Welcome back, guys. It’s time once again for my annual Christmas short story, my little gift to all of you out there who actually take the time to read the stuff that I write. And while 2021 turned out to be 2020’s nasty, petulant little brother, there have been a few high points. One of those, for me, has been my serial story Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a continuation of the Siegel City universe that I launched in the original Other People’s Heroes novel and that I’ve returned to several times (including in a few of these selfsame Christmas stories).
This year, we’re going back to Siegel City and spending the holidays with a few of the heroes of Little Stars. This short tale can be read independently of the larger work, but those of you who have been following along may get a little more out of it. In a world where people can fly, teleport, lift a train or run faster than sound, is the concept of Santa Claus really so outlandish? And what do you do when you realize your friends aren’t believers? Let’s go to the cafeteria at Lieber High School to meet up with a few of the Little Stars gang in a story that could only be called…
VIC SAVES CHRISTMAS
“What are you putting on your list for Santa Claus?”
It’s a common question. Parents need to know what toys their children lust after. Kids on the playground want to make certain that their lists are superior to those of their rivals. Even certain adults, in a fit of playfulness, will ask the question in a coy attempt to determine what someone on their list wants that year. Andeana Vargas did not expect to hear the question, however, while eating lunch with her best friend and the human-shaped lump of metamorphic protoplasm they had taken under their wing.
“Come again, Vic?” Tony Gardner asked.
“I asked the two of you what you’re putting on your Christmas lists,” Vic Teague said. The chubby boy with russet hair smiled at them, slowly picking away at his cafeteria spaghetti while they stared at him, dumbfounded. Behind them one of the TV monitors in the cafeteria scrolled through the usual slideshow of school announcements and pictures, and Vic smiled at the clip art Santa Claus that accompanied the invitation to the band’s Winter Concert.
“Are you serious?” Andi said.
“Of course. I’ve been working on mine ever since Thanksgiving. I’ve managed to narrow it down to twelve pages, but I’m still trying to decide what else I can prune. What do you think is more important, a Powr-X Game System Turbo, or little socks with snowflakes on them?”
“Socks,” Tony said without hesitation. “But back to this list for Santa Claus…What do you intend to do with that list, Vic?”
“Mail it, of course. That’s what the youth of the world do when their letters to Santa Claus are complete.”
“Yeah, but…” Andi stammered. “Vic, you’re a teenager.”
“Technically, I am slightly more than two years old.”
“Okay, but you look like a teenager. And you’re in high school.”
“So…high school students…” She fumbled over the words. It was stupid, of course, it was ridiculous, but…somewhere in her gut, she didn’t quite have the nerve to be the one to tell somebody this innocent creature that there was no Santa Claus.
“There is no Santa Claus,” Tony said. He was far less hesitant than Andi. “He’s just a myth. A fairy tale. Something parents tell their children to try to bribe them into behaving.”
Vic looked at the two of them, his eyes darting back and forth. Although he had mastered replicating the human form, he had not captured the intricacies of emotional expression, so it was very difficult to tell what he felt simply by looking at him. Andi was only marginally surprised, then, when he began to laugh.
“That’s funny!” he said. “That is very funny! Right, all the parents in the world tell their children the same myth. They all just agree to fabricate this story year after year, and then the children grow up and have children of their own and play along with the same fabrication.” He chuckled. “I know I am still struggling to grasp the details of humor, but even I got this one.”
“Vic…he’s serious,” Andi said. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”
“You are dedicated to your humor! I appreciate this.” Vic beamed and stood up with his tray. “I know that playful jokes are a rite of passage among human teenagers, and are often a sign that one has been accepted into the group, and I am most grateful. By the way, Tony, your shoelaces are untied, and Andi has a large dalmatian growing out of her neck.” He chortled at his own attempts at humor. “I am very grateful to have friends for Christmas this year,” he said. “I look forward to reconvening for more non-malevolent joshing at the earliest convenience.”
He turned and walked to the front of the cafeteria, his empty tray ready to be scraped and discarded. Tony and Andi looked at each other.
“Can we just fight the time traveler again?” Tony said. “I think that was easier than this is going to be.”
* * *
Andi, Tony, and Vic were students at Lieber High School, the biggest high school in Siegel City. The school had gone through a lot this semester — robot invasions, zombie attacks on a field trip, Mr. Cohan’s history midterm — and Andi felt personally responsible for much of it. The chaos had begun when someone (she still didn’t know who) had released a video announcing to the world that the beloved superhero called Shooting Star was actually Carmelita Vargas, Andi’s mother. Since then, despite the fact that she had no powers of her own, Andi had become a magnet for weirdness. Having Tony and Vic on her side was one of the only reasons she had survived this long.
