Santa’s Odyssey: Independence Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Seven: Independence Day

Penelope was an elf from the mail room. The most important part of her job, one she took very seriously, was to collect the letters from children all over the world, open them, and catalogue their requests. Other elves would then cross-reference the letters with the naughty and nice list, determine to what extent the orders would be fulfilled, and then send the information on to the packaging department. It was, arguably, one of the most critical jobs at the North Pole. However, during the summer months in the Northern Hemisphere, children were not yet concerned with Christmas and writing their letters to Santa, so mail room elves — although omnipresent at the Pole — had a lot of downtime. They wandered the factory, delivering catalogues and magazines and birthday cards to those elves who were receiving them, and spending a lot of time talking to the people they were delivering to simply because they had no other way to occupy their time.

Penny, as it turned out, was the perfect information-gathering elf for Mrs. Claus.

“Morning, Mrs. C!” Penny called out, knocking on her door. “I’ve got your new Oriental Trading for this month!”

Mrs. Claus opened the door, beaming. “Wonderful dear. Would you care to come in for some cookies? Star-shaped, freshly baked.”

“Don’t mind if I do!” Penny glanced behind her at the elves walking by on the street. Several of them waved to Mrs. Claus. None of them paid any attention to Penny. This was as it should be. She stepped into the Claus home and closed the door.

“Well?”

“I’ve been talking to people like you asked, Mrs. C. ‘Hey, how’s life down on the factory floor? Is everything getting done? How is it, working for Edgar?’ Stuff like that.”

“Yes, I know what you were supposed to ask, tell me the answers.”

“Well, old Menelaus down in toy trains, he’s like, ‘Edgar is Edgar, y’know? He doesn’t let up.’ And Archie in wrapping told me, ‘Getting it done? What is there to wrap in July?’ Oh, and Telly said–”

Mrs. Claus put her hands up. “Penny, dear, please. Just give me the synopsis.”

“People aren’t happy.”

“Why not? Aren’t they getting their work done?”

“Yeah, but they aren’t really proud of the work. They say it’s going too fast, taking up too many resources. A lot of them aren’t pleased with that robot game he’s pushing so hard. They’re afraid kids will catch their fingers and get hurt.”

“I thought Edgar said he fixed that problem.”

“He researched it, but when he found out how much time it would add on the assembly line to put on some sort of finger guard, he nixed it.”

Mrs. Claus’s cheeks drained. “That’s inexcusable. He’s actually placing the speed of the line ahead of the safety of the children?”

“And it’s not just the robot. There are other toys too — an electronic game where the battery casing comes loose too easy, a doll with hair that can be pulled out by a baby… When the boss was here, people would show him these problems and he’d demand they got fixed. Edgar just looks into how much it costs or how long it would take to fix and lets most of them roll by.”

“That’s it. I’m going to have a little talk with him right now.”

“Beg your pardon, Mrs. C., but I don’t think that will do any good.”

“Why not?”

“Because a lot of people have come to him with these complaints, and nobody has listened. A few people have even been fired.”

Fired? How do you fire an elf?”

“I don’t know, but I’m told Benjy got kicked off the Bobblehead line and nobody has seen him since.”

“Well I’m going to put a stop to it! I’ll throw Edgar out on his ear!”

“How? The boss left Edgar in charge until he got back. You know how elves are. They’re not going to disobey an order from the big guy himself. Not even if you tell them to.”

Mrs. Claus sat down and covered her face. “We have a big problem, don’t we?”

“Yeah.” Penny peeked around. “Um… didn’t you say something about star-shaped cookies?”

July 4, 10:14 a.m.

The door to the apartment opened and there he stood in his finery: blue coat, red and white striped pants, brilliantly star-spangled top hat. His eye glinted and his beard curled against his chest. “Santa Claus!” he boomed. “The time has come–”

“Hey, Sam,” Santa said. He and Gary were on the couch, watching the pregame for the Nathan’s Hot Dog eating contest, Blinky in the kitchen marinating a few steaks. “We’ve been expecting you.”

Uncle Sam looked at them, dumbfounded. “What… your mortal friend… aren’t you even a little surprised?”

“It’s the Fourth of July, Sam,” Santa said. “I would have been more surprised if you didn’t show up.”

“But… Gary…”

Gary beamed. “You know me?”

“You’re an American, aren’t you? I know all of my nieces and nephews, Gary. But how do you know me?”

“Santa filled me in on what’s been happening. You guys really won’t let him go back to the North Pole? Aren’t you afraid Christmas is going to suck this year?”

Sam glowered. “You know, Gary, I have my own problems to worry about.”

“No kidding. I watch the news. It’s got to be a rough time to be you.”

Sam sat down on the couch between them, and glanced at the TV. “Nathan’s?”

“You know it.”

He sighed. “You know something, Gary? It is a rough time to be me. People are fighting, people don’t trust each other, everyone is convinced the darkest of days have come. You know what makes it really hard, though?”

“What’s that?”

“It’s always this way.”

“What are you talking about? Just a few years ago–”

“It was the other side that was up in arms. And before that, everyone was terrified. And earlier was that whole Watergate thing. And the Civil War, you remember that? Do you really think this country today is more divided than it was in the 1860s? Heck, even World War II was a mess. Today, your movies make it look like it was some huge, unifying moment when all of America came together and united against a common enemy and all that. But there were millions of people who didn’t support the war, even after Pearl Harbor. There were even groups that were pro-Germany.”

“I know. I took history class.”

“You know it, Gary, but do you ever really think about it? About what it was like? Or do you just watch The Fighting Sullivans and assume it was always that way?”

“The Fighting who?”

Saving Private Ryan,” Santa said. “You’ve got to update your references, Sam.”

“So Santa is supposed to be doing your job, right? What is that, exactly? It’s not like you deliver candy or fireworks or anything.”

“It’s going to be another internal one, isn’t it?” Santa asked. “On a lot of these holidays, the icons just absorb the emotion of the moment. Is that what we’re doing today, Sam?”

Sam looked to Santa, then to Gary. “You know what? It’s the Fourth of July. Let’s go to a barbecue.”

To Gary’s shock — but not Santa’s — before he even finished saying it they were outside. No longer sitting in Gary’s apartment, they were in a park. It was a long one, near a road that trickled with cars every few seconds. There were huge trees scattered for optimum shade and lots of benches surrounding play areas. Dozens of people were there with pets, coolers, and folding chairs. Children played on swings, a baseball game raged in the distance, and a half-dozen men in khaki shorts holding bottles of beer stood around a series of grills, each with a different meat. Gary saw hamburgers, hot dogs, ribs, chicken, brisket… his mouth began to water.

“Where are we?” Gary asked.

“America,” Sam said. “It doesn’t really matter if it’s any more specific than that. Tell me, what do you see here?”

“Lunch?”

“Well, yes. But there are people here from different families, different races, different cultures. Eating together.”

“It’s your melting pot,” Santa said. “Good for you.”

“This is what it should be,” Sam said. “Now take a look at another park.”

As he said it, Gary saw a blonde-haired woman looking in their direction. There was a moment of shock and she started to shout at them, but he never heard what she was going to say. After a brief ripple of disorientation, the happy people with their delectable brisket were gone. Instead, there was a mob. Actually, Gary realized, there were two mobs. On one side, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts denouncing the administration, their policies, and America in general. On the other, people held poorly-spelled signs and wore t-shirts in support of the administration, their policies, and America in general. Gary missed the brisket.

“This looks more like the news.”

“Of course it does,” Santa said. “Now tell me, Gary, what do you think there are more of today? Parks like this one, or parks like the one we were at before?”

“The first one, I hope.”

“Of course there are. But which one do you think will get more coverage on the news?”

Gary didn’t have to answer.

Sam shoved his hands down deep into his pockets and sighed. “My nieces and nephews, all of them. And they have so much more in common than they realize.”

“But the differences are toxic,” Gary said

Santa shook his head. “No. Differences are inevitable among mortals. If you go to the North Pole, you’ll see elves that all have the same goals and the same ideas, and they’re all doing what they’re told without question. And it works fine for me. But mortals need those differences. The problem isn’t that people have differences. It’s that they don’t listen to them.”

As the two mobs screamed at each other, the cars on the road crept past slowly. Most of them, at least. It was, after all, the Fourth of July, and it always seemed like there was somebody who wanted to celebrate his independence by doing something stupid. The screeching sound came first, but it was far too late to arrest the progress of the Jeep that didn’t realize it was driving past a protest. It slammed into the back of a compact car, which jolted forward and hit an SUV, which in turn skidded into the opposite lane of traffic and was hit again. By the time the chain reaction ended, some seven cars had been hit, were smoking, and were no longer moving.

The mobs had stopped screaming. It was silent.

“Oh my god, where’s my phone?” Gary said. “I need to call–”

“Don’t do anything,” Santa said. “Watch this. Sam didn’t pick this park by accident.”

As Gary watched, the picket signs fell and the mobs rushed towards the wreck. People pulled open the doors to the smashed cars, helping people out if they could. Someone in a shirt with an X through the president’s face took off his belt and handed it to a woman whose shirt bore an eagle with talons ripping up a United Nations seal, and together they put a tourniquet on an old woman who bled from the arm. The door to the SUV was blocked by the second car that had struck it. Six people grabbed the smaller car and began to count. “ONE! TWO! THREE! HEAVE!” With their backs turned and the fronts of their shirts obscured, Gary had no idea who had originally been in which group.

“There’s a metaphor here, isn’t it?” he said.

“No subtle enough?” Sam asked.

“No really, no.”

Sam smiled. “Well, that’s America for you too. We pretty much gave up on subtlety when we put on costumes and dumped a bunch of tea into the harbor.”

“So what’s the lesson here, Gary?” Santa asked. “Stating the implied moral out loud is also pretty American.”

“The differences between people aren’t as important as what makes them the same, I get it.”

“Almost.”

“Why don’t we fast-forward a little?” Sam asked. There was a ripple and Gary glanced down at his watch. It jumped ahead by two hours. One last tow truck was pulling away the SUV, the ambulances were gone, and except for some broken glass on the road, one could be forgiven for not knowing there had been a crash at all. The protesters had returned to the park and were picking up their signs.

“So they just go home now? Having learned a valuable lesson?”

“Hey, who’s that clown in the Uncle Sam costume?” one of the protesters asked, pointing.

“He can see you?” Gary asked.

“We’ve already gone through that,” Santa said. “Try to keep up.”

The protester waved his sign at them. “What’s it like, wearing a symbol of fascism?”

“Leave him alone!” one of the picketers from the other side shouted. “He can wear anything he wants! Ever heard of ‘America’?”

The anger rippled back through the respective mobs and they started screaming at each other again. Gary’s eyes bugged out, looking back and forth in disbelief. “But… just a minute ago…”

“My favorite thing about my nieces and nephews is how quickly they come together when they need each other,” Sam said. “My least favorite thing is how quickly they forget about that when they don’t. Come on.”

The trio blipped one last time and they were back in Gary’s apartment. Santa sat down and picked up the remote control. “Good, they’re going to replay the hot dog eating contest. Gary, it’s true that the differences aren’t that important, but that’s not what Sam was getting at. The tragedy is when people refuse to accept those differences. And I’m not even talking about the big things like race or religion, I mean when people get infuriated over something as simple as a costume. If your country seems divided, it’s not because people are farther apart than they used to be, it’s because you’ve been convinced that anyone who disagrees with you is automatically evil.”

“You said that very well, Santa.”

“It’s the same with the holidays, Sam. I knew what you were going to angle at before you even showed up.”

“So what do we do about it?” Gary asked. “I mean… how do we fix it?”

“You really want to know? How to fix something, I mean?”

“Well… yeah.”

