I Rank the Universal Monsters

Today I watched The Invisible Man’s Revenge from 1944, and with that, I have FINALLY watched EVERY movie featuring one of the classic Universal Monsters. I have no excuse for the fact that it has taken so long. I have deep, deep shame. But hey, I did it! And now that I’ve FINALLY absorbed every film in their assorted franchises, I’m going to rank them from my favorite to least favorite. Absolutely nobody will care about this ranking except me, but I’m going to share it anyway:

1: Frankenstein. Not a surprise, I’m sure. Everyone knows how much I love Boris Karloff as the monster. Many people probably also know that I consider Bride of Frankenstein to be Universal’s finest monster movie. And anybody who has ever talked to me for more than 17 seconds has probably heard me ramble on about the fact that Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein is one of my five favorite movies of all time. Of course this was going to be on top.

2. The Wolf-Man. Lon Chaney Jr. only got one solo film as the Wolf-Man, but he went on to play the character in several “monster rally” films. He’s the only Universal Monster to have a consistent performer throughout the entire franchise, and he’s a wonderfully tragic figure at that. He’s just such a great character.

3. The Invisible Man. Pound for pound, the Invisible Man films are really entertaining, and the special effects are wonderful for the time period. The franchise is hurt a bit by the fact that there is NO consistency in the performer, that most of the films make no attempt at continuity with one another, and that two of them (The Invisible Woman and The Invisible Agent) make no pretense at being monster movies at all, but rather a romantic comedy and a World War II action movie, respectively. But the ones that are good (that would be the original, The Invisible Man Returns, and The Invisible Man’s Revenge) are REALLY good.

4. Dracula. This series would be higher than the Invisible Man if I was only judging by Bela Lugosi’s performance, but Lugosi only played the count twice: in the original and in the aforementioned Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein. The other actors who played the Count in the other films (even the beloved Lon Chaney Jr.) were…lacking. However, the franchise does get bonus points for the other 1931 Dracula film – the Spanish language version that was made on the same sets as the Lugosi movie at night after director Tod Browning wrapped for the day. The Spanish crew watched Browning’s dailies and made adjustments, often improvements, when filming their own scenes. The resultant film is not as well-known as the Lugosi movie, but may be even better.

5. The Mummy. I must stress here, I am ONLY speaking about the original series from the 1930s and 40s, not the Brendan Fraser series. That would be higher. But while The Mummy series started well, it got very repetitive very fast. The writers also got lazy after a while, not really trying to keep the films consistent with one another. For example, the Mummy rises from the grave after “decades” in two subsequent films, yet they still all took place in the 1940s. Then there was poor Lon Chaney Jr., who played the Mummy in the final few films and, frankly, was sleepwalking through them.

6. The Creature From the Black Lagoon. I should tell you, in case there is any question, that there is no Universal Monster I actually dislike, but somebody’s gotta come in last. The Creature’s trilogy is a fun burst of energy from Universal in the 50s, one last success at creating an iconic character long after the other franchises had been put to bed, but it was never as compelling to me as the others. The Creature comes across as more mindless, driven by pure instinct. It’s neither a beast driven by anguish or anger, and as such, I never really felt for him. It wasn’t until The Shape of Water (not an official Creature film, but come on, we all know) that this archetype really hit for me.


So that’s what I think about these guys. I love ‘em all, I do, and I’m terribly sad that Universal’s various attempts to bring them back in recent years have all fallen flat. I’m going to say it again: the best thing to do would be to bring back Brendan Fraser and Rachel Weisz as the O’Connells and use them as the cornerstone of a new Universal Monsterverse. But what do I know? All I did was watch all the dang things.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure seriesOther People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. There are ghosts in it, if you like that kind of thing.

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The Hardest Part

If you have a minute, I’d like to explain to you the hard thing about writing.