Tony’s father, Patrick Gardner, was a teammate of Andi’s mother. Particle was a super genius inventor with the ability to shrink himself down to microscopic sizes, a trait he’d passed down to his son. Vic, on the other hand, was more complicated. Two years ago their parents’ team, the LightCorps, had battled a protoplasmic shapeshifter called the Form, and in that battle, a chunk of the Form’s biomass had been severed. Tony’s father, ever the scientist, collected the small piece and brought it back to his lab where, to everyone’s surprise, it began to grow. They were even more shocked when it began to speak. The lump eventually learned to control its own shape and chose its own human name, “Vic Teague.” He was enrolled in Lieber High along with the others after Shooting Star’s secret came out — partially to have some added protection for Andi, but mostly because everybody agreed that he needed to learn to socialize with humans beyond what he got from TV.
They had not counted on the fact that TV would have given him a unique perspective on Christmas.
“Vic, we’re high school seniors,” Andi told him as they walked home from school that afternoon. “You can’t go around telling people you believe in Santa Claus.”
“Because some people aren’t as understanding as us,” Tony said. “One bonehead hits you hard enough in the stomach and his fist sinks into your flesh and your secret is blown wide open.”
“Also because they would hurt your feelings,” Andi said, glaring at her best friend.
“Right, that too.”
“I’m not concerned about my feelings. I know the truth, and I know that those who do not yet know the truth are simply going to have to wait for the life-changing Yuletide experience that will instill in them the proper Christmas spirit.”
Andi groaned. “‘Life-changing Yuletide experience’?”
“Yes. Three ghosts is a classic, it has happened many times. But others have had personal encounters with Santa Claus, or his reindeer, or his elves. Some of them do not encounter him personally but are given evidence of his existence in the form of a toy they coveted as a child. There also appear to be many small towns, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where businesswomen retreat around the holidays in an effort to form a pair-bond with a rugged single father. He may also own a dog.”
“Vic, for the last time, not everything you see on television is a documentary.”
“I am aware of that, Tony. But even fiction can be useful to reveal truths about the human condition. Is that not what Mr. Hooper teaches us in English class?”
Andi was forced to concede. “Yeah, but those are more thematic truths, literary truths, not…literal truths.”
“Think about it logically, Vic. How could Santa Claus deliver toys to every child in the world in just one night?”
“He doesn’t,” Vic said.
“Good, I’m glad to see you’re finally making sense.”
“He does it on three nights.”
“Beg your pardon?”
“Yes. In some cultures, the day of gift distribution is not on Christmas, but on the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. Others wait until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, which is the twelfth day of Christmas — it’s not a countdown, did you know that?”
Andi nodded. Tony shook his head.
“Furthermore, Santa Claus is not the gift-giver in all countries. In Italy gifts are delivered by the Christmas witch La Befana, for example, and in other countries they are delivered by Sinterklaas or Christ Kindel or–”
“Okay, okay!” Tony shouted. “Fine, it’s not the whole world and it’s not just one night. But still, think logistically. How could he possibly move so fast–”
“Speedburn used her metahuman abilities to remove every bystander from Lee Park in seconds during our encounter with Draugr. And she was not going at top speed. Extrapolating from her abilities, Santa and his reindeer obviously draw on a similar reservoir of power to accomplish their task.”
“Wait, Vic,” Andi said. “Are you trying to tell me you think Santa Claus is a superhero?”
“Of course. It’s the only reasonable deduction. His abilities are vast, he has a secret headquarters and a costume, he has battled and conquered the forces of evil on numerous occasions…I have often wondered why he has not been nominated for membership into the LightCorps.”
“Okay, forget the deliveries,” Tony said. “What about the toys? Where does he get all the toys?”
“There are a number of highly advanced builders on the planet. Malefactory, for example, has invented microscopic robots capable of creating more microscopic robots. What would preclude Santa Claus and his elves from using similar technology to produce toys and gifts in sufficient quantities to fulfill his orders?”
“How about his workshop then? People have been to the North Pole a lot of times, man. If he had a base up there why haven’t they seen it?”
“Light manipulation powers similar to Spectrum’s could easily render the headquarters invisible to anyone passing by. And if anyone should happen to stumble upon it, Mental Maid or somebody with her abilities could wipe their memory and return them to civilization none the wiser.”
“Okay then, how does he get into all of those houses?”
“Heck, Tony,” Andi said, “He could just shrink down like your dad and sneak in through any crack or air conditioning duct.”
“Andi, don’t help him.”