He smiled. “Well, that alone puts you ahead of most people. Most of them would rather shout about the problem than actually solve it. But it’s simple — turn off the 24-hour news cycle of catastrophe, go out and talk to my other kids, and actually listen to them. And if you disagree, try to figure out why they believe what they believe instead of just deciding they’re stupid and have nothing to contribute. Most of the time, you’ll find that real solutions lie somewhere in-between.”

“You’re making a speech again, Sam.”

He laughed. “One last thing Americans are good at, Santa. Okay, I’ll go now. Have a hot dog for me.”

As he shimmered away, Blinky came in from the kitchen. He frowned. “Sam?”

“Yep,” Santa said.

“I figured. Well, the steaks are done.”

“Great, I’m starving.” Gary trotted off to the kitchen and Santa sighed.

“How was you Independence Day lesson?”

“It’s the same one people learn every year, Blinky. It would be nice if it would last, but… well, you know Americans.”

“Yep.” He patted Santa on the back. “Look on the bright side. At least there aren’t any holidays in August.”

* * *

Jim Clark put another hot dog on another bun, looking out at the small woman sitting on a bench by herself. He came to this park every year. He brought his kids here, had met his wife at one of these picnics. He saw the same faces one fourth of July after another, watched as children grew up and had families of their own. He had never seen this woman before, nor had he seen anyone at the barbecue look so despondent.

“Hot dog?” he asked her.

She smiled, but there was no joy in her face as she took the food. “Thank you.”

“Miss, are you okay?”

“I just…” She reached up and wiped her eye. “I thought I saw someone I knew.”

To be continued…

To be continued…

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Santa’s Odyssey: Father’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Six: Father’s Day

When Mrs. Claus walked onto the factory floor, she was taken aback at just how briskly everything was moving. Toys were assembled, painted, packaged and stored away quickly, efficiently. As rapidly as the parts appeared on the assembly line, a set of elfin hands snatched them up and turned them into something certain to delight a child come December. It would have been a remarkable thing to behold, if not for a lack of… Mrs. Claus rolled it over in her head. What was wrong? They toys were being made, were waiting in stacks of product as substantial as anything the workshop had constructed in the past. Perhaps even more — it was only mid-June, after all, and some of the shelves were as laden as she’d seen them by the Fourth of July.

It was the music, she realized. Or rather, the lack of it. In times past, the workshop was a constant source of singing, humming, whistling. There would always be someone happily creating a tune of some sort, either alone or in concert with their fellows. Today, as Mrs. Claus looked out over the thrumming heart of her husband’s operation, she heard nothing but the snapping, hammering, and rustling that was the inescapable byproduct of the work. Although the North Pole had a fully-functioning Multiplex (one could watch It’s a Wonderful Life any night of the year), horror films had never been popular there. This, then, was the first time Mrs. Claus had ever noticed how uncomfortable silence could truly be.

“Ah, Mrs. Claus! I was told you were visiting the factory floor today.” Edgar approached, a clipboard-laden assistant hustling along and trying her best to keep up.

She nodded to him. “Edgar. It seems as though you’ve got everything running smoothly.”

“Well, I don’t like to brag, but I am proud of how many toy cars we’ve turned out this week. You know, if it weren’t for the Lego people, we would technically be the largest tire manufacturer in the world.”

“How lovely.”

“What brings you here today?”

“I just wanted to be sure things were on track. I suppose I needn’t have bothered, you’ve done just fine.”

“Well, I don’t blame you for checking up on us, but thank you for saying so.”

Mrs. Claus watched again as the parts for the toys were rolled out, this time following along the line as an elf snapped on a set of arms and legs, then passed it down to someone else who checked the circuitry inside. As it moved along, she recognized what was being assembled.

“Edgar, isn’t that the toy we discussed a month ago? The one we decided was unsafe?”

“We re-evaluated it before we put it into production, don’t worry.”

“And you solved the problems?”

“We re-evaluated it, yes,” he said still smiling. She looked at his smile, curious as to what lay behind it. She had known Edgar for a very long time. He was known for his attention to detail and dedication to the work — it was why Santa had made him second in charge of the shop, after all — but Mrs. Claus also remembered how fiercely he had campaigned for that position. It was another trait he had, not as celebrated as his efficiency, but no less prevalent.

“I don’t suppose you have any news about Santa Claus?”

“Well, we’re still looking, but… I mean I need to prioritize. I’ve spent my time in the factory lately.”

“Of course. The children should come first, after all.”

“Yes, they certainly should.”

She nodded again and presented him with a smile as mirthless as his own. As she walked away, Edgar’s assistant handed him a clipboard with a list of names. Edgar looked down at it and his smile grew wider.

June 17, 8:45 a.m.

The breakfast Gary made for Santa and Blinky was, not to oversell it, magnificent. Eggs Benedict, fresh orange juice, a cheese plate… It was the best meal either of them had eaten since they were so unceremoniously ejected from the North Pole.

“You know, Gary, just because we’re old enough to be your two dads didn’t mean you had to do anything special for us today.”

Gary chuckled, wiping up some hollandaise sauce with a toast triangle. “Well, I lost my own Dad years ago, Bill. I just thought it would be nice to celebrate again.”

Santa and Blinky exchanged glances. It had been a month since they learned about Warren, but neither of them had attempted to broach the subject of their host’s son. Today, of all days, it felt to Santa as though he should do… well, something. As Gary gathered up the dishes and asked his guests what their plans were for the day, though, it was clear he had none of his own.

“Come on, Boss,” Blinky had asked him the night before. “Can’t you do anything?”

“It’s June, Blinky. My power is at as low a point as it gets. At least next month I’ll get a little boost from Christmas in July sales, but now? So far removed from the Pole? I’m practically mortal again.”

“Mortals can talk Boss.”

“Well… yes.”

But talking had proved difficult. After several aborted attempts, Santa concluded it was remarkably difficult to ask somebody about their estranged wife and child when there was no logical, mortal way to explain how you knew about such things. He’d dropped broad hints, mentioned Father’s Day repeatedly and asked Gary if he was going to do anything, and even made repeated references to Warren Buffet in the hopes that the name would stir conversation, but he was unsuccessful. Gary didn’t blink. And as he gathered up their breakfast dishes, Santa was resigning himself to the fact that he’d failed in this task, which — for today at least — had even superseded returning to the Pole on his list of priorities.

As Gary walked off to the bathroom to take a shower, Santa and Blinky sat across from each other, Blinky still rolling a few pieces of fruit around on his plate. “Boss, we’ve gotta say something to him. Do something.”

“What? Are we supposed to come up with some wacky scheme to trick him into calling his ex-wife? This isn’t some sitcom, Blinky.”

“You could just try being straight with him.”

By now, Santa wasn’t even a little surprised that a third party had joined them at the table. The man next to them had a craggy but unlined face with dark hair scattered with salt in his whiskers. He had on a button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows and a hideous tie hanging loosely around his neck. Someone trying to guess his age could land anywhere between 30 and 60, and nobody would argue with them.

“Hello, Father,” Santa said.

“This is Father?” Blinky asked. “The Father’s Day Father?”

“Being a father is a biological function. Almost anybody with the right parts can do it. It might be a cliche, but I think being a Dad is much harder.”

“Well, you know, he’s Father Christmas.”

He rolled his eyes. “Right. Like that’s the same thing. Finish your fruit, Blinky, do you think that stuff grows on trees?”

Blinky looked down at the cherries and orange slices on his plate, then back up at the father. “Yes.”

“So what’s the task going to be today, Dad?” Santa asked. “You’re going to whisk me away, make me spy on some father and son until I come to some realization about the nature of their relationship? Because I think I already know–”

He raised a hand, shaking his head. “No, that’s not my gig. That feels more like Mother.”

“She was a little mad when I talked to her.”

“Well, she’s always felt like you take the kids’ attention away from her.”

“And you don’t?”

“I’m used to it. You know, Mom has that tendency to protect her child. Always. In perpetuity. In the animal kingdom, the female of the species is far more dangerous than the male when her den is in trouble.”

“And fathers don’t protect?”

“Of course we do. But it’s different for fathers. Fathers know that, sooner or later, it’s time for the child to move on. Sometimes, Nick, I think you actually help with that. It gives us a small period of time, even from the time they’re little, where they don’t look to their parents for everything. Even if they’re wrong.”

“Wow,” Blinky said. “That was almost insightful. I’m impressed.”

The father smiled. “Hi, Impressed! I’m Dad.”

Blinky groaned and looked to Santa.

“Look, if you’re going to set him up like that, there’s nothing I can do.”

“So what’s the deal with your friend? Why isn’t he going to see his son today?”

“From what we’ve gathered, it’s his ex-wife. She doesn’t want anything to do with him, and Gary seems to have accepted that.”

“That’s not how it works. Not for a true father.”

“You know that and I know that. I don’t think anybody ever told Gary.”

Gary, carrying his shoes but otherwise cleaned and dressed, walked into the room. “Oh. Who’s your friend?”

“Um…”

The icon stood up, tightening his tie. “I’m Dad. Gary, right?”

“Dad?”

“Yes, Dad. The Father’s Day Dad. Like this guy here is Santa Claus?”

Santa and Blinky’s jaws fell. If he had been mortal, Santa was sure he’d be in the midst of a heart attack. But Gary just looked at them quizzically. “Well yeah, he’s Santa Claus, but I’ve never heard of some anthropomorphic personification of Father’s Day walking around.”

Somehow, Santa and Blinky’s jaws fell further.

“You know?” Blinky said.

“I’m not an idiot, guys. I mean, granted, it’s a little farfetched, but sooner or later you have to accept reality, no matter how ridiculous it seems. Long white beard, fixes everything, associates with a little person — no offense.”

“But–”

“You were hanging out with a leprechaun on St. Patrick’s Day. I’m pretty sure I found some rabbit hair on my counter on Easter — why did you think I let you guys stay here for so long?”

“Look, this isn’t about him,” Dad said. “What’s with you, son? Why aren’t you going to see Warren today?”

This time it was Gary’s turn to look shocked. Santa smiled. “We weren’t the only ones with secrets, my friend.”

“Come on, Gar, it’s Father’s Day. You shouldn’t be here with us. You should be with your kid.”

“How do you even know about Warren?”

“I heard you talking to your mother.”

“How did–”

“Santa Claus. I have methods. But I don’t know why. Tell us what happened.”

“It’s just… it’s his mother. She left, she decided she wanted a whole new life, and that didn’t include me. Who am I to tell her she’s wrong?”

“If it was just her, nobody,” Santa said. “But it’s not just her, is it?”

“No, but–”

“In the long run, Gary, what’s more important? Tricia’s privacy, or Warren having his father?”

“You don’t understand, Nick.”

“You’re right. I don’t.”

Gary stammered, looking Santa in the eye. He didn’t say anything intelligible, but there was a bead in the corner of his eye. He trembled, but turned and walked out.

“That could have gone better,” Blinky said.

“I’m not so sure.” Dad jerked his head in the direction of Gary’s bedroom. “He’s going to be on the phone right now.”

“Doing what?”

Dad smiled, then twirled his hand in the air. A drinking glass appeared.

“You’re not going to put that against the door to listen in, are you?”

“It’s a metaphor,” Dad said. “I’ve got my own ways.” The glass expanded, the outer rim ballooning until it was the size of the TV in Gary’s living room. Inside, they saw Gary staring at his phone, tapping the screen to pull up his contacts. The image focused on the name TRICIA. Instead of clicking on it, Gary just peered down at the screen.

“Come on, Gary,” Santa said.

“Go in there, Boss. Tell him something.”

“I can’t make him do it,” Santa said. “He has to want to do it.”