The hard thing about writing is not, as so many non-writers often assume, coming up with ideas. Ideas are easy. Ideas crop up like acne, shower you like a late summer rainfall in Louisiana, burst from your mind like a field full of dandelions. They’re not all great ideas, admittedly, but they’re not all terrible either. The bulk of them lie in that vast gulf in-between, an area of ideas which have potential, if only you have the time and inclination to pick out the best and cultivate them into something. Sometimes you have so many that you simply can’t figure out which one deserves your care and attention at the time. In those periods where I have been unproductive as a writer, this has sometimes been the culprit. I have no evidence, but if a writer came up with the term, I’m certain the phrase “a dime a dozen” was coined in reference to coming up with ideas. 

So coming up with an idea is not the hard part. Nor is writing the first draft. Well…relatively speaking, anyway. Writing a first draft IS hard. Looking at a blank page, as so many writers before me have observed, is intimidating as hell. The blank page is a vacuum demanding to be filled, and you’ve got to conquer your own demons of insecurity and self-doubt long enough to produce something to fill it. The blank page is an enemy that must be conquered, but sometimes you’re Rocky and sometimes you’re Apollo Creed. (In the first movie, that is. On good days, it’s more like Rocky II, and sometimes you’re Rocky and sometimes you’re Apollo Creed.) 

So writing a first draft is hard, but it’s not THE hard part. Nor is the revision process. Compared to a first draft, revision is easy. It’s taking what’s already there and making something out of it. First drafts are taking a chunk of marble and chipping it away into something recognizable. Revision is taking that chunk and polishing it, sanding it, and doing the detail work. It’s still work, but it’s not as exhausting or terrifying as the chipping away part, where at any moment you’re afraid you’re going to break it in the wrong place or crack what you’ve been chiseling for hours, days, weeks, and ruining the whole thing. It’s also,  in my experience anyway, less susceptible to being abandoned than that chunk of marble. Once you’ve gone this far it’s almost an insult NOT to go in and do the polishing work. Leaving it uncleaned is unthinkable. It’s a compulsion. It MUST be done.

The hard part of writing is the last part. Getting someone to read it.

There are thousands of books published every year. Millions of existing books fill the libraries and bookstores. Every single one of them is competition. How do I (and by “I”, I’m referring to all hypothetical writers in the world) convince you (and by “you,” I mean the person reading this with an Amazon tab open a page away) to read MY book?

Publishers are not necessarily the answer to this question. It’s true that they have greater resources than a self-publishing writer like myself, but it’s also true that they often decline to USE them. Except for celebrity writers or people who have already proven themselves capable of selling a million copies, publishers often simply slide the bulk of their authors into a pulsating mass of backlist, concentrating on that person on that reality show that was super popular last season and for some reason has decided they want to write a cookbook. 

So most writers are left trying to find the audience on their own, and that is not easy. If anything, it’s become more difficult than ever.

“But Blake,” you say, oblivious to the fact that you’re talking out loud to your computer or your phone or perhaps to some stranger on the bus depending on where you are when you read this, “doesn’t the existence of the internet make it easier? There are more avenues than ever, more places to spread your message, more ways to get your voice out there.”

Well sure there are, absolutely. And those avenues exist for everyone. Which is exactly the problem. More ways to get your voice out there has led to an exponential increase in voices attempting to be heard. There are millions of voices shouting for attention now, millions of people with something to say, and millions of people deserving the chance to say it. But no reader can possibly find them ALL, there are just too many. How do you stand out in the crowd?

If you’ve read this far expecting me to reveal the answer, to pull the sheet back from the table with a flourish, putting the solution to this problem on display, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That’s not what I’m doing here. The reason I’m writing this is because I don’t KNOW what the answer is. Writing this is a little exercise in therapy for me, trying to explain my feelings on this problem, knowing full well I don’t have an answer.