“Sorry, but you dropped the lowest hanging fruit there is, I couldn’t resist picking it.”
Tony lifted his glasses and mashed the palms of his hands into his eyes. “I can’t deal with this,” he said. “I can’t. Look, I’ve got to do a little shopping. You guys just go on without me and I’ll catch up to you later.”
“Positive. Let me forget this conversation ever happened.”
As he walked off, flustered, Andi couldn’t help but feel a little amused by the entire situation. Tony was one of the smartest people she knew, and while that intelligence came in handy on more than one occasion, she couldn’t deny there was something a little satisfying about a problem he couldn’t logic his way out of. Next to her, though, Vic was trembling. Although his face remained as impassive as ever, she thought she could see something in his eyes. Was that a hint of…
“Vic? You okay?”
“Andi, Tony needs our help.”
“Nah, he’s fine. He just doesn’t like being outsmarted because it almost never happens.”
“That’s not what I mean. Tony has lost his Christmas spirit. He refuses to believe in Santa Claus. If he does not regain his faith, his holiday will be ruined.”
“Vic, it’s going to be okay. Tony’s just a little frazzled, but he’ll get over it.”
“Andi, it will not be okay! People who have lost their holiday spirit cannot regain it without help! Scrooge needed his ghosts! George needed Clarence the angel! Kevin needed the creepy old man that everybody thought was a serial killer!”
“Turn off the streaming services for a second, Vic. What exactly are you getting at?”
“Tony is in trouble, and we are his friends. That means that it is up to us.”
“What is up to us?”
“We must create Tony’s life-changing Yuletide experience. Andi…we must save Christmas.”
* * *
It was the rattling chains that woke Tony up that night. He’d been asleep, dreaming about observing places in Lee Park from a subatomic level, when a jingle and clink of metal links roused him from his slumber. He opened his eyes to a blue blur in the corner of his room, limbs flailing about, and a low groan emanating from the center mass of the creature.
“Anthony Gardner…” it moaned.
“What’s going on?” Tony mumbled. He reached for the nightstand, fumbling for his glasses, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes before putting them on. The figure came into focus. Even in the dark room, it glowed with a sort of inner phosphorescence that allowed him to see every detail: a tall man, thin as a rail, with a cloth wrapped around his chin and tied up behind his stringy hair in a knot. His clothes looked as though they had once been expensive, but were worn and filthy as though they’d been on a man who clawed his way out of the grave.
“Anthony Gardner,” it repeated. “Repeeeeeeeeent…”
“Repent? Repent what?”
“I have come to give thee warning, Anthony…You must chaaaaaange you ways…” He pointed a bony finger at Tony, chains dangling from his arm and rattling in the darkness. “Change your ways and repent, for your hour of reckoning is at hand.”
“Vic, what the hell are you doing?”
The figure froze.
“I’m not…I mean…who’s Vic? I am the spirit of Jacob Marley, and I have come–”
“Vic, it’s late, and we’ve got school tomorrow. Why are you here?”
“I told you, I’m not Vic! I–”
“First of all, Jacob Marley was a fictional character. Second, even if he was a real person, why would his ghost be visiting me? Third, my dad has got security systems out the wazoo in this apartment, and only someone who is on the approved entry list could have even theoretically gotten into this place without setting off every alarm in the building. Fourth, only a shapeshifter could have snuck into my bedroom without being noticed and assumed the form of a fictional ghost. Fifth, Vic Teague is the only shapeshifter on the approved list that’s currently in Siegel City. Sixth, even if you weren’t the only shapeshifter currently in the city, you’re still the only one who would actually think I would be fooled by being approached by the ghost of a fictional character.”
Marley looked at Tony, the two of them sizing each other up.
“Booooooo…” he lamely mumbled.
“I’m going back to bed.”
Marley’s form grew shorter and plumper, his features shifting and the color returning to his body. As the glow faded from his form, Tony snapped on the bedside lamp. “Want to tell me what that was about?” he asked.
“I’m here to help you, Tony. I’m here to get you into the Christmas spirit.”
“I’m not Mr. Magoo, Vic, I’ve got plenty of Christmas spirit. I just don’t believe in Santa Claus. And why the hell would re-enacting A Christmas Carol make me start believing in Santa Claus? Santa Claus isn’t in that story.”
Vic stared at him.
“I admit I might not have thought this through,” he said.
“Good night, Vic.”
“Good night, Tony.”
‘Nice trick with the glowing, by the way.”
“Oh, thank you. I’ve been practicing.”
* * *
“He just wants to help you, Tony,” Andi said the next day on their walk to school. “He thinks you’re going to have an awful Christmas because you don’t believe in Santa and he doesn’t want that to happen. It’s actually kind of sweet.”