The phone trembled in Gary’s hands. Eventually, they realized it was the hands themselves shaking. Santa didn’t know he was holding his breath until Gary finally tapped the screen, and he let the breath out.

“Tricia? Yeah, it’s me. I want to come over. Yes, today. Well, if we’re being honest here I don’t particularly want to see you either, but I deserve to see him.”

“Tell him, Gary,” Blinky shouted, pumping his first in the air.

“I’m sorry you feel that way, but this isn’t about you. Yeah, there are things that aren’t about you.”

Dad grinned. “Daaaaaaaaang, Son.”

“The judge, that’s who. Remember the term ‘shared custody’? Yeah, I just remembered it too. I’ll be there in an hour. What? Tell him the truth. Tell him he’s going to spend the day with his Dad.”

Gary turned off the phone, and his face fell into his hands. Dad made the image evaporate before the inevitable happened, and the three of them sat in silence for a long moment. Blinky looked around at the other two, finally clearing his throat. “It’s not as satisfying as it was when you could just slam the phone down, is it?”

A few minutes later Gary, composed, came out of the bedroom with his car keys. “I’ll be back tonight, guys. We can talk about the whole Santa thing then.”

“No rush,” Blinky said. “There are a few weeks until Independence Day.”

“I’m sure that will make sense later.”

“Don’t bet on it.”

He left the apartment and Dad stood up. “Well, Nick, nicely done. You handled that like a Dad.”

“Wait, that’s it? We’re done?”

“Dads don’t muck around. We just do what we have to do. Mostly because we want to get home in time to watch the game.”

“Oh, is there a game today?” Blinky asked.

“You a Mets fan?”

“Gary is. I’ve kind of gotten into it.” He went into the living room and turned the TV on. “Do you need to be going right away? Santa isn’t a huge sports guy, I wouldn’t mind having someone to watch it with.”

Dad smiled and popped open the can of beer that he hadn’t been holding seconds earlier. “I got a little time,” he said.

* * *

Across town, in a small apartment with a small television. Eleanor was also watching the game. It was nice to have a weekend off for a change. She liked her job, but everybody needed a break. Fortunately for her, people didn’t typically throw parties for Father’s Day.

 

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: Mother’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Five: Mother’s Day

It wasn’t what the boss would have done, but it was pretty good.

Edgar rolled the toy over in his hands: an action figure not unlike many others, but with a few significant differences. It was longer, for one thing, but those 12-inch figures were becoming more popular. It wasn’t a generic soldier or superhero or video game warrior, but rather a sort of robot that concealed a secret. Again, nothing new. Transforming toys had been huge for decades. This one, however, didn’t turn into a car or a dinosaur. He tapped a button on the figure’s hip and his chest popped open, displaying a series of flashing lights, knobs, and switches. The lights flashed in a specific sequence: yellow, red, blue, blue. And Edgar’s thumbs hit the switches, trying to make the lights duplicate the pattern. He was successful the first time. The second sequence was more complicated: green, yellow, red, red, green. But again, he was successful. Third: blue, green, red, green, red, yellow. This time he slipped up, thumbing the green switch instead of the yellow, and when he did so the figure blared a horn and the open chest snapped shut. Edgar yanked his fingers from the opening just in time, then laughed as the figure’s eyes flashed and an electronic voice declared his failure.

“This is great!” he said. “It’s like that light game inside a toy! Kids are going to love this!”

Mrs. Claus, sitting in on the toy meeting, picked it up and rolled it over in her hands. “It snaps shut awfully quickly,” she said.

Horatio, the elf in charge of electronics nodded. “That’s part of the incentive. You have to do it right and do it fast, or you risk getting your fingers chomped.”

“The edges are rubber, it doesn’t hurt to get chomped,” Edgar said. He hit the switch to open the chest and ignored the lights. When the timer ran out, it snapped shut, harmlessly, on his fingers. “See? It’s perfectly safe”

“Is it?” Mrs. Claus pushed the button and opened the figure again. “Look, the rubber doesn’t reach all the way to the joint.”

“So? It covers most of it. Look, your fingers can’t even get into the part that’s not rubberized.”

My fingers can’t,” she said, “But you didn’t make this toy for me. Children have very tiny fingers, Edgar. Much smaller than mine.”

“Well…”

“Or even yours.”

He sighed. “That’s true.”

Mrs. Claus stood up. “I like the initiative, boys. I like that you’re trying new things and not allowing the… tornadic quality of this year to hold you back. But ask yourselves, would Santa approve a toy like this?”

Neither Edgar nor Horatio had any answer, which to Mrs. Claus, was answer enough. She smiled tenderly and left the room.

“Sorry, Edgar,” Horatio said. “I’ll go back to the drawing board.”

“Yeah,” Edgar said.

Then he sighed again.

“Wait.”

“What?”

“No, this is too good. We need to do something with this.” He handed the toy back to Horatio. “Look it over. See if there’s anything you can do about the pinchy part. But if you can’t, just roll with it.”

“Really? But Edgar, Mrs. Claus said–”

“Mrs. Claus isn’t in charge of the workshop, Horatio. Go on. Get to work.”

May 13, 8 a.m.

Santa and Blinky were sitting at Gary’s kitchen table, spreading jam on toast, when their mortal host came into the room. Unusually, for a weekend, he was wearing khaki pants, a light green dress shirt, and a tie.

“Big plans today?” Blinky asked.

“Plans with Mom.”

“Oh? What’s the occasion?”

Gary opened the fridge and took out a bundle of flowers. “It’s Mother’s Day, guys.”

Santa froze, toast halfway to his mouth. “Mother’s Day?”

“Yeah. I mean, I guess I figured you guys wouldn’t have any plans, since you’re…” He trailed off, realizing even as he said it that he was saying something stupid.

“It’s okay, Gary,” Santa said, letting him off the hook. “You’re right, our own mothers aren’t with us anymore. I guess I’m just surprised that it escaped my notice entirely.” In truth, he’d been so busy in the last month that he had stopped paying attention to the holiday calendar. After the Easter Bunny’s offer to let him stay in the Burrow, Santa had doubled down on ways to get back to the North Pole where they belonged. Blinky pointed out that Pole surveillance concentrated on children, but they had spent virtually no time in the presence of anyone younger than 30.

“Mortals are touchy about this sort of thing,” Santa said. “You and I know we mean no harm, but that doesn’t mean we can just start walking around an elementary school without being arrested.”

“Well… not since you got your ink, anyway.”

Instead, they had spent more time in places where children were likely to be: parks, toy stores, the zoo. Even then, they had decided to pace themselves. It would be far too suspicious if they went to any one place too often, except perhaps for Central Park. Even there, though, they couldn’t simply congregate around a playground. They became “walkers,” ostensibly roaming the park for exercise, but always doing so during peak family times. In fact, they had planned to do so today, but now Santa wondered if Mother’s Day would reduce the number of children available as they took their mothers out for brunch. Not that it mattered. It was a holiday. He would have other work to do.

“So what are you doing with your Mom?” Blinky asked.

“The usual. Taking her out to lunch. Trying not to let my blood pressure erupt.”

“Is it that bad? Now that I think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever heard you mention your mother before. Or the rest of your family, for that matter.”

“It’s… it’s Mom, you know. I love her. You love your Mom. But that doesn’t mean she can’t destroy you with a single question.” He saluted his roommates and quietly left.

“That’s rather fatalistic,” Santa said. He thought back to his own mother — a kind woman, but already old when he was born. She was slender, and had a face creased and wrinkled by a lifetime of toil. His parents had been relatively wealthy, but in the third century, in the country he called Myra but that today’s mortals called Turkey, even the relatively wealthy were weathered by modern standards.

“Nicholas,” she whispered to him. “What in the world have you been doing with yourself?”

The question stung him. Although he remembered her fondly, he hadn’t thought of her this way in centuries — interrogating him, asking about what he was doing with his life. Those concerns had faded some time after he became a bishop, long before he transformed into the immortal icon he was.

“I asked you a question, Nicholas.”

“Boss…” Blinky tugged on his arm. “Who’s that?”

Santa looked at his elf with a start. “You see her too?”

“Well… yeah.”

He looked back up at the old woman, lined jowls turned down and eyes glaring without approval. It was a look his mother had given him so rarely, but he knew, it was as sharp as a razor. “Of course,” he said. “Blinky, this creature looks like the woman who gave me birth, but it’s not.”

“Who is it, then?”

“It’s Mother.”

The woman’s cheeks turned into a sly smile and she popped away, reappearing instantly as a short, elfin woman with silver hair. “Hello, Blinky.”

“Mama?”

“Not your mother, Blinky,” Santa said.

“Not your mother specifically,” she amended. “Everyone’s Mother.”

“That isn’t how it works,” Santa said.

“Fine.” She rolled her eyes. “The representation of everyone’s Mother. Is that more to your liking, Nicholas?”

“I suppose it will do. So, it’s your day of power now — what task are you sloughing off on me?”

“Actually, there isn’t that much for me to do today. Typically, most people don’t need help to remember to do something for their mothers. The number of long-distance telephone calls made today are staggering.

“Then what are you here for?”

“People always remember their mothers, but sometimes they have difficulty relating to their mothers.”

“Tell me about it,” Blinky said. “You should have heard Mama when I told her I wasn’t going into bicycle maintenance like my father. It’s like being a security elf was somehow beneath the family or something.” He sighed. “I miss Mama.”

“Everyone who had a true mother does. That’s why we try to make them feel appreciated while they’re with us.” She snapped her fingers and a burst of wind blasted Santa in the face. He shut his eyes until the arctic blast faded, and opened them — not surprisingly — in a different place.

“Boss?” Blinky said. “What happened there?”

“I think we’re going to see people relate, Blinky.”

Instead of Gary’s apartment, the three of them found themselves in a lovely, terribly busy restaurant. Waiters and waitresses in ties bustled about taking orders, distributing drinks, and handing out flowers to every table, because literally every table in the place featured at least one woman who was clearly a mother. There were young mothers with babies on their knees, veteran mothers telling their children to calm down and eat their pasta, worn down mothers with their faces covered as their teenagers groaned that they were stuck there instead of being at home playing games with their friends, and seasoned mothers with adult children who realized that their teenage selves had been little asses and were now attempting to make up for it. In that final category, it seemed, there was their friend Gary.

“Hide, Boss! Before Gary realizes we just popped in!”

“Don’t worry, Blinky. I know how this works. They can’t see us.”

Mother smiled and pointed back to the restaurant. The woman sitting with Gary couldn’t have been more clearly his mother if she were wearing a sign. They shared colorization of the skin, hair, and eyes, and the small smile on her face matched the one Gary tended to use when he thought — erroneously or not — that he had been particularly sly. Although she kept that smile trained on him, she was saying little. Not many people were. The room, Santa realized, was more than 70 percent sons sitting in awkward silence with their mothers, not making a peep over the rattle of cutlery, the sound of food being dropped at a table, or the blaring of an ambulance as it drove past the restaurant.

“Nicholas, you wanted to know my task?” Mother asked.

“I’ve already figured it out,” he said. “It’s like New Year’s Eve, isn’t it? I’m just supposed to stand here and feel what these mothers are all feeling.”

She clicked her tongue at him: “Tsk tsk. Oh, Nicholas. You prove what children have proven since the beginning. Just because you know something doesn’t mean you understand it at all.”

“Cover your ears, Blinky,” Santa said. “Take a candle off the table and stuff them with wax. No reason both of us need to listen to this.”

“Nicholas, who is my day of power for?”

“That’s an absurd question. It’s for mothers. It’s right there in the name.”

“And with that,” she said, “you prove my point.” She snapped her fingers and Santa felt a tugging in his mind. He felt emotion not his own bubble up inside his chest, and his eyes fell upon Gary’s mother.