In a way, I envy those writers who have no desire to publish. There are a great many of them out there, I know. I see them in writer’s groups on Facebook, on writing subreddits, in a thousand other places talking about their WIP (work in progress), their FIC (fiction – often fanfiction, actually), their MCs (main characters) and their thousand stories they’ve begun and abandoned as soon as the next one of those oh-so-ubiquitous IDEAS has clawed its way into their skulls. And for them, it’s OKAY if the work never goes any further than their hard drive. I know they exist, I share memes about them on Wednesdays. They’re happy, it seems, just to create and leave their creation in a bubble. I do not understand this mindset, but I envy it, because these people seem to be satisfied with their station in the literary universe.

For people like me, that’s not enough. I want other people to read my work. I want people to tell me what they think. I want to hear from strangers about what I’ve done, I want to know that somebody enjoyed what I’ve been bleeding into my keyboard all these months. I don’t need to change the world. I don’t need someone to tell me my books are their reason for living. I don’t want people to name their children after my characters (although if you do, I guarantee you that your little tot will be the only “Malefactory” in their grade). I just want to know someone liked it.

This is why writers plead with you for reviews and shares. The websites that sell books (mostly Amazon, but they’re not the only one) all use one of those funky fresh “algorithm” things to decide what gets promoted and, similar to the publishers I mentioned before, they give more weight to those writers who are already popular and need less help. Getting sales, obviously, boosts your presence in the algorithm. But so does getting reviews. When a writer asks you to go on Amazon and review their work, it’s not because we desperately need that ego boost of someone telling the world we’re the reincarnation of Hemingway, it’s because we know that if you DON’T do it, no one else will hear about our work AT ALL.

So if you really like a book, if you really enjoy the story that some poor writer has spent countless hours carving out of a block of solid marble, the absolute best thing you can do is go online (Amazon or wherever you bought it, or even both) and write just a few quick sentences telling the rest of the world that you thought it was good. The second best thing is to buy several thousand copies, but most of us will settle for the first one. If you’ve got the time – and here in the U.S. it’s Labor Day, so I know a lot of you have the day off – pick up those last two or three books you really enjoyed, cruise over to Amazon, and leave a review. 

Your favorite writer will thank you.

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. Reviews welcome.

Happy Anniversary, Little Stars!

July 15, 2021. It is a date destined to go down as one of the most incredible days in the history of world literature. It is the day I first unveiled OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS to the world. That’s right – one year of Andi Vargas, Tony Gardner, and Shooting Star. A year of reconnecting with old friends from Siegel City and meeting many new ones. A year of adventure, surprises, mysteries, questions answered, and still more questions raised. A whole-ass year of fun. And with this anniversary, I’m here to ask you guys for a little bit of help.

Bear with me, I’ll get to it.

OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS is a serial adventure, with a new chapter appearing every Wednesday. It is set in the world of my novels OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES and THE PYRITE WAR (as well as numerous short stories), and it incorporates characters and elements from those earlier works, but it stands alone for people who haven’t read the other stuff as well. It is, of course, still a work in progress, but it’s been a remarkable year in the lives of Andi Vargas and her friends. A year ago, Andi was a normal girl whose mother happened to be one of the most beloved superheroes in Siegel City. A year ago, nobody KNEW her mother was one of those heroes, but as readers know, that’s what kicked off the story. A year ago, she could still pretend to be “normal.” A year ago, she didn’t know that she would travel through time. A year ago, she had never been to outer space. A year ago, none of our heroes knew that ghosts were real.

Interestingly, these elements of the story are all things that were planned from the very beginning. But other things – things that may shock you – were not. Keriyon Hall didn’t exist a year ago, not even in my imagination, and if I’m going to be honest with you, he’s become my favorite character in the story. (The same thing happened with Sheila Reynolds in the original OPH – she makes a cameo in LITTLE STARS, and it was fun to see her again.) The Rubies of Byrel didn’t exit either. Nor did Daystalker. But these were characters and elements I discovered along the way and, as is always the case when you’re writing a good story, you learn that these things were really there all along, but the silly writer just hadn’t unearthed them yet. Other things have not gone the way I expected – Blip, for instance, was originally expected to play a much bigger role in the story than he has turned out to have – but that’s okay too. You need to follow the story the way it unfolds.