“Decaying flesh can be sweet, Andi, that doesn’t mean I want it all over my Christmas.”
“Wow, way to kill the room, dude.”
“I’m just saying.”
“Look, why don’t you just play along with it? Let him think he’s convinced you about the Santa Claus thing? Then he’ll drop it and everybody will be happy.”
“I’m not going to pretend to believe in something that doesn’t exist just to placate a child. It’s irrational. There’s science involved here, there’s logic, there’s the simple fact that there is no Santa Claus, and I’m not going to capitulate to somebody who doesn’t accept facts.”
“Okay, so maybe it’s irrational. But how rational is it to try to use logic to convince a ‘child’ of anything?”
“He’s got to learn some time.”
“Then let the world wear him down and wring the joy out of his life like it does to everybody else. If he wants Christmas to keep being magical, where’s the harm in that?”
“How is he going to feel on Christmas morning when he wakes up and ‘Santa’ hasn’t left him anything?”
“Um…Well, since you mentioned it…”
“Andi. You didn’t.”
“Only a few things! A couple of model kits, some LEGOs, you know how crazy he is about building things.”
“And how did you presume to get them into his apartment without him noticing?”
“Funny thing – I’ve got this best friend who can shrink, you see, and–”
“That’s it!” Tony threw his hands up in the air and started walking faster. “I’ve heard enough! You’re all crazy!”
“See you in English class!”
* * *
Vic backed off for a while, at least in person. He didn’t bring up Santa Claus and didn’t even really mention Christmas in general that much, at least not in Tony’s presence. However, Tony did start to notice a marked increase in holiday-related shenanigans when he was around. Mistletoe appeared in doorways where there had been none previously. Every time he opened his locker a Christmas card fell out. Bell-ringing Santas appeared on street corners with far greater frequency than they previously did, and although they looked very different from one another, every one of them had the same voice. In fact, Tony once glimpsed a pair of Santas getting into a scuffle down the block, one of them yelling at the other that this was his corner, dammit, and he needed to get the hell away from him. Tony changed direction and walked two blocks out of his way to avoid the nonsense.
It wasn’t until the last day of school before Christmas break that he made another major move. Tony sat down next to Andi at lunch, their back to one of the three TV monitors in the cafeteria. The monitors were scrolling through a slideshow of pictures and short video clips submitted by students of them playing in snow, putting up Christmas decorations and other assorted seasonal festivities. Tony, it need not be mentioned, had not submitted anything to the slideshow.
“He’s going to do something,” Tony said. “I can feel it. There’s something in the air.”
“It’s called holiday spirit, Tony. Breathe it in. Feel it. Love it.”
“I mean it, Andi, he’s got something up his protoplasmic sleeve and I have this awful feeling it’s going to bite me on the ass.”
“Oh, what’s he going to do? Show up at your house dressed like Santa? Turn into a reindeer and offer to take you flying? Make you dress up like an elf?”
“No, I’m fairly certain it’s going to make me wish he did something that simple.”
Tyson Pinkard walked up to their table, chuckling. “Hey Tony, I thought you said the school slideshow was stupid.”
“Then what’s with the video?”
Tyson pointed to the TV behind them and they turned to look. As Tony felt his lunch begin to curdle and lurch about in his stomach, Andi was overcome with an uncontrollable fit of giggles and had to pull her hat from her bag and laugh into it or else she would have overwhelmed the entire cafeteria. Tony was on the TV screen. So was Santa Claus. Usually not together – the video was clearly edited, but carefully so, and captions scrolled across the bottom to make sure everyone grasped the meaning of the story.
“Tony, don’t you see? Without Santa, your holidays just won’t be as merry.”
“I am sorry, Santa Claus – it has been so hard to believe in you ever since a car hit my puppy as a small child and you did not bring it back to life.”
“I am Santa Claus. I bring presents, but I cannot bring back the dead. But I never stopped believing in you, Tony.”
“I am sorry, Santa, I believe in you too now.”
Andi wheezed, trying not to suffocate from her laughter. “Oh my God, this is my new favorite Christmas movie,” she said.
As “Tony” and “Santa” embraced on the screen, the Tony next to her had turned seven shades of green watching it. “Oh my God, he turned into me,” he whispered. “He turned into me and he turned into Santa Claus and he made the worst short film in the history of short films and it’s all my fault because I’m the one who taught him how to use editing software when he had to make that video for our science project.”
“I mean it,” Andi said. “Like, Bruce Willis who? Jimmy Stewart? Adios! The kid in the bunny suit? Why don’t you–”
“Andi, this thing is a crime against humanity.”