Unease. A nervous sort of tension. Dread that a particular subject matter would come up, a sense of inevitably about the conversation. Other feelings, less specific: guilt, gratitude, concern, all intertwined and inextricable. Beneath them, stronger than any of the other feelings, but never at the forefront: love. It had been so many centuries since he had felt this way, but Santa Claus knew, he was feeling like a son.

“So,” Gary’s mother said, wiping the corners of her mouth. “Where is Warren today?”

The fear of the unwanted conversation lurched forward in Santa’s throat. He didn’t know who Warren was, only that Gary did not want to discuss him.

“He’s with his mother, of course.”

“Oh. Well, naturally dear, but I had rather hoped he could spare an hour or two for me.”

There was a trickle of discomfort in Santa’s spine, and he started to understand why Gary was reluctant to have this conversation. “I don’t think it’s that he can’t, Mom.”

“Then what’s the matter? Why don’t we call Tricia and–”

“I can’t call Tricia.”

“Why not?”

“I just… it’s complicated.”

She frowned at him. “Gary, I’m not one of your Facebook friends. Don’t give me that ‘it’s complicated’ nonsense. Tell me the truth.”

His stomach felt a heavy, bloating feeling that echoed itself in Santa’s gut. “She doesn’t want to see me, okay? She made that very clear.”

“What? Why not?”

“She said I’m the past. She wants to concentrate on the future.”

“You’re the past? That very well may work when some relationships end, Gary, but the two of you have a child together. You can never stay in the past.”

Santa and Blinky both gasped at the same time. “Gary’s a dad?” Blinky said. “Santa, how come we didn’t know about this?”

“I haven’t seen the boy,” Santa said. “Gary doesn’t even have any pictures of him in the apartment.” His own confusion melded with Gary’s feelings — anguish at the conversation, regret and loss at the thought of Warren — and he felt very much like the spirit of Christmas was about to return his fruitcake.

“I don’t know what you want me to do about it, Mom,” he said.

“For God’s sake, Gary, stand up for yourself. I don’t care if Tricia doesn’t want to see you. I don’t care if Tricia hates you, you’re still his father, and a boy needs a father.”

As Gary’s mother exploded, Santa felt that tugging again. He’d heard the term “emotional roller coaster” used over and over again, but this time it seemed literal. The pain and discomfort he was feeling for Gary suddenly left his body and he rolled somehow into a new host. There was pain there, still, but a different kind of pain. Anger, most of it for this “Tricia,” but some of it for Gary as well. Loss. Responsibility, as if he was somehow the reason Gary didn’t want to do what he needed to do. Love. Deep, burning love like nothing Santa had known.

He was feeling the love of a mother from the inside. It was sweet, and beautiful, and perfect, and horrible, the last because if Gary could not find it within himself to take a stand, it clearly meant that she had done something wrong. It was her fault.

“That’s ridiculous,” Santa whispered. “She did her best. She tried as hard as a mother could.”

Didn’t matter. Her child’s failures were her own.

“Stop it,” Santa said. “Stop it, this is too much, this–”

“Oh, dear Nicholas, this is what mothers do. How about that one over there?”

She pointed to one of the tables with a young mother and he felt inside her head — terror that she was somehow ruining her baby’s life at just six months old, concern that she wasn’t feeding her often enough, frustration that she hadn’t had a good night’s sleep in over a year… love beyond what she had thought possible.

“Or that young man?”

Again, the roller coaster banked and Santa was inside one of the teenagers. Boredom at being here with his mom. Anger that he wasn’t with his friends. An absolute certainty that she couldn’t understand anything about how he was feeling, because really, what adult could? But still love, and this time laced with a little guilt, because he was starting to mature to the point where he kind of knew he was being an unreasonable jerk, but had not yet matured enough to the point where he could stop being an unreasonable jerk.

“You’ll love this one,” Mother said, and Santa felt the roller coaster plunge. He was in the head of Gary’s waitress now, looking at all these mothers and children together. She was tired. Her feet hurt. Her head hurt. Most of all, her heart hurt. She had thought taking an extra shift at work today would keep her mind occupied, but that was stupid. Instead she got to spend her entire day trying to put on a brave face and wandering around happy, whole families. It was Mother’s Day, and she had nothing else to do. It was Mother’s Day, and she was surrounded by people who were not like her, by people who still had their reason to celebrate, and it was eating at her soul.

“Tell me when you get it,” Mother said.

“I get it. I get it,” Santa said, gasping for breath.

“Wonderful,” she said. “Tell me.”

“It’s not just about celebrating your mother. It’s about celebrating the relationship.”

The winds blew again and Santa and Blinky shut their eyes against them. When they opened, Santa was not surprised to find himself back in Gary’s apartment. Blinky flopped onto the couch. “Geez, Boss,” he said, “I didn’t think you’d get Ebenezer Scrooged quite so much.”

“Tell me, Nicholas,” Mother asked, “Now that you’ve had a glimpse of my Day, how do you feel?”

Santa only had to think for a moment, but he was nonetheless surprised by his answer. “Good,” he said. “I don’t believe I’m saying it, but I feel good. Even the fear and the frustration I felt… there was true love at its core.”

“Poor Nicholas. You have all the children of the world, but you can never know the love of being a true parent, can you?”

Her words hung in Santa’s ears. It was a thought that had occurred to him many times over the years, even had been the subject of long conversations with his wife, but it was not an idea he had entirely made his peace with. “It’s my lot,” he said. “I have all of none of them, so I have some of all of them.”

“But Nicholas, be honest. Isn’t all the love of even one child greater than some of every child there is? Now that you’ve tasted it, I mean?”

Santa’s blood chilled. “Yes. Yes, it is.”

She held out her hand. “You could feel this way all the time, you know. If you come with me. I know you turned down the Rabbit, but this is different, isn’t it?” He looked at her hand — soft, warm, inviting. He felt pangs of loss as her features once again became those of his own mother. He remembered her. He missed her. And, after all, the past five months had left him in a hell of a place. He wanted to feel safe, wanted to feel protected. What better way to feel that way all the time than with Mother?

As his hand reached out towards her, Blinky grabbed it and pulled it down. “Boss, wait a sec. What are you doing?”

“She’s right, Blinky. This will be perfect. This will be safe.

“What about your job? You think Christmas is going to be the same if you bail out? It’s almost died before. Remember Oliver Cromwell?”

“This is different, Blinky. It will be fine without me.”

“Yeah? Who are the kids going to write letters to, Harvey the Holiday Rabbit? Come on, this isn’t you! This is dangerous!”

Blinky gave a hard yank on Santa’s sleeve and the icon looked down at him. What was he saying? What danger could he possibly be in from–

Santa turned on Mother, eyes flashing. “How dare you?”

She shrugged. “It was worth a try. It’s May, after all, Christmas is about as far from people’s minds as it gets. If you could ever have been destroyed, it would be now.”

“Destroyed? Why in the world would you even want to destroy me? You’re MOTHER. Your children love me!”

“You’re a thief, Nicholas! You consume my children’s love at the end of every year. No one ever thanks Mother, they all want their precious Santa. Well let me tell you something, there is nothing fiercer than Mother protecting her young.”

“I’ve never hurt any child.”

“You keep them away from me. It’s crime enough.” She turned at him and the expression on her face cut into him like a battleaxe to the gut. Santa had never seen anything so horrible, so mournful, so absolutely devastating as hate on Mother’s face.

“You’re nothing. Your power, right now, is nothing,” she snarled. “I’ll have to tell Father how you behaved.”

With that, she was gone.

* * *

There are certain elements of life that are consistent among all intelligent species, mortal and immortal alike. One of these is that being called in to speak to an authority figure — be it parent, principal, or employer — is always a cause for nerves. Eleanor felt this keenly as she was asked to visit with Sally Mendoza the day after Mother’s Day.

“You wanted to see me?” she asked.

Sally motioned to the empty chair across from her desk, the same one Eleanor had sat in for her job interview. “Yes, dear. I wanted to talk to you about your performance.”

“Ms. Mendoza, I’m sorry. I’ve only been here two months, but I’ve been trying my hardest. If people aren’t enjoying my performances or if I’m not fast or funny enough or if–”

Eleanor’s voice trailed off as she realized Sally was laughing. Her face grew small and her tone became quiet. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.

“Eleanor, dear, you have nothing to be sorry about. I asked you here because your work has been exemplary.

Her smile broke. “Really?”

“To a person, everyone who has booked you for a party has given you a glowing review. Even yesterday, when you were helping bus tables for the Mother’s Day Luncheon, the talk of the town was how sweet and friendly the new girl is.”

“Oh, thank you, Ms. Mendoza!”

“In fact, I think we may have been wasting your talents.”

“I… I’m afraid I’m confused. I thought you said I’m doing good.”

Well, dear, you’re doing very well. And you are. So well, in fact, that I think it’s been a mistake to put you in the head costumes so often.”

Eleanor’s smile brightened. “You mean–”

“How would you like to be a face character, dear? Really interact with the children?”

“I’d feel right at home, Ms. Mendoza.”

To be continued…

 

Santa’s Odyssey: Easter

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Four: Easter

Her eyes hung in deep, black pits. The twinkle, which was usually so characteristic of Mrs. Claus’s presence at the Pole, had evaporated, swallowed by sleepless nights and a hollow feeling everyone in the workshop shared. Santa was the one who was lost, but you couldn’t tell that by looking at his wife. Any casual observer would insist Mrs. Claus was the one with no home.

“Any news, Mrs. C?” Edgar asked as he opened the office door, ushering her in. It was a routine at this point: he asked if there was any indication where her husband might be, she said there was not, repeat. It hardly seemed necessary — as if she would wait for their next daily briefing if there were any news, as if she wouldn’t simply burst into the office the moment she had the slightest indication what could have happened to him. But order had to be maintained, ritual had to be respected, and thus she came in with her bleary eyes and said what Edgar already knew: “No. No news.”

She took a seat in her husband’s chair and Edgar felt a slight tinge behind his eyes. He dismissed it, though, turning his attention to the paperwork she came to examine. “At least it seems as though manufacturing is in order.”

“Yeah, I never would have asked to run this place, but I can at least keep it going if I have to.”

“Thank Heavens for that, at least. I don’t know that I could have survived these last few months if I didn’t know you had things under control on this end, Edgar.”

“Oh, thanks.” He smiled at the compliment. She returned the smile, but not with her eyes. It didn’t seem there was any smile left behind her eyes.

“Is there anything left to try?” he asked.

“One last thing. It’s a desperation play, but I’ll try anything at this point.”

“What is it?”

“Tomorrow is Easter,” she said. “I’ve put word out to the Bunny.”

“The Bunny? What for?”

“He covers a lot of the same territory as Nick. I’ve asked him to keep a watch while he’s out and about. If there’s anything to be found, I’m hoping he can find it.”

Edgar nodded. It was, to be truthful, the most openly and sadly desperate thing he had ever heard, but he supposed he didn’t blame her for trying. Still, the Bunny dealt with children too Where could he search that the Elves hadn’t already checked? The whole concept sounded like a pipe dream, a despairing woman’s delusion.

“That’s a great idea,” he said.

Together, Edgar and Mrs. Claus reviewed the progress of the workshop, the distribution channels, and everything else he had taken on since the boss vanished. With each successive report, Mrs. Claus nodded and told him what a fine job he was doing. To his credit, Edgar managed to resist the urge to tell her, “Thank you, I know.”

 

March 31st, 4:55 p.m.