So here, on what is kind of the birthday for Andi and Tony and Lita and Draugr, I’m going to ask you guys to give them a present. Y’see, I’ve still got a ways to go before this story reaches its conclusion, and I’ve always believed the more the merrier. I would like to have more people following along with this story – but that’s not going to happen if they don’t know about it. So first of all, if you know people who like superheroes or coming-of-age stories or long, sprawling epics, tell them about it! 

But that’s not all. LITTLE STARS is (currently at least) exclusive to Kindle Vella, which means that the Amazon Algorithm gets to decide how many people can stumble across it. And for that to happen, it needs reviews on Amazon. Even a quick one, even one sentence would be ENORMOUSLY helpful and boost the story’s profile. And while you’re at it, go back and make sure you’ve hit the “thumbs-up” button at the end of each chapter you’ve read. (Honestly, I’m not sure how those work with Amazon’s algorithm, but they sure as hell can’t hurt.)

And if you happen to be someone with a blog or a podcast or one of those Ticky Tocky things the kids like so much and wouldn’t mind giving a review to a larger audience, that would be pretty swell. Please, let me know about it if you do.

Finally, if you have absolutely NO idea what I’m talking about…well, you’re in the majority. If you haven’t read any of OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS, head over to Amazon and check it out. The first three chapters are always free, and each subsequent chapter costs literally pennies (between 30 and 40, depending on how long that particular chapter is). Then once you’ve met Andi and her friends, hopefully you’ll want to stick around and see where they wind up.

Shoot, I’M still anxious to see where they wind up.

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. You know. In case he hadn’t made that abundantly clear.

Screw It, Let’s See What Happens

There is a school of thought that says writers (fiction writers, at least) fall into two categories: the architects and the gardeners. The architects must plan everything meticulously. Every plot point, every character beat, every theme and turn must be prepared and calculated ahead of time, and when the actual writing starts all that’s left to do is the installation. The gardeners, on the other hand, don’t plan much more than where they’re planting the seeds and what they hope to reap from the crop in the end. Gardeners tend to the ideas like flowers or vegetables, nurturing them, coaxing them out of the ground, but often not actually knowing exactly what the final garden will look like. Plants are alive, you see, and difficult to conquer. It’s better to simply help them find their most beautiful form.

I’m a gardener. I tend to start with a concept (what if a reporter found out that the superheroes he wrote about were frauds?) or an idea that won’t get out of my head (there’s a little bald guy in my closet holding an ice pick and I don’t know who he is but he is FREAKING ME OUT). I’ll add in some characters I find interesting, and I’ll think about where the characters and the concept might end up if I put them together. And then I start. 

Now to be fair, very often the answer to where they might end up is “nowhere.” Sometimes the combination doesn’t work, the marriage doesn’t last, and I end up with yet another orphaned story opening. (So many orphans. I’m really quite ashamed of myself. Lucien from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman could have an entire damn wing of his library devoted to me.) But when it DOES work, and it DOES come together, this storytelling alchemy frequently brings me to a place that leaves me unable to imagine it any other way.

This feeling is at its most powerful when I hit a point I refer to as “Screw it, let’s see what happens.” You see, sometimes it feels like something in a story is not right, like a character is fighting against your plan, like you’re trying to find flimsy justifications to make them do something (or stop them from doing something) that they don’t want. And often, it turns out the reason for this is because the characters are smarter than you are and realize that your plan is actually wrong, and you should just let them do what they so clearly want to do, and figure out how it’s all supposed to fit together later. That’s when, as a writer, you should say, “Screw it, let’s see what happens.” And damn if that can’t be great.

I’m going to give an example that spoils several of the more recent chapters of Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, so if you’re not up to date, you may want to go catch up and come back. (I mean, you should do that anyway. It’s a good time.) 