“I know, I love it!”
As everyone laughed at the video – which now featured Tony and Santa hand-in-hand dancing through what appeared to be the Santa’s Village set up in Lee Park – Vic casually strolled up to the table and sat down. “Hello, everyone! Oh my! Tony, look at your video!”
He craned his head and looked at Vic in horror. “You sociopath,” he said. “What did you do?”
“I’m just here to show you the joy that comes with being part of Christmas,” he said. “Look at the screen! Look at how you’re smiling!”
“That isn’t me, you lunatic!”
Andi grabbed his arm, finally managing to quell her own amusement. “Okay, cool it, Tony. Let’s not say anything people shouldn’t hear.”
“I suspect it’s the sort of story that will only grow more beloved in the retelling,” Vic said. “Don’t worry, I tagged you in the post so you’ll be able to find the film and watch it again and again.”
“You put this online?”
“It’s the 21st century, Tony. Nothing counts unless it’s online.” Vic smiled so wide that he pushed the edge of maintaining his “human” face. “It’s almost Christmas, my friends! That means the time of miracles is at hand!” Beaming, prouder with himself than anyone Tony had met in his entire life, including Tony’s father who had built a time machine, Vic casually strolled away.
“This is a nightmare. This is insane. This can’t be happening.”
“This has 20,000 views already,” Andi said, looking down at her phone.
“What am I going to do? He’s not finished. He said the time of miracles is at hand? Oh my God.”
Andi struggled to compose herself. “Look, I know you don’t want to encourage him, but I can still think of one sure way to get him to back off.”
“Oh geez, you’re right,” Tony said. “I’ve got to let him convince me that there’s a Santa Claus.”
* * *
The fervor around the video eventually faded, some 1.5 million views and a few appearances on late night talk shows later, and Tony resigned himself to the fact that, one way or another, he was going to have to believe in Santa Claus again. Fortunately, Andi had agreed to talk to Vic. There was going to be no stopping whatever he planned next, they knew, but they hoped she could at least mitigate the damage and keep it from becoming another public spectacle. The worst part was waiting for whatever the last stage of Vic’s plan was to happen.
“Please just tell him to get it over with,” he said to Andi.
“It won’t work,” she said. “He’s convinced that the reason he couldn’t convince you before is because it was too early. He says that he should have known that life-changing Yuletide experiences are at their most effective on Christmas Eve.”
“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”
“Well, ‘Oh Santa’. I don’t know, maybe he’ll work on God next year.”
The anticipation began to get to Tony. He began to tremble in fright every time he heard a jingling bell. Every time his father or Andi’s mother were called out on a case, he half-expected to see them flying through the air next to a reindeer. Even walking through snow made him queasy, as he realized he couldn’t be entirely certain that it was snow and not the protoplasmic mass of a shapeshifter waiting for him to march through and pop up to begin some sort of Christmas shenanigans. It was shaping up to be the worst Christmas of Tony’s life.
When your parents are superheroes, you learn that Christmas usually goes either one of two ways: either villany decides to take the night off and you get to spend a warm, cozy holiday with those you love, or some bad guy tries to pull off the scheme of a lifetime and every hero in the city has to mobilize to put a stop to it. This year, it turned out to be the latter. Tony and his dad were putting up a few last-minute decorations when the emergency alert went off, and within minutes, Tony was alone in the apartment. Andi knocked on the door moments later.
“Yours too, huh?” he said, letting her in.
“Yep. Mom said it sounded like the Army of Anarky has set up some sort of camp down in Wrightson Falls. Might take them all night to shut it down.”
“Merry Christmas to us, I guess.”
“Speaking of which, word has it that you’re going to be getting a visit from a merry spirit pretty soon.”
“I don’t know if I should be irritated or just relieved that it’s almost over.”
“Oh, it’s not going to be so bad. I know what he’s got planned, just try to enjoy it.”
Enjoyment was not necessarily on Tony’s list for the evening, but he buttoned his lip and the two of them settled down on the couch with a Christmas movie. They didn’t get past the point where the squad of thieves took over the tower, though, before an odd scratching sound began to resonate above their heads.
“What in the world?” he asked.
Andi smiled. “Just go with it.”
As they listened to the shuffling, which made very little sense, as they were not on the top floor of the apartment building, Tony saw a swirl of color appear against the wall. “What’s this?” he whispered to Andi.
“He borrowed a holo-projector from your dad.”
“Dad knew about this?”
“He didn’t know what he was doing with it. You know your dad, he just likes making gadgets for people, he never asks too many questions.”