 

As he had four days a week for the past six weeks, Santa Claus packed away the tools he used at Homer’s Repairs in anticipation for the five o’clock close of the fix-it shop. Gary had helped him find the place, and it had taken only minutes with a broken watch and a cracked smartphone to convince Homer Hayes he could fix just about anything, and quick. “I ain’t seen hands like that since my daddy retired,” the gentle old man had told him. He looked older than Santa, of course, and was certainly older than the age “Nicholas Christopher” put on his job application, but Santa knew differently. Still, the graying men had bonded quickly, and the shop turned out to be a good fit. It wasn’t home, but at least he was working with his hands, which he didn’t get to do as much as he liked even at the Pole nowadays.

“See you Monday, Nick,” Homer said, closing up the shop behind them. “Happy Easter.”

Ah yes, Easter. It had only been two weeks since the St. Patrick’s Day fiasco, but Santa had no doubt he’d be summoned into action tonight. Easter was one of the big holidays, after all, with an Icon that was probably second only to himself in popularity. The good news was that, unlike Pat or the Old Year or even Cupid, the Easter Bunny’s job was fairly well-defined by mortal culture. It was just a matter of when the rabbit would hop in and make him start.

Arriving home home — well, Gary’s home — Santa walked in to find Blinky on the couch watching a movie as Gary shuffled about in the kitchen. He smiled, cheerful as always, but something about him looked… off.

“Is that lamb I smell?” Santa asked.

“Easter tradition where I grew up,” Gary said. “I’m getting it ready for tomorrow. How about you, Nick? Any big holiday traditions in your family?”

Santa shook his head. “No, Easter was never that big for us. We were more of a Christmas crowd.”

“I’ll bet. You sticking around for dinner tonight?”

“I actually think I may have plans.” He took a closer look at his mortal friend, and his brain clicked on what had been nagging him since he walked through the door. “Gary, what is that under your lip?”

Gary reached up and brushed his fingers beneath his lip, ruffling the strands of an unfortunate soul patch. “Like it? I figured as long as we were trying new looks…” He pointed to the shamrock on Santa’s face and the old man’s cheeks turned rosy.

“Yes, well, we all make mistakes, Gary.” He patted his friend on the shoulder and returned to the living room, where Blinky was engrossed in his film.

The Sound of Music? How many times have you seen this, Blinky?”

“There’s no such thing as too many times with Julie Andrews, Boss,” he said. “Or Rita Moreno. Ah, Bernadette Peters! I tell you, they just don’t make ‘em like that anymore.”

“I suppose not… eh, Blinky? Is everybody around here experimenting with new looks?”

“What do you mean?”

“When’s the last time you shaved?”

“Shaved? Boss, Elves don’t have facial hair.”

“Well, your father must have been part goblin, because there’s definite fuzz on your cheeks.”

Blinky touched his face and alarm exploded in his eyes. “What the holly… Santa, what’s going on?”

“It’s not just your hair, Blinky, your ears are getting longer!”

“Wha– whacht’s wrong? Why chan’t I talch?”

“Your teeth are getting longer!”

“SHANTA!”

As Santa watched, Blinky began to shrink. Fur sprouted all over his body and his ears elongated and slid to the top of his head. He hunched forward, legs turning to plump haunches, and whiskers sprouted from the sides of his pinkening nose. As the wailing sound of Santa’s name faded from his lips, Blinky twitched and convulsed and rolled onto the couch, now fully transformed into a fluffy little brown rabbit.

Santa’s ice-blue eyes saw red. “Bunny!” he shouted. “Come out!”

He half-expected the Easter Bunny to stroll out at he bellowed for him, but nothing happened. After a few long moments of watching, he went back to the kitchen. “Gary, have you seen anything–”

Sitting on Gary’s kitchen counter, casually munching on a half-chopped head of lettuce, was another rabbit, this one white with an unfortunate patch of brown fur beneath its mouth.

Behind him, Santa heard a chuckling sound. He spun around to face the Easter Bunny, leaning on a cane in the shape of a large carrot, clutching his gut with laughter.

“Come on, Santa, I thought you’d appreciate a good joke. Tomorrow is April Fool’s Day too, you know.”

“Don’t remind me,” Santa said. “An excuse for people to behave like idiots but still delude themselves into thinking they can keep off the naughty list. I suppose I should expect a visit from that idiotic clown tomorrow as well?”

The Bunny’s right ear tipped in a puzzled expression, then popped back up with laughter when he realized what Santa was talking about. “Oh, the clown! No, no, Santa, he probably won’t bother you tomorrow. He’s got his own deal.”

“Well then–”

“All that matters is, until tomorrow morning, you’re all mine.”

* * *

The Rabbit’s Burrow, as it turned out, was exactly as Santa would have expected. Although deep underground, with earthen floors, walls, and ceilings, it was far from gloomy. In fact, virtually every surface was festooned with bright colors, pastel banners, ribbons of crepe and festive mounts of Easter grass in every variety imaginable. Along with the decorations were bunnies, dozens of them, each about the size of Pat the Leprechaun. They wore vibant bows around their necks or in their ears, each carrying an assortment of candy, toys, and eggs. The treasures were taken to the center of the cavern, where an enormous Easter Basket stood, and they filled it dutifully.

“Looks like a busy day for you,” Santa said.

“You know it. I think every rabbit in the world is down here right now. Well… except for the ones in the accounting department.”

“Accounting department? Why do you need an accounting department?”

“Aw, Santa. Don’t you know that rabbits multiply?” He bellowed with laughter, slapping his haunches over how clever his joke was. “Ah, it only happens like every sixty years, but I love when April Fool’s Day and Easter go together.”

Santa did not have to struggle to refrain from laughing.

“So I just deliver the goods, right?” Santa asked. “That should be simple enough. This, at least, I’m used to.” He looked at the basket, towering over him, but felt no intimidation. His sack of toys on Christmas Eve dwarfed this basket, but when he reached out for it, it always adjusted to fit his grip. He had a suspicion the basket would do the same. He was right.

Once the enormous bulk of the basket had become portable, Santa picked it up and glanced at the Bunny. “So, how do we do this?”

“Well, I usually load the kids’ baskets with candy first, then–”

“No, I mean… How do you get there? I don’t see a sleigh.”

The Bunny’s whiskers pricked with laughter, and Santa thought he was about to be the recipient of another delightful early April Fool’s gag, but instead, the Bunny twirled his carrot-cane in the air and brought it down, walloping him on the head. The impact only hurt for a moment, but Santa barely noticed it in contrast to the other sensation he felt. His legs tightened and compacted, and he felt an odd coiling in his knees, like springs tensing. Then, like springs, his legs popped out, and Santa bounded into the air. Zooming up, he hurtled through a tunnel in the Earth and up into the night sky… and he kept going. Air whipped his face and his beard beat against his chest like a flag in a gale. He tried to shut his eyes against the wind, but opened them out of instinct when he felt himself arching downwards. In a sight that reminded him far too much of his sleigh crashing, he careened into an empty field some short miles from a small town. When he struck the Earth, though, instead of cutting a scar across the countryside, he bounced. This leap sent him, in a much smaller arc, towards the town. He bounced again, and again, each bounce smaller than the last, until he rolled to a dizzying stop at the end of a neighborhood near the town’s edge.

He rolled to his knees, trying not to throw up, and saw the Bunny bounding towards him in neat, dainty hops. “Santa, you’ve got to work on the landings.”

“Please,” he wheezed, “get a sleigh.”

After too many minutes of allowing his stomach to settle, Santa walked to the first house on the street. He grabbed a flower trellis on the side of the little home, rattling it to test its strength.

“What are you doing?” the Bunny asked.

“Looking for a way to get to the chimney.”

“The chim — geez, Santa, that’s not how we do it here.” He whipped his carrot-cane again, popping Santa once more and driving him underground. Santa rolled through a tunnel that he was fairly certain hadn’t existed seconds before, bursting out on the floor of a charmingly-decorated country kitchen. The Bunny slipped out of the hole behind him, then folded his arms to watch.

There were two empty baskets on the dining room table and a familiar voice clicked in Santa’s head. Dylan and Emily Peterson. Nice list. Dylan wants a Lego X-Wing and Emily wants a science kit.

He shook his head. That was a Christmas order. He focused in on the voice again.

Dylan is allergic to peanuts and Emily loves white chocolate.

Santa smiled, reaching into his own basket. He loaded the baskets on the table with appropriate candy, then tossed in a few small toys and a stuffed bunny for each. That done, a tray of brilliantly colored hard-boiled eggs appeared in his basket. He lay the tray on the table and carefully arranged the eggs in a pyramid shape, then surrounded them in a garland of purple Easter grass for good measure. Satisfied with his work, he turned to leave, but the Bunny was glaring at him.

“Okay, so what did you do wrong?”

“What? Nothing! Didn’t I give them the right candy?”

“Yes.”

“And the right toys for each child?”

“Yeah, sure, for Easter.”

“And aren’t the eggs arranged in a visually appealing tableau?”

“Gorgeous. And that’s the problem.”

“What are you talking about?”

The Bunny picked up an orange-and-yellow egg from the top of the pyramid and cracked it open on Santa’s forehead. He peeled away the layer of shell and casually began to munch. “It’s Easter, Kringlebrain. You’re supposed to hide them.”

“Oh.”

* * *

Once Santa got over the mental obstacle of having to conceal the evidence of his work, the evening ran much more smoothly. In essence, mechanically at least, the Easter Bunny’s task was very similar to his own. There was more candy and fewer toys, but going from house to house quickly and quietly as a rabbit was second nature to him. If anything slowed him down, it was finding places to hide the eggs that weren’t so obvious the children would finish the hunt in thirty seconds, but not so difficult that they would face an unexpected stench in a few days. The Bunny stayed quiet for much of the night, but put his enormous, lucky foot down on one specific point: hiding eggs under the couch was a bad idea.

After a long night nearly as prolonged as a Christmas Eve, Santa took one last enormous bounce and returned to the Burrow, rolling right into a cavern wall upon landing.

“You still need to work on that, Hoss.”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it. Nothing left but for the mortals to eat ham and candy and go to church one of two times this year.”

“Hmm. We really do have a lot in common.”

“I’ve always thought so. I mean… too many people forget it, but our holidays are kind of the two ends of a cycle, aren’t they? You’re birth, I’m rebirth. And it’s all about the same guy.”

“Yes. Tell me, Bunny, how do you think that guy would feel about you all keeping me away from my home like this? Away from my wife?”

“Ah, she’s fine, Santa. Talked to her the other day.”

“What?”

“Nice gal. Wanted to know if I’d seen you.”

“What did you say?”

“I told her I’d let her know if I ran into you on my rounds.” He laughed. “The beauty part is that they weren’t my rounds this year, so technically I’m not breaking a promise if I keep my mouth shut.”

“You abominable…”

“Oh come on. It wasn’t that bad, was it?”

Santa didn’t answer. He was fuming too much to form words.

“You know, Santa, the others almost didn’t even bring me in on this whole thing. If you’re the number one Holiday Icon, most of the others consider me number two. At least, the ones whose egos don’t get in the way. They didn’t know if I would be on their side or not.”

“But you were on ‘their side,’ weren’t you? When it counted?”

“Eh, I straddle the line. I do a lot of the same work as you, get way less adulation. I get where they’re coming from, but I get where you come from too. We’re the top two because we do the most work.”

“Just send me back to Gary’s, Rabbit. And turn my friends back to normal.”

“I changed them back as soon as we left. I’m not cruel. But as far as sending you there… you could just stay here. I wouldn’t mind a partner.”

“Are you joking?’

“C’mon, E.B. and the S.C.! The Big Two Icons of the Big Two Holidays! Wouldn’t that be a blast?”

“And how do you think your friends would take that?”