When I started the Meta-Crisis arc, you may notice that Keriyon Hall does not appear at first. In fact, he hadn’t appeared for quite some time, which was making me sad because he’s become one of my favorite characters in the story (even though he wasn’t in the original outline – he’s that flower that you didn’t actually plant in your garden but that turns out to be the loveliest one). So I thought, “Well, the crisis is affecting the entire city. I should just check in on him and see how he’s dealing with it.”

As it turned out, the way he was dealing with it was trying to figure out what Andi and Tony would do in his situation, and do that same thing. Which was perfect, it’s exactly the way Keriyon thinks, but that led me to a problem. He was SO good at predicting what Andi and Tony would do that he wound up arriving at the same hideout as they did, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there.

Well, screw it. Let’s see what happens.

And as he’s there and starts to meet some of the other characters in the story, I realize that Andi is having a very difficult time talking to Keriyon, because she’s dancing around the fact that Keriyon didn’t know about Tony and Vic’s powers. And while they were dancing, Andi kind of informed me that she likes Keriyon, she trusts Keriyon, and considering all the crazy shit that was happening all around them, keeping her friends’ powers a secret wasn’t even ON her list of priorities, let alone at the top.

Screw it. Let’s see what happens.

So she told him the truth and Keriyon, being the unshakably loyal and positive person that he is, not only took it in stride, but decided to gear up and join them on the quest. And when we got to the end of the arc, and the “Young LightCorps” was revealed to the world, all of a sudden Keriyon Hall was in the picture with them. A character who was never supposed to be th– no, wait, that’s not right. He was never intended to be there. But he was most certainly supposed to be there.The stuff I’ve written since then (that you haven’t read yet) has convinced me of that. 

“Screw it, let’s see what happens” is recommended by eight out of nine muses. Ask Oneiros if “Screw it, let’s see what happens” is right for you. 

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 haven’t read it yet… well, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself for the spoilers. 

Adverbs

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.”

Stephen King said that, or something damn close to it, and I find it an interesting piece of advice. Adverbs, after all, are a tool, and tools are neither bad nor good, they can simply be used for bad or good things. So like a lot of the pieces of writing advice that are out there, I think it’s useful to pick it apart and think about what it actually MEANS.

King doesn’t mean that you should never, ever use an adverb in your writing. Pick up any of his books, you’ll see that they’re loaded with ’em. On the other hand, it’s important to decide if an adverb is the BEST way to communicate an idea. Great writing is succinct, and it’s important not to use two words when one will suffice, especially if the one is a better word. Adverbs are traditionally used to modify verbs… but what if you can replace the Adverb+Verb combo with a single verb that carries the same meaning? Not only is it more succinct, but it’s also often more evocative.

Quickly moved? Try “hustled” instead.

Nervously shook? How about “shuddered”?

Or the sentence I was working on when I decided to write this post: I had written the dreary word combo “slowly walked,” and it occurred to me that “crept” was a much better word to use.

So there ya go, friends: a piece of advice from a master like King, a piece of probably unnecessary exposition of that advice from an amateur like me, and most importantly, this allowed me to procrastinate a little while I should actually have been working on my story. And that’s what writers all live for.

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. Okay, that’s about all the procrastination he can get away with right now.

A new way to read Little Stars!

Guys. I have got THE BEST NEWS.

For months now, I’ve been dutifully sharing a new episode of Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. And it’s an amazing adventure! A young woman has her life completely turned upside-down when her mother is revealed to be the world’s most popular superhero! We’ve got teen drama, action, comedy, time travel, ghosts – pretty much everything you love in a superhero universe all rolled up into one weekly package. PLUS, it features several of your old pals from my novel Other People’s Heroes!

HOWEVER… up until now there’s been one major obstacle. Vella series weren’t native in every Kindle App! You could get it on iOS, but if you have any other device (even Amazon’s own Kindle device), the only way to read a Vella book is to open it up in a web browser. And boy, can that be a pain in the butt, right?