The burst of light began to twirl faster, spinning out and finally coalescing into the shape of a fireplace. There was no fire, of course, but that was by design. As they watched, a rumble of ash rolled out of the fireplace and, in the middle of the cinders, Santa Claus plopped into his life. Tony knew that the entire illusion was crafted through a mixture of his father’s technology and Vic’s shapeshifting powers, but he had to admit, it looked pretty real.
“Hello, Tony! Hello, Andi! Ah, my young friends, it’s so good to see you!”
Andi squealed. “Tony, look! It’s Santa!” She rushed over and hugged him, planting a kiss on his cheek, and Santa’s already-rosy cheeks blushed even deeper. “My dear Andeana, it’s so good to see you! Have you been a good girl this year?”
“Well…I’ve tried, Santa. I mean, this year has kind of been a disaster, but I’ve done my best.”
“I know you have. And you, Tony? Have you behaved?”
He sighed, forcing himself to play along and get it all over with. “Yeah, Santa, I’m good.”
“Of course. You know, Tony, a little bird told me that you don’t believe in me anymore.”
He held up a hand, arresting Tony’s excuse. “It’s all right. I know that a lot of people stop believing as they get older. But as long as you keep the faith, you can still count as a good boy.”
“Well, that’s a relief.”
“But listen, perhaps I can give you a little present to help you remember what it was like to believe in me.”
In truth, Tony didn’t remember a time he had ever believed in Santa Claus, but he didn’t think making that clarification would be helpful right now. “Okay, Santa, what is it?”
“Why don’t we take a little ride?” Santa pointed a finger and the window burst open. A gust of wind whipped into the room, blowing snowflakes in with it (even though, Tony noted, there had been no fresh snow for almost two days). Tony walked over to the window and looked out, only marginally surprised to find a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer hovering outside.
More holograms, he thought to himself. And the sleigh is a hovercar – probably another one of Dad’s. Vic put the work in, I’ll give him that.
“How would you two like to take a ride around the city before I have to move on with my nightly rounds?”
“Oh my God, I get to ride in Santa’s sleigh!” Andi jumped up and climbed through the window, taking a seat behind Blitzen. Santa smiled at Tony and gestured to the window. “Please, son, come and join us.”
“Oh, what the heck?” Tony said. All things considered, whipping around Siegel City in Santa’s sleigh wouldn’t be the worst way he had ever spent Christmas Eve. He climbed in next to Andi and settled in for the ride.
“Oh, one last thing,” Santa-Vic said. “If you’re going to ride in my sleigh, it’s best that you look the part.”
Santa wiggled his fingers and a burst of sparkles appeared, swirling around Andi and Tony and completely blocking off his vision. When it cleared, he looked down to realize his clothes had been replaced with a green elf costume, complete with pointy shoes and a hat with a bob that dangled down in front of his eyes. It was another hologram, he knew, he could still feel his real clothes, but he also knew what he looked like.
“Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t agree to this!”
“Oh, it’s cute!” Andi said. He looked over to realize her clothes had been replaced by an identical elf uniform. “This is going to be great! Tony, we’re Santa’s elves!”
“I cannot believe I’m going along with this.”
Santa climbed into the sleigh, grabbing the reins, and with a crack they lit off through the sky.
* * *
Even Tony had to admit, the view was unreal. Their parents were superheroes, both Tony and Andi had flown over the city countless times either being carried or riding in some sort of high-tech vehicle no doubt identical to the one being obscured by the hologram. But something about seeing Siegel City from the seat of a sleigh, the entire town lit up for Christmas, gave Tony a warmth he had not expected. Even down in Wrightson Falls, where there were sparks and flashes of battle, the light seemed kind of…glamorous.
“Don’t worry about your parents,” Santa said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”
In their guts, Andi and Tony both always had a feeling of unease when they knew their parents were out fighting supervillains, but they had learned to suppress it. He supposed it was similar to having a parent who was a cop or a firefighter – you always knew there was a chance that they could get hurt or worse, but you had to pretend that chance didn’t exist, otherwise it would be impossible to function. A column of green light burst into the sky, no doubt the work of General Chaos, the Army of Anarky’s leader. In his mind he could picture the LightCorps fending off the General, Corporal Punishment, Sergeant Slash and the rest of them as they tried to ruin Christmas for people in Wrightson.
“Let’s not get too close to the fight, Santa,” Andi said. “I don’t think my mom would want us over there.”