The Bunny scratched his chin, whiskers bouncing. “I suppose you’re right. It’s really easy to piss off Cupid. Okay, then, buckle up.”

He whipped his carrot-cane around one last time, but this time Santa was prepared. He ducked and let the cane swish over his head, and as he looked down, he saw one last egg in the basket still dangling from his arm. It was larger than a softball, and shimmered like enamel. Red and green stripes wrapped around it, and it was topped with a clear snowflake pattern. He was still staring at the egg when Blinky grabbed his arm.

“Boss? Are you okay?”

Santa looked around. They were back in their little room in Gary’s home, the egg still in his basket.

“I’m fine, Blinky. Are you and Gary okay?”

“We’re fine. In fact, except for running out of lettuce, Gary didn’t even notice anything had happened. You?”

“Just another long night.” He picked up the enamel egg, turning it over and looking at it from all angles. “At least I have a souvenir this time.”

“You had a souvenir last time, Boss.” Blinky chuckled. “Looks like there’s a catch on the side of the egg. Does it open?”

“Let’s see.”

Santa thumbed the switch on the side of the egg, quickly realizing his mistake. The top of the egg popped open and, from within, a pressurized jet of air sprayed an absurd amount of whipped cream into his face. The Bunny’s laughter echoed in his ears until he snapped the egg shut. Sheepishly, Blinky handed him a towel.

“Happy Easter, Boss?”

“April Fool’s, Blinky.”

* * *

It was, to Ophelia Hendricks’s way of thinking, the greatest Easter Egg hunt she had ever hosted. The food was perfect, the eggs were meticulously hand-painted and all of her grandchildren were at the estate to participate. Even the Bunny she hired was perfect — barely taller than most of the children, but somehow still cheerful, expressive, and interactive beneath the head of the costume. The children were having a ball, and when the Bunny slipped into the house for a break, Ophelia slipped in after.

“You were marvelous! Simply marvelous! The best Easter Bunny we’ve ever had, sir!”

The Bunny took off its head to reveal a small, smiling blonde woman with glittering eyes. “It’s ma’am, actually, but thank you.”

“My dear, I’ve been hiring Paulsen Party Planning for years, but I don’t believe I’ve ever seen you before. Are you new?”

“New to town. New to Paulsen’s. New to kids’ parties.”

“Well, you’re doing a fabulous job.”

“Thanks. It’s not home, but at least I’m starting to feel like I fit in.”

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: St. Patrick’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Three: St. Patrick’s Day

Edgar felt a weight in his chest. It wasn’t bad enough that nobody — even three months later — had the slightest idea what had happened to Santa, Blinky, and Eleanor, but now the news from the mortal world was trumpeting the fact that Toys R Us was going out of business. Although the North Pole operation was responsible for a large amount of the manufacture and distribution of childrens’ gifts throughout the world, for much of the 20th century they had begun to lean on some of the larger retailers to help pick up some of the burden. Parents who didn’t believe anymore would buy some of the gifts their children wanted and place them under the tree, and Santa would mix his own gifts among them. Somehow, the parents never seemed to notice extra gifts they had nothing to do with.

Now he stared at his spreadsheets, his manufacturing reports, the reports from Toy Fair letting him know which items were likely going to be in the highest demand… and he shuddered.

Chanticleer knocked on the door, carrying — as always — a raft of papers to share with his temporary boss. “How’s it going, Edgar?”

“Well, we haven’t burned the place down yet. I suppose there’s that. Any news?”

There was no need for him to specify what type of news he was hoping for, but the way Chanticleer’s face fell made it obvious that there would be nothing to report. “I don’t think Mrs. Claus has slept in two weeks,” he said. “She’s really taken point on the search, but it’s not doing any good.”

Edgar shook his head. “She should just give up at this point. He’s gone.”

“Edgar–”

“Come on, don’t you think Santa would have been back by now if he could? I don’t know what happened to him, and we may never know what happened, but we can’t keep pretending he’s going to walk through the door and make everything okay.”

“That’s not a very cheery attitude to have.”

“Have you watched the news? It hasn’t been a cheery year.”

Chanticleer sighed and placed the papers he was carrying on Santa’s desk. “More reports from the game division. Fans seems to be pretty angry at Electronic Arts this year.”

“What else is new?”

Chanticleer walked to the door, but peeked back. “For what it’s worth, you look good behind the desk.”

As he was left alone, for the first time since Christmas Eve, Edgar felt a smile at the corners of his lips.

 

March 17, 9:02 p.m.

 

“Another drink, Nick?”

“I’d be obliged, Gary.”

“Bill?”

The Elf picked up the nearly-full mug in front of him and tipped it. “I’m good.”

Gary, Santa, and Blinky were crowded around a table at a pub called Finnegan’s Wake. It wasn’t a huge place, but on this of all days, it was bursting at the seams. Every available space was filled with warm bodies wearing green clothes, green hats, green sunglasses. They sported green temporary tattoos of shamrocks, tied green ribbons in their hair, ate green mozzarella sticks and drank green beer. At a generous estimate, Santa guessed maybe five percent of them had Irish blood.

Gary picked up the empty mugs he and “Nick” had drained and made his way to the bar. “Bill” sipped at his beer. “It’s going to take forever for him to get back.”

“So what? We’re not going anywhere.”

Blinky started to protest, but stopped himself and turned back to his drink. What would be the point of arguing? Santa was right. Three months in the mortal world and they were no closer to finding a way home, no closer to finding Eleanor, no closer to anything except Gary, who had turned out to be a delightful host. The two of them had even offered to chip in on the rent with the money they made from the part time jobs they had found, but he refused. Instead, they bought groceries and kept the cupboards full. Since Gary rarely went out in the evenings, especially after the Valentine’s Day disaster, it was handy.

“Is this seat taken?”

Someone placed a hand on Gary’s chair and started to pull it out. “Yeah, someone’s sitting there,” Blinky said, but the hand continued on its journey, and its owner hopped around into the seat. The smiling face was fringed with red hair and a red beard, with red cheeks and a red nose. His clothes, of course, were all green.

“Well, if it isn’t Lucky the Leprechaun,” Blinky said.

“Pat,” he said. “Just call me Pat.”

“I wasn’t sure if we’d see you tonight,” Santa said. “I mean, I knew that St. Patrick’s Day had an icon, but the more I thought about it, the harder it was to figure out what your job was. There are no gifts, no candy, nobody falls in love… In America, at least, it’s pretty much an excuse to go out drinking in the middle of the week.”

“It’s Saturday!” Pat snarled.

“Sure, this year.”

“Say the word boss,” Blinky said, “And I’ll see this little runt out of the place. It’s not often I get to throw down with somebody smaller than me.”

It was true — as short as Blinky was, compared to Santa and the mortals all around them, Pat was even smaller. His eyes barely rose to the level of the table, and he’d have to stand up on his chair to face Santa eye-to-eye. Nobody in the bar seemed to notice anything unusual at all.

“Back off, Stretch. I don’t have much, but this is my day of power.”

“It’s fine, Blinky. Let him do what he came for and let’s get this over with. Er… what did you come here for?”

The tiny man waved his hand over the table. Blinky’s mug and the one he’d brought with him both instantly filled to the brim. After a second, he snapped his fingers and another full mug appeared in front of Santa. “I guess that’s what for,” he said. “The frustrating thing, Santa-boy, is that you’re right. St. Patty’s Day doesn’t actually mean anything here. They throw a parade and they throw a bunch of dye in their rivers and they pretend to be Irish for a day, and it’s so damn depressing I can’t even stand it.” He picked up his mug and drained it with a single chug, then twirled his other hand and filled it again.

“So what am I supposed to do?” Santa asked. “When you all started this, you told me I’d have to do your jobs. What’s your job?”

“This is it. I show up. I drink. I drink with friends. Hey, friend!” he waved wildly as Gary came up to the table, holding a pair of mugs.

“Um, Nick, it looks like you’ve already got a drink.”

“Gary, this is my old friend Pat. We bumped into him while you were gone.”

“Pat?” Gary laughed. “Kind of a coincidence, isn’t it?”

“Pfft. You’re just jealous there’s no Garyday.”

Gary pulled up a chair from a nearby table and the four of them returned to their drinking. Around them: cheers and shouts, carousing and howls. In the corner, someone broke into an Irish shanty and Pat mournfully joined in. He leapt up and stood on the table, waving his arms wildly. Once the tune shifted to “Danny Boy,” he fell into Santa’s lap and began crying.

“It’s all a bloody joke!” he screamed. “They put on a pair of shamrock sunglasses and say ‘Kiss me, I’m Irish!’ They’re not Irish, Santa. They’re not Irish!

“Is he okay?” Gary asked.

“He’s upset that people don’t show St. Patrick’s Day the proper respect,” Blinky said. “Can’t you tell?”

Pat, eyes now as bloodshot and redder than his beard, got back on the table and grabbed Gary’s lapels. “You think this is bad?’ he howled. “You should see what they’ve done to Cinco de Mayo!”

“Okay, maybe we should head home, Pat,” Gary said. “I think you’ve had plenty.”

“I can’t, bubba, not until the day is over.”

“Gary, why don’t you go home?” Santa said. “I’ll help Pat get to where he’s going.”

“Are you sure?”

“We’ve got catching up to do anyway. We… um… used to work together.”

“All right, then. Nice meeting you, Pat.” Gary tipped his drink and finished it, walking away.

“That’s a nice lad, Santa. Where’d you pick up an Elf like that?”

“He’s mortal,” Santa said. “That’s why we needed to get rid of him before you really started spilling the beans.”

“Beans? Beans!” Pat launched into a spirited rendition of “Beans, Beans, the Musical Fruit,” and Blinky drained another mug.

“You know, for someone who does this every year, you’d think he could hold his liquor better.”

“It’s not his fault,” Santa said. “I’m starting to get the hang of this. Remember on New Year’s Eve, when I started to feel everbody’s wishes?”

“Yeah.”

He nodded at Pat. “I’ll bet he’s feeling the effects of everybody’s drinks.”

“What makes you think that?”

Santa smiled. “Because I’m feeling it too”

He stood up and put an arm around Pat’s shoulder — possible only because the Leprechaun was standing on a table again.

“Hey, Pat, I’m curious. Is it true that there’s a pot of gold at the end of a rainbow?”

“Only when I can’t find a better pot to piss in!” he yelped. The two of them began laughing maniacally, and Blinky found himself looking around. If anybody thought the behavior was odd, they were too busy engaging in their own wild carousing to notice. A pair of women in the corner were aggressively flirting with the bartender. By the dartboard, a bald man wearing a green eyepatch was tossing darts into the ceiling. None of it was truly disturbing to Blinky until an old woman who resembled his own elfin grandmother locked eyes with him and blinked in a manner he could only assume was intended to be seductive.

“Santa, you guys have had plenty,” Blinky said. “Should we–”

“Have another?” Pat yelled. “Don’t mind if I do!

They two of them threw back two more mugs and launched into song. Pat’s voice, even soaked in enough beer to drown a whale, was clean and clear.

“When Irish eyes are smiling

Sure it’s like a morning spring

In the lilt of Irish laughter

You can hear the angels sing

When Irish eyes are happy

All the world seem bright and gay

And when Irish eyes are smiling

MOTHER OF GOD!”

Blinky thought for a moment that this wasn’t how the song was supposed to end, then realized the diversion was probably related to the fact that Pat was howling and grabbing his own buttocks. He reached back and extracted a dart, a tiny red bead dripping from the point.

He turned to the dartboard, where the man in the green eyepatch was bellowing with laughter. Pat pointed the dart at him, eyes burning. “What’s the meaning of this?” he hissed.

“Just a little target practice.” His remaining eye was gleeful, and his lips pulled back to show a bold, toothy grin.

