturday. Warren’s birthday is today. Right now, right at this moment, they’re ecstatic, because they’re together. What do you think you or I could do that would make that any better?”
Santa shook his head. “I know you’re an Icon, I know that technically you fit all the qualifications that make the other Icons powerful. But birthdays aren’t like that, son. Most holidays — the good ones, at least — are about being with family or celebrating the spirit of giving or saluting something bigger than yourself. A birthday is different, though. A birthday is like your own personal little Christmas. It’s the one day of the year where it’s okay to be just a little bit selfish and want it to be all about you. Look at these two. They’ve already got everything that they could want. They’re together, they’re having fun, and they don’t have to learn any sort of lesson.”
Bonbon looked back and forth at them, playing their game and laughing. “Well heck. What am I supposed to do?”
“The same thing everybody does on somebody else’s birthday: you stand back and let them enjoy it.” He clapped Bonbon on his shoulder. “Stick around, I’ll save you a piece of cake.”
Bonbon walked back into the lobby and sat down between Santa and Blinky, who did his best to pretend he couldn’t see the clown. As he kept looking at him every 37 seconds, he was terribly unsuccessful. But after an hour of game time, Hasini led Warren and Gary back to the lobby. The childlike wonder in his eyes was tangible, and Warren was pretty excited too.
“That was so awesome!” he shouted.
“Remember,” Hasini said, “You can tell people that you played it, but you can’t tell them any of the content of the new levels until we release them next month, okay?”
“You got it!” he said. He and Gary walked on towards the elevator, and she winked at Santa.
“He’s going to tell every kid in his school,” she said. “We couldn’t pay for better marketing.”
Gary’s car was even tighter than it was on the way to Thundertop, with Bonbon wedged between Santa and Blinky in the back seat. The pizza place that had been the core of Gary’s original plan was now only the location of the afterparty, but it was still a party. There was music and more games and cake, from which Santa did indeed slip the gleeful Bonbon a healthy slice. As they ate and celebrated and pranced around, a group of costumed figures ran through the room. Some of them were cartoon characters, some superheroes, all of them doing their best to fire up the assorted kids there celebrating for assorted reasons.
While they rushed around the children, Santa realized that one of them was staring at him. A young man — or woman, he couldn’t really tell — in a Bixby Badger costume had frozen in place upon entering the room, and the cartoon eyes hadn’t left him since. He looked to Blinky to draw his attention to the situation, but the elf was already watching the badger’s every move.
Then, Bixby broke one of the cardinal rules of a a head character: he spoke.
Santa Claus shuddered, trying to play it off like a laugh. “Oh, ho ho! Ahem. I mean, I get that a lot. It’s the beard, I suppo–”
“SANTA! AND BLINKY!”
“Um… Boss, they don’t usually know who I am.”
Bixby fumbled at his head, pulling it off and dropping it on the floor as she ran towards them, tackling Santa Claus with a hug.
Both elves and Santa Claus began speaking at once, a chorus of questions and statements along the lines of “Where have you been?” “I’ve been looking everywhere!” and “Are you okay?” After long moments of this, the questions stopped and were replaced by hugging and joyful tears.
“Dad?” Warren said. “Why is Bixby Badger hugging Nick and Bill?”
“I’m not sure, but I’ll bet Nick is going to have a heck of a story to go with it.”
* * *
Penny wandered down the rows of houses, coming up on Mrs. Claus’s home. She only had a couple of fliers, one envelope, and the invitation to the Labor Day Potluck that went into the mailbot of every elf, but she felt bad even going there. Mrs. Claus had seemed to sad, so desperate for days now, and it broke her heart every time she saw her.
She knocked at the door. “Mail call, Mrs. Claus! I think Yankee Candle sent you some coupons!”
When she knocked, the door swung open, slowly creaking along its hinges. She looked around the entryway to the Claus home, unaccustomed to the still, the quiet in the home.
She wasn’t supposed to do it, but Penny put down her mail bag on the porch and stepped into the home. The den was empty, as was the living room. When she stepped into the kitchen, she found her. Mrs. Claus sat at her table, her back to the door, a cup of coffee in front of her. She couldn’t feel it, of course, but somehow Penny had the idea that if she were to dip a finger in that coffee, it would be ice cold.
“Mrs. Claus? Are you okay?”
The cheerful old woman said nothing. She sat in silence, unmoving. She didn’t even register Penny’s presence, something that had never happened before.
“Okay. I’ll just leave your mail here, then.” She laid it out on the table one piece at a time. “Some store circulars. Looks like a letter from Edgar. And your invitation to the pot luck. Are you going to make that chocolate caramel popcorn like last year? Everyone loves–”
Mrs. Claus’s hand shot out, falling on Penny’s and pinning it to the table.
“Did you say a letter from Edgar?”
She grabbed the envelope and ripped it open, pulling out a thick raft of pages. Penny stood behind her as she read. She didn’t know if she should — felt like she shouldn’t, in fact, but at the same time she couldn’t pull herself away.
“That treacherous… no-good… son of an…”
She turned and met Penny’s eyes. In all the years she’d worked the Claus’ mail route, Penny had never seen such pure, uncontrolled fury in her eyes.
“Penny… I need your help.”
To be continued…