Santa-Vic nodded and cracked the reins again, veering the sleigh off to the west of the battle. As they did so, however, another green burst launched into the sky. Training in their direction, they watched as it soared across the sky, finally coming down in Kelly Plaza, crashing into the fountain in front of the corporate headquarters of the city’s largest bank. The crash-landing disrupted what looked like a Christmas festival. There were bands there, and people clapping and singing along with Christmas carols right up until whatever it was hit the ground. Parents had their kids – lots of kids – all in a long line leading up to Santa’s village, where a sign was hanging that said “FEEDING MY REINDEER: BACK IN 15 MINUTES.” All of this collapsed into total disarray when the thing from the green burst hit the fountain.
“What was that?” Andi asked. As they approached, they saw the shape from the burst standing up. It was a man, an enormous one, nearly eight feet tall and bursting with muscle every time he moved. Tony studied enough about his dad’s enemies to recognize him: Private Pain, muscleman of the Army of Anarky, and as he grabbed a Christmas tree and hurled it at the band, it seemed he had decided to take advantage of being hurled from battle to spread that Anarky a little bit further.
“Is anybody coming?” Tony asked. “Are any of the LightCorps going to come after this guy?”
“They may have their hands full with the rest,” Andi said. “I don’t see anybody flying this way. How about the ground? Speedburn?”
“There’s always a flash of lightning when she runs at super-speed,” Tony said. “There’s nothing coming this way.”
Beneath them, Private Pain roared at the crowd, which buckled away in panic. Tony saw a pair of small children ripped away from their mother, who got pulled into the crowd. They were screaming, and flailing, and moments away from being trampled.
“Oh my God. Vic, take us down!”
“Vic, take us down there right now!”
Santa looked at him for a split-second, the joy falling away from his eyes, but turned his sleigh down. As they approached, Tony reached for his belt. He didn’t use it often, but he always wore a belt with some of his father’s tricks built into it – including a jetpack that was strong enough to work on somebody tiny. He leapt from the sleigh, shrinking as he went, and flew down to where the kids were screaming. He didn’t go all the way down – a three-inch rescue wouldn’t work here – but he calculated that the belt could carry his own weight and the two kids, at least far enough to escape the crowd, if he didn’t get any smaller than 40 inches or so. He swooped down, grabbing one child in each hand, and rocketed up and away from the crowd. The jetpack sputtered, overtaxing itself, and he knew he didn’t have a long flight ahead.
“The snow!” he shouted. There was a large pile of fake cotton snow surrounding a Santa village, and he aimed for that. He dropped the kids into the cotton before banking himself, crashing into the manger of the nearby nativity scene.
He brushed himself off, his head spinning from the rescue. The kids looked okay – scared, but okay – as he staggered over to them. “Are you all right?” he asked.
Closer, he could see that he was looking at a girl of about six years old and a smaller child, four maybe, her little sister. The older girl was staring at him in wide-eyed amazement. “Are you an elf?” she said.
“Am I a–” he cut himself off. The hologram that covered his real clothes was still there. He was wearing all green, with pointed shoes and a stocking cap. He was slightly more than three feet tall.
“Yeah,” he said. “I’m an elf. Are you guys okay?”
In answer, a woman rushed through the crowd and grabbed them, pulling them to her chest and gasping. “Alaina! Lauren! Oh my God.” The girls clung to their mother, and the three began to cry together. For a second, Tony understood why his father did this sort of thing every day.
That feeling was broken up a moment later when another tree whipped past, nearly hitting him in the head.
He turned to see Andi and Vic – still in Santa-shape – facing the man. Andi had turned on the hidden force-field harness his father made for her shortly after her mother’s identity had been revealed, and she was allowing Private Pain to smash down on her with his oversized fists. The force-field could take the blows, and as long as he was concentrating on her, he wasn’t hurling lumber at children. Of course, it wasn’t getting them any closer to stopping him either.
Pain flicked his wrist, smacking Andi’s force-field one last time, then turning away. It wasn’t any fun to hit someone who didn’t feel it. Instead, he looked at Vic and bellowed, an incomprehensible roar escaping his throat. All around them, children were screaming, either because they couldn’t find their parents or because they were just plain terrified. Tony hit the button on his jetpack. It sputtered a little, but if he shrank down again, he thought it would work.
“Hey, you guys are okay with you mom, right?” he asked the girls he’d rescued. The older one – Lauren, it seemed – nodded, and he nodded back. He shrank down again, hitting a size barely larger than a marble, and flew into the sky. He rushed past Vic, buzzing in his ear.
“Hey! I’ve got an idea!” he said.
Andi rolled her ball into Private Pain’s back, knocking him to the ground. While he was down, Vic put Tony’s plan into action. He took a deep breath and began to puff up, growing, expanding until he was almost twice as tall as Private Pain himself. The enormous Santa Claus was mostly hollow inside – Vic could not increase his mass – but by stretching it out he could look giant. He stood up and looked down at the rampaging villain.