Santa pushed his way forward. “Just who do you think you are?”

Eyepatch straightened up, his full height besting Santa by at least a foot and a half. “I’m Finnegan,” he said. “And this is my place. Is there a problem?”

“Clearly,” Santa growled. “Jerry Finnegan. Tinker Toys, ‘63. You were on the naughty list then and you’re still on it now.”

“What are you talking about.”

“I gave you coal then,” Santa said, “But you know what I think you need now?”

“What?”

Wordlessly, the jolly manifestation of Holiday Cheer raised his hand and poked Jerry Finnegan in his one good eye.

Finnegan wailed, grabbing his eye with one hand and flailing in front of him with the other. He reached down, but Pat leapt backwards and hid beneath the fold of Santa’s coat. With Blinky rushing ahead to push the crowd apart, the three of them made a hasty exit from Finnegan’s Wake. They staggered down the street, laughing and singing, finally collapsing on the stoop of a tattoo parlor.

“I like you, Pat.”

“I like you too, Santa. I don’t think you’re a big holiday hog like the rest of them said.”

“Thanks, Pat. I don’t think you’re short.”

“Thanks, Santa. That’s the nicest said anybody ever thought about me. And I don’t care what the Turkey says, if people wanna put their tree up on Thanksgiving, I don’t see anything wrong with it.”

“Oh, the Turkey,” Santa bellowed. “I could tell you some stories about him.”

They laughed again, loud and hard, until both of them were left gasping for breath. Finally, the Leprechaun put his hand on Santa’s shoulder. “Well what now?”

 

March 18, 7:15 a.m.

 

It wasn’t that Santa was unused to alcohol. He liked his wine, he liked his egg nog, and in the United Kingdom a glass of brandy was still was the traditional offering rather than cookies and milk. But he was not used to — hoped to never be used to — an entire nation concentrating a single night of drunken debauchery into his head all at once. He woke up in Gary’s spare bedroom craving a glass of water, four extra-strength Asprin, and an axe to drive into his own forehead, not necessarily in that order. He rolled his head to see Blinky sipping a cup of coffee. He held out another towards Santa.

“Thanks. What happened?”

“You learned the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day.”

“Why does my face hurt so much?”

“Because of the true meaning of St. Patrick’s Day.”

Santa frowned at Blinky, realized that it hurt considerably more than it should, and stopped it. He drank his coffee and, still feeling like the bottom of a reindeer pen, stumbled into the bathroom. Blinky quietly sipped his coffee and counted to three.

“WENCESLAS’S BEARD!”

There it was.

Santa burst back into the room, clawing at his face, then wincing in pain for having done so. “Is this what it looks like?”

“Yep.”

“Is it temporary?”

“No.”

Santa returned to the bathroom mirror and stared in terror. Who was going to tell the shopping center Santas of the world they had to get a shamrock tattoo next to their right eye?

*   * *

Sally Mendez looked over the application. There weren’t a lot of references — a few restaurant jobs that had only lasted a few weeks, and nothing earlier than the first of the year. But Eleanor Ivy had a… unique look that made her perfect for Sally’s company.

“I wouldn’t usually take a chance on someone who doesn’t have any recommendations or references or educational records or medical records or a permanent address, but… there’s something about you, Eleanor.”

“I get that a lot.”

I just have one question, then. Do you have any experience with children?”

Eleanor’s smile grew ever wider.

 

To be continued…

 

Santa’s Odyssey: Valentine’s Day

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments:

Two: Valentine’s Day

Valentine’s Day at the North Pole was usually a time of celebration. After a month off, elves gathered together at massive parties and talked about how they’d spent their vacations, shared tales of adventures in the four corners of the holiday landscape, and exchanged coy little cards and messages. In truth, elves rarely needed much of an excuse to celebrate. This year, though, when they probably needed it more than ever, nobody was in the mood.

In Santa’s office, Edgar sat in front of the desk, a few phone books stacked up on the chair he’d pulled up to work. He was doing Santa’s job as best he could, but he still refused to sit behind the desk. That wasn’t his place, wasn’t his right. It wasn’t where he belonged.

Instead of vacations, they had formed search parties. Instead relaxing with beach reads, they had poured over intelligence reports from all over the world. Nothing had helped them figure out where Santa and the missing elves could have gone. Remarkably, trying to find a chubby older gentleman with a white beard was not the challenge. Finding the right one was. It was like looking for a needle in a stack of needles — men matching that description were practically omnipresent. Cross-referencing the search with a pair of little people had turned up some interesting matches in San Francisco, but nothing that was really useful.

A knock at the door prompted Edgar to close the laptop he’d been working on. It wasn’t doing any good anyway. He slid off the books and opened the door, admitting a sluggish Brownie named Chanticleer, one of the heads of the manufacturing department. He had a raft of papers held together with a clip, and a hangdog expression stained his face.

“Any luck?” he asked.

“Did you hear me screaming with joy and going on a hot chocolate bender?” Edgar snapped.

“No.” Chanticleer sighed. “I didn’t really think so, but… an elf has to hold out hope, right?”

“What do you want, Chant?”

He held out the papers. “Projections for this year. Toys, clothes, video games, candy. Orders haven’t started coming in yet, but based on the popularity of certain items and the demographic that we service, we’re trying to estimate how many we’ll need to make of everything.”

“And?”

“We’re already behind.”

Edgar’s shoulders slumped and he felt an ulcer spontaneously begin carving a hole in his stomach lining. “Of course we are,” he said. “How bad is it?”

Chanticleer pulled himself up into the chair where Edgar had been sitting, perching atop his tower of phone books and laying the pages out on the desk. “It’s pretty bad,” he said. “We’re already a couple of weeks behind schedule.”

“Anything we haven’t overcome before?”

“No, but… it was different then, you know?”

Yes. Edgar knew.

“But I think I’ve got a few ideas that could help us streamline things and get back on schedule before things get too out of hand. Want to take a look?”

Edgar stammered for a second. He’d need to climb up and sit at the desk to see the papers, but Chanticleer was already in his spot. There was only one other place to sit in the office, and he didn’t feel right about it.

“Edgar? Are you okay?”

He blinked for a moment, then shivered. This was silly. It was just a chair.

“I’m fine,” he said, pulling himself into Santa’s seat. “Okay, let’s see what you’ve got going.”

February 14, 7:30 p.m.

It would happen tonight, Santa was sure of it.

He and Blinky had been thrust into their situation very abruptly, unceremoniously and he hadn’t exactly been given a primer on what to expect. Not every holiday even had an icon, exactly, to bear a grudge against him, so there was no visit to be had. Still, on Martin Luther King day he had felt a rather stronger-than-usual urge to stand up for the oppressed, and on Super Bowl Sunday he had a compulsion to add all NFL referees to the naughty list. Today he was feeling the odd effects of a mild hangover that he could only attribute to the fact that yesterday had been Mardi Gras.

Valentine’s Day, though… that was one of the big ones. Decorations in the stores, cards in the mail, overpriced flowers lining the streets, and chocolate/peanut butter hearts that inexplicably tasted better than the traditional cup shape of the candy. Most importantly, this day had its own icon, someone Santa knew, and knew well, and was expecting. So Santa did something a man who has to manufacture toys and plot out a delivery route that encompasses the entire world has to be able to do: he got ahead of the problem.

“I’m not sure about this, boss,” Blinky said.

“I’ve been around for centuries, Blinky. I’ve catered to the desires of billions of people. I think I know what humans want. Here, dry.”

He ran a plate under the water from the sink in front of him and passed it over to Blinky. The elf, towel in his hand, dutifully began to dry it. Although Gary Valechi had never asked the two of them to do household chores in the month and a half they’d been staying at his apartment, Santa insisted that they do something to show their gratitude to their new friend.

“You give train sets to kids, Santa. This is…”

“A wish is a wish, Blinky. And when that chubby little twerp with the wings gets here–”

“Twerp?”

Cupid’s voice rang out before he appeared. There was a loud “POP” in the air above the sink, and Blinky dropped a plate, smashing it on the ground. Cupid hung in the air, his tiny, aerodynamically dubious wings gently fluttering to keep him afloat. He did, of course, resemble a baby, only he was considerably larger than most of them… and most babies didn’t have a quiver of heart-shaped arrows strapped to their back. “Who you callin’ twerp, Big Boy?”

“Oh come on, Cupid, I didn’t mean anything by it. Anyway, you’re not the only one whose form has changed because of human expectations. I didn’t always look like this, you know.”

“Yeah, but they changed you from a skinny old fart with whiskers to a chubby old fart with whiskers. You look like everybody’s favorite grandpa. I used to be a literal Greek god. I made Channing Tatum look like Mr. Potato Head! Now…”

“Yes, we all know about now.” He nodded towards the elf. “You remember Blinky, don’t you? He was one of the two elves on my sleigh when you shot me down.”

“Right. What happened to the other one?”

“We’ve been looking for her for six weeks,” Blinky snapped. “You don’t know anything about Eleanor, do you?”

“Sorry, can’t help you. My area of perception only extends to lovers. Which brings me to why I’m here.”

“Yes, we know,” Santa said. “It’s Valentine’s Day. You’re here to show me how hard it is to be you. We understand the protocol. But I’ve got news for you Cupid — I’m ahead of your game.”

“What are you talking about?”

Santa indicated the apartment they were standing in. From the clean, modern kitchen, they could see the tastefully decorated apartment, high-end television mounted to the wall between a pair of framed posters for old science fiction movies. “We’re in my friend Gary’s apartment. We met him on New Year’s Eve and he has been kind enough to let us stay here while we try to get ‘back on our feet’.”

“What? In New York, some guy is letting two complete strangers crash in his pad?”

“Well, I’m not really a stranger, am I? Gary is one of those grown-ups who never entirely stopped believing in me. On a subconscious level, I think he suspects who I really am, although he could never admit it to himself.”

“Fine, whatever. You’re living the Lifestyles of the Young and Yuppie. So what?”

“Well, Gary isn’t here tonight, is he?”

“I repeat: so what?”

“He’s out because I got him a date.”

Cupid’s jaw dangled. “You what?”

Santa beamed, terribly proud of the work he’d accomplished. “Oh yes. Down on the corner, you see, there’s this lovely young woman named Carrie. Works at a newsstand. I noticed Gary blushing every time he bought a newspaper from her, so I gave him a little nudge and convinced him to ask her on a date.”

“For tonight?” Cupid said.

“That’s right.”

“A date.”

“Yes.”

“A first date.”

“Of course.”

“On Valentine’s Day.”

“Naturally.”

Cupid glared at him, his wings beating faster, his face growing red.

“You’re even stupider than I thought,” he snapped.

“Hey!” Blinky hopped up on the counter and leaned in, eye-to-eye with Cupid. “You can’t talk to Santa that way!”

“It’s my day, shrimp, I’ll talk however I want!”

“What are you talking about?” Santa said. “It’s Valentine’s Day! I’m helping two people find love! That’s what you do!”

“Wrong!” Cupid reached into his quiver and pulled out a handful of arrows, shoving them under Santa’s nose. “That’s what these do! And they screw up more often than not! That’s not what Valentine’s Day is for, Egg Nog Breath!”

“I don’t understand. The cards, the flowers–”

“Yeah, yeah, and the candy and the jewelry too, right? It’s all crap, Santa. It’s all different ways for humans to cash in on something that should have a deeper meaning. But you wouldn’t know anything about that, would you?”

“Well…”

“Exactly. How long has your buddy been on his date?”

“He was supposed to pick her up at 6 o’clock.”

Cupid glanced at the clock on the wall. “Nearly two hours. Perfect. Why don’t we go take a look, see how things are going? Because unless you got lucky, crazy lucky, million-to-one winning the Powerball lucky, I think we’ll be able to see just why first dates on Valentine’s Day are a terrible idea.”