But now, in case you hadn’t heard, Amazon has expanded Vella support to Android as well! So that means if you’ve got an Android device with the Amazon Kindle app, you can read all 27 episodes (so far!) of OPH: Little Stars right now! And if that wasn’t enough to convince you, the first three episodes are free!

So if you haven’t joined the multitude of fans out there enjoying Little Stars week after week, now’s the time to jump in and do it! 

As for those of you with other types of devices or in markets outside of the USA… I really want the story to get to you guys too, but ultimately, I’ve got no control over that. Your best bet is to shoot a message to Amazon and let ‘em know that you’re waiting. 

So click here to check out the first few episodes. Read them, love them, click the “thumbs-up” button at the end and drop a review. Then keep going and read the other 24 while you’re at it. Thanks!

Christmas 2021: Vic Saves Christmas

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?”

“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.”

“Why not?”

“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.”

“You sure?”

“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…

Worry?

“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!”

“You’re crazy!”

*   *   *

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.”

“It is.”

“Then what’s with the video?”

“The what?”

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.”

“Well…”

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.”

“Wait, what?”

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? But–”

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.

“Santa?”

“No, I’m…”

“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!

80,000 and counting…

Can I just, though, for a minute?

A couple of years ago I had an idea for a story. And I took some notes and I puttered around on it a little, but ultimately it went nowhere. The thing is, it wasn’t an idea for a novel. It was… bigger than that. It was a very longform yarn (I hesitate to use the word “epic” because it kind of sounds pretentious, but in terms of length I can’t think of a better word to describe it), one larger in scope than a single novel. It wouldn’t really work as a SERIES of novels either, though, because the story contains dozens of arcs and episodes: some long, some short, some standalone, some interconnected. It includes a large cast of characters that would grow and develop and learn and change over time. If anything it felt like this was a project best suited either to the kind of storytelling we see in television or comic books — connected episodes, each a part of a whole, but with flexibility and a rhythm that novels don’t really have.

Now I don’t know anyone who owns a TV studio, and even if I did, I know enough about the industry to know that even if there WERE somebody interested in my story, I’d lose control over it almost immediately.

Comic books would have been perfect — this WAS the next installment in my superhero universe that began in the novel Other People’s Heroes, after all — but I don’t have a publisher, nor do I have the money to hire an artist to work with me. And I especially don’t have the skill to draw it myself.

So for these reasons (plus, if I’m being entirely honest, I don’t think I was in the proper mental state to really devote to this story at the time), it was put on the back burner. Now guys, my back burner is CROWDED. There are a LOT of stories there — books, short stories, scripts, comic book ideas — all sitting and spilling into each other and getting moldy. And I feel guilty every time I put something else there, because I fear in my heart it will never leave.

Then this spring, Amazon announced its Kindle Vella platform — a service via which writers could publish a story one. Short. Episode. At. A. Time.

For the first time in ages, I went to the back burner and took something off, bringing it back to the front.

I’ve been working on OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS since then. It launched in July, and except for a Hurricane Ida-caused blackout in September, I’ve posted a new episode every Wednesday.

As of today, I’m about 80,000 words into the story, and I’m not close to finished. For comparison, the original OPH novel clocks in around 90,000 words. This is the point where a novel is ramping up to the conclusion. In LITTLE STARS, today my main characters have just discovered their FIRST clue as to what is REALLY going on.

And my goodness, it feels phenomenal.

I’m not saying this just because I hope you’re reading it (although I very much DO hope you’re reading it). I’m saying it because it’s been a long time since I had a fire under me when it came to writing. And for that long time it was like there was a hole in my life. There was something missing, something I had lost. I feel like I’ve got my hooks in it again. I feel like I’m reeling in something special.

Everyone ought to feel that way, don’t you think?

Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars in the Amazon Kindle Vella Store

QuaranTidbits

QuaranTidbitsLike so many of you, I am stuck at home for an indeterminate amount of time. This whole COVID-19 thing has closed down schools for a month (or more) and I’m doing my best to leave the house as little as possible. And like so many of you, I’m trying to find some way to be productive during this chaotic time. I’m trying to write, jotting down little things, pulling together scraps… maybe even hoping to find a way to a larger project as things continue to shake out.

My solution? A little folder o’ fun I’m calling QuaranTidbits.

I’ve watched other artistic friends of mine looking for ways to stay in touch with the universe during this situation. Musicians are doing live performances online, artists are teaching drawing via Facebook… these are all great things. Writing, however, does not necessarily lend itself to live streaming. I heard once that Harlan Ellison used to set up shop in a bookstore window, write a short story, and tape each page to the glass as he finished. Frankly, I am no Harlan Ellison, and I’m not sure if that technique would work in a world of social distancing anyway.

So instead, I decided to create this folder, make it free to read for anyone who wants it, and fill it with little bits and pieces of writing. Some of the things you find here will be things I’ve shared before, while others will be bite-size pieces of other projects. I hope I’ll even come up with new stuff to add here as the Coronapocalypse progresses. Among the things you’ll find here are a selection of short stories set in the world of my Siegel City novels, selections from my humor book Everything You Need to Know to Survive English Class, and the entire first volume of my film study series, Reel to Reel: Mutants, Monsters, and Madmen, in which I analyze and discuss some of the most important and influential horror movies of all time (up until 2012, when I wrote it). Since there’s no telling how long this thing will last, I’ll probably end up adding other things as we go along, and my “Apocalypse Journal” document will probably get a mini-update at least once a day, so keep checking back!

I do this because I have to. I have an itch to create and put something out there in the world, and many of the avenues I would have used in the past are not practical, for one reason or another. This is a weird little experiment, I know, and it may end in dismal failure. If you like what you read, though, I invite and encourage you to share this folder with anybody else you think would enjoy it. (If you REALLY like it, it wouldn’t hurt my feelings at all if you checked out my author’s page on Amazon.com and helped yourself to some more substantial reads in this age of Corona.)

So poke around, have fun, stay safe, and wash your hands.

Preparing to go back to class

Summer is rapidly approaching, my friends, but as any teacher will tell you, that doesn’t mean the work ends. In fact, I’ve been thinking for a few weeks now about heading back to English Class.

No no. This one.
RevolvingDoor

You see, my friends, although I was certain that the original 180 pages of sheer brilliance was more than enough to encapsulate the totality of literature from the dawn of time right up to modern classics like the Chicken Soup For the Soul books, some people have informed me that some of their favorite works somehow escaped our notice. Some people feel as though it would be in everyone’s best interest if I fired up the ol’ lecture series and prepared future installments. Some people would really like it if there were another English book to sell to the people who tell me they enjoyed the first one.

So although it is not going to materialize very soon, I’ve begun work on Everything Else You Need to Know to Survive English Class. Unlike the first book, which was arranged more or less chronologically, the new book will be divided into sections dedicated to different types of writing that maybe didn’t get a lot of attention first time. I’ve begun sections on children’s literature, drama (that’s plays, not Jerry Springer), poetry, and graphic novels (that’s comic books, not Fifty Shades of Gray), although there will probably be more sections before all is said and done.

But, in the spirit of true educational equality, I would like to hear from you, the knowledge-seekers of the world. What are some authors, stories, great works of art that were not included in the first book that you would like to see included in the next edition? You can drop your suggestions in the comments, or email me at BlakeMPetit@gmail.com.

Not sure what was included in the first book? NO PROBLEM! You can still purchase it for surprisingly few American dollars in either print or ebook format at Amazon.com. And if you stick around my author’s page on Facebook, I may be dropping little bits and pieces from both the original and the sequel as I work on the new volume.

So please, let me know what you want me to cover, sharpen your pencils, and get ready. Class is back in session.