“PRIVATE PAIN,” he rumbled. “YOU’VE BEEN NAUGHTY!”
Tony hit another control on his belt. Size-changing was a tricky proposition. Vic’s mass didn’t change when he shapeshifted, but Tony and his father each got proportionately lighter when they changed size. His dad wasn’t sure where their extra mass went, exactly (he had once rambled on at length about it being “tucked away in a pocket dimension somewhere”), but he had figured out a way to bring it back if need be. As the giant Santa brought his hand down towards Private Pain, Tony flew into his fist and hit a control on his belt. The tiny young man suddenly shifted from weighing about the same as a peanut to having his entire 190 pounds back, all of it concentrated into a single spot barely larger than a dime. It was this immense weight that struck Private Panic in the back of the head, knocking him flat and sending him into a tizzy. As he did so, Andi unsnapped her force field harness and turned it around, projecting outward, and the villain was caught in a bubble.
Tony popped back up to his own size. “Everybody okay?” he said.
Andi nodded, reaching into her pocket for her phone. “Calling my mom to do some clean-up,” she said.
“Great. What about–”
He looked up at Vic, who was slowly returning to his normal size. Although the villain had been defeated his eyes were heavy, dejected, and Tony felt a lump of coal in his stomach. Of all the times for the shapeshifter to master the art of human expression.
“I’m sorry, Tony,” he said.
“Dude, there’s no reason–”
“I intruded on your Christmas. I failed to show you magic, and I…”
He was cut off when a small hand grabbed his arm. Looking down, he saw one of the kids who had been scattered in the chaos. The boy was maybe four years old, maybe a small five, and he looked up at Vic with a light in his eyes that rivaled every light they had seen across the city that evening.
“Darn right, he’s Santa!” Tony stepped over to the kids, shrinking back down to the size he’d been at when he saved the girls. “Santa’s right here, kids. Everything is fine.”
One by one, the faces in the sea of children began to shift. Terror and fear fell away, smiles began to spread, and before he knew what was happening, Vic was swarmed by children hugging him, cheering…every trace of panic was gone.
Vic – Santa picked up the first child and hoisted him up onto his shoulder. The boy hugged him. “I’m Nathan,” he said.
“Of course you are!” Santa said. “I know you, Nathan, and I know how good you’ve been. Now what I don’t know is…” he took a deep breath, opening up a hollow in his chest and turning his body into an enormous natural amplifier. In a voice loud enough to fill the square, Santa Claus bellowed, “WHERE ARE NATHAN’S PARENTS?”
A couple shoved through, rushing up to grab their son, smiling. The mother hugged Santa, kissed his cheek, and thanked him. He blushed again, and then he looked at the next child. “Okay,” he said. “And you are…”
“Val,” she whispered.
“WHERE ARE VAL’S PARENTS?”
As Santa Claus took each child, one at a time, and held them until their parents could be found, Tony shuffled off to where Andi was standing, hanging up the phone.
“They’re almost done with the rest of the Army,” she said. “Mom said that Blip and Turnabout will be here in a few minutes to collect Private Panic. She also wanted to know what in the world we were doing in the middle of a rumble and how could we be so irresponsible and she’ll have words with me later, young lady.”
“Love your mom,” Tony said.
A few hours later, the clean-up begun, the villains apprehended, the children reunited with their parents, Tony found himself, Andi, and Vic sitting in his living room, waiting for their own parents to return.
“Are we going to get in trouble?” Vic asked.
“Nah, my mom just worries a lot,” Andi said. “She knows I don’t go looking for stuff like this.” She sighed. “It sure seems to find me a lot, though.”
“Price of living in Siegel City,” Tony said. “Anyway, what were we supposed to do? Let that guy hurt a bunch of kids? Our parents will understand.”
“It was exhilarating,” Vic said. “I enjoyed stopping the villain, even it…” he trailed off, looking at Tony, then looking down. Tony and Andi exchanged a look, and Tony sighed.
“Vic, what are you talking about?” he asked. “You weren’t even there.”
“Of course I was,” he said. “I was in the shape–”
“Dude, I know what I saw. And I didn’t see you for one minute tonight, not until we got back to this apartment. All I saw was Santa Claus.”
Somewhere in Vic’s eyes, a twinkle appeared. He smiled at his friends. They smiled back.
“Really getting good at that glowing thing, man.”
“Yes, I know.”
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. If you enjoyed this story, please consider following along on the weekly adventures of Andi, Tony, Vic, and the rest of the crew. Merry Christmas!