Cupid waved his bow over Santa’s head and the two of them were caught up in a swirl of white, pink, and red mists. Blinky and Gary’s apartment vanished, and Santa felt a sensation of movement. Very soon, they weren’t there anymore.

“You’re in for a rude awakening, Nicky,” Cupid said.

“I think you’re the one who’s going to be surprised,” Santa said. “You don’t know Gary like I do. He’s a good man, kind and generous. He’s got a good job working at a toy company, he takes care of his mother, he…”

“He’s blowing it.”

The mists cleared a little, and in the haze Santa saw Gary and Carrie, sitting at a table in a fine Chinese restaurant. Each of them had a bowl of soup and an egg roll in front of them. Carrie also had a phone out, casually tapping on her screen as she ate.

“How’s your soup?” Gary asked.

“Oh,” Carrie said. She lifted a spoonful to her mouth and sipped it. “Good.”

“Great.”

“Yeah.”

She turned back to her phone and Santa looked at Cupid. “I’ve heard more lively conversation from a pack of snowmen.”

“Well what did you expect? The humans put so much stupid pressure on themselves for this holiday. They have to find someone, they have to fall in love. Then the slightest thing goes wrong and they decide the entire thing is a disaster. How can you possibly live up to those expectations? Hell, I knew Zeus in his prime and even he would have had trouble performing under those circumstances.”

“But what happened? What went wrong?”

Cupid twisted his arm in the air and a phone appeared. He grinned. “Let’s find out.”

“How, you’re going to call them?”

“Don’t be ridiculous,” he said. “She’s been live-tweeting the whole date.” He tapped the screen a few times and brought up Carrie’s feed. Scrolling back to a few minutes after six, he found what he was looking for and laughed.

“What? What’s so funny?”

“Here it is, Santa. The genesis of romance.” He held the phone out to Santa could read what she’d posted.

“This guy got a taxi instead of an Uber. #AuspiciousStart.”

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” Santa said. “She checked out on Gary for not using Uber?”

“You think that’s the stupidest reason anyone has ever given up on a date?”

“Well… I guess not, but… is that really the only problem?”

“Naw. She was also bothered that he ordered an unsweetened tea because ‘Hashtag Who Drinks That?’ And he put hot mustard on his egg roll — ‘Hashtag Nasty Sauce.’ Oh, and why are they sitting so close to the kitchen?”

“What? But that’s not even his fault!”

“Once a human gives up, it doesn’t really matter.”

“Well what about Gary? What’s his side of it?”

“I dunno, he hasn’t been tweeting. But look at him, Santa.” Cupid adjusted the point of view of their image so they were looking straight at Gary. He wasn’t on his phone, but he was slumped over, not making eye contact, chewing on his egg roll with hot mustard. He looked, Santa realized, the same way he did when he left the party on New Year’s Eve.

“Your friend is smarter than you are. He knows this is all donezo, and he can’t be bothered to put in any more effort than she is, even if he’s not going to be rude about it. And then, once this date is put out of its misery, he’s going to go home alone and be even more depressed than he would have been if you hadn’t done anything in the first place.”

“I don’t understand. What went wrong?”

“What went wrong is that you went Hallmark, Chubbs. This isn’t what Valentine’s Day is. It never should have been. Good grief, it started by commemorating a guy who got executed for trying to give comfort to persecuted Christians under the Roman empire. How the hell we went from that to a 64-count box of assorted chocolates is beyond me.”

“Fine then. Enlighten me Cupid. What is this supposed to be about?”

Cupid looked deeper into the mists, glancing around the Chinese restaurant. His eyes fell on a table across the restaurant and he grinned.

“Try this one on for size, Santa.”

Their perspective changed again, and Santa found himself looking at another couple. Steven Morten. Gayle Abrams-Morten. Married six years. Two children. Their first night out together in nine months. Each of these facts clicked into Santa’s head the same way the prayers for a New Year had on December 31. As he watched them, Santa could feel how each of them was feeling. It was love, deep love. But it was… cool.

“Check the phone,” Cupid said. Santa realized that he was holding the phone now, and that it was open to Gayle’s Facebook page. He scrolled down. Three pictures of her with the kids. A post asking where to get an oil change. Another picture of the kids. A tag from someone asking if she remembered some music video from high school. Two more of Gayle and the kids. A Spongebob meme.

“Where’s her husband?” Santa asked.

“Click the other tab.”

He did. Steven’s page was more of the same. Him with the children, expressing how much he loved them, he loved them, he loved the Rangers even if this wouldn’t be their year to hoist the Stanley cup, he loved the kids.

“What’s wrong?”

“They’re tired, Big Guy. Day in, day out. Nobody is mad here, there hasn’t been a fight. They’ve just been together so long and done so much that they’re… tired.”

“This is almost as sad as Gary and Carrie.”

Cupid rolled his eyes. “Do you hear it when you say it out loud? ‘Gary and Carrie?’ Man, what were you thinking?”

“Forget them for a minute. What about Steven and Gayle? What do we do?”

“Well, that’s what you have to figure out, isn’t it?”

“I… fine. Give me an arrow.”

“Nope. Arrows spark passion. There’s no shortcut to reheat it. You’re gonna have to work for this one.”

Santa reached out into the mist. As he did, he felt sparks of memory. Their first date. The day Steven asked Gayle to marry him. Their wedding. The births of each of their children. The big moments, the huge moments, the moments that are etched into the DNA of any relationship. What was he supposed to do? Remind them of their children? Pointless, the children never left their minds. Recreate their first date? It had been to a Chinese restaurant — this one, in fact. What else was he going to do? Play the song from their wedding dance? Santa pictured himself standing outside the restaurant with a boom box on his shoulders, then immediately pictured himself getting a restraining order.

He reached again, brushing aside the big moments. He saw smaller ones now: birthdays, Mae’s first day in preschool, Arlen’s first cold. He saw Steven taking Gayle’s car in for new tires, saw Gayle picking up Steven’s clothes from the dry cleaners, saw Steven washing the dishes even though it was Gayle’s turn because she’d had a bad day at work, saw Gayle making Steven hot chocolate when she woke up before him on a snowy morning in January.

He saw something small, something sweet. And most importantly, something that was already in Gayle’s purse.

The waiter approached their table as they finished their meal, smiling. “Would you care for any dessert?”

Steven was about to say something, but Gayle held her hand up, shaking her head. “No thanks, just the check.”

The waiter nodded and lay a black folder on the table walking off. Steven looked at his wife, puzzled. “No dessert? Not even those pineapple tarts they make?”

“Eh, those are okay,” she said. “I have something better.” She looked in both directions, surreptitiously, and reached into her purse. From within, she drew two small tupperware containers, and slid one across the table to her husband.

“What’s this?”

“Dessert.”

He popped open the lid of the container and smiled. “You made creme brulee?”

“It’s not hot, but I know it’s your favorite.”

His smile got wider, then shrank a little. “Sorry I’ve been so busy lately.”

“I’ve been busy too. It’s not your fault. Maybe we should get your folks to babysit a little more often.”

“Yeah, maybe we should,” he said. He leaned across the table and kissed her, and she kissed back. As they did, the mists closed around them, and Santa and Cupid found themselves back in Gary’s apartment.

“Boss?” Blinky dropped the dustpan he was using to sweep up the broken plate. “Boss, where did you go?”

“He was learning a lesson, Jingles,” Cupid said. “So what exactly did you learn, Kringle?”

“Fine, I get it,” he said. “It’s the little things that count, right.”

Cupid shook his head. “Man, for somebody who’s supposed to be so good at giving people what they want, you still miss the obvious, don’t you? Look, I’ll spell it out for you. Your day is about the big, ginormous things that kids spend all year waiting for. But focusing on the big things on Valentine’s Day is a recipe for disaster.”

Santa thought about Gayle. About Steven. About creme brulee.

“Sometimes you just need to take the time to celebrate what you already have,” he said.

“Now you’re getting it. I’m sure your missus will be happy to see you taking that approach.”

Santa glowered at him. “My missus is back at the Pole. And I’m missing Valentine’s Day with her because of your stupid little games.”

“Maybe, but you guys can have more Valentine’s Days until the end of time. Folks like Steven and Gayle? If they’re lucky, they’ll get what? Forty? Fifty? If they’re unlucky, this might be the last one.”

“The same is true for Christmases, you know.”

“Sure, sure. But that’s not my department, is it?” Cupid flapped his little wings and bobbed in the air. “Well, I’ve said my peace. Happy Valentine’s Day, Tubbs. Shorty. I’ll probably see you again before this is all over.”

Santa was about to ask him what that was supposed to mean, but a swirl of pink and white made took the cherub away, leaving the two of them alone.

“I really dislike that guy,” Blinky said.

“Hmph.” Santa walked back to the sink. “Come on, let’s finish these dishes. I want to get this apartment in shape before Gary gets home.. I have a feeling his date hasn’t gone as well as we would like.”

*   *   *

“Would you care for any dessert?”

Carrie shot a filthy look at the waitress. “Are you kidding me?” she asked. “The chicken was dry, the egg rolls had so much salt my lips are burning, and the tea may as well have been water. I’m not trusting you people to scoop out ice cream. Just give him the check, twerp.”

The waitress’s eyes grew wide and watered. Her hands fumbling, she put the folder down on the table and walked off without saying a word. Gary’s face was turning red as he reached for the bill.

“Was that really necessary? She didn’t make the food, you know.”

“Then she can pass the message on to whoever did.”

“And what about that last crack? That was unnecessary.”

Carrie laughed. “Come on, what is she? Three feet two? It’s like having a third grader wait on the table.” She chuckled at her own wit and turned back to her phone. Gary put his credit card on the folder and sat in silence as the waitress retrieved it and brought it back. Of the three of them, the only sounds made were Carrie occasionally giggling at something on Instagram. Gary picked up the bill and looked down, trying to do math. A twenty percent tip would have been about twelve dollars. Under GRATUITY, he scribbled “$30” and added it to the total, then wrote “I’m sorry” underneath.

Carrie led the way out of the restaurant, not even noticing that Gary didn’t immediately follow her. Instead, he stopped at the host’s podium, where a kind-eyed man was coordinating the restaurant’s many, many customers. “Excuse me,” Gary said, “are you the manager?”

“Yes sir, I am.”

“I just wanted to let you know our waitress was wonderful. Just a charming, lovely person.”

“Oh, thank you sir. Who was your waitress this evening?”

Gary glanced down at his receipt for her name. “Eleanor,” he said. “Her name is Eleanor.”

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: The New Year

On Christmas morning, as Santa Claus and two of his helpers returned to the North Pole, they came under attack by a group of holiday Icons angry that Claus was monopolizing the holiday glory. This year, stranded in the human world with no way home, Santa will be forced to take on the tasks for every other holiday — the Icons are on strike.

Previous Installments: Prologue-Christmas Day

One: The New Year

Edgar stood alone, staring at the empty chair. A week out from Christmas Eve and he didn’t want to move. The others had done everything they could to snap him out of it: hot cocoa, sugar cookies, Christmas crackers… nothing. Edgar, as North Pole Chief of Operations, had been the one in communication with Santa’s sleigh when they lost contact. If he lived to be thirty thousand, he’d never forget what he heard over that radio. Screams. Blinky shouting that they were under attack. Static. Then, a gut-churning eternity later, eight reindeer returned to the barn, their reins fluttering behind them, tattered ends that looked like they had been pecked through. Everyone turned to Edgar then, as he was technically in charge when Santa was gone. But he’d never had – nor wanted – the responsibility for this long.

Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was one of celebration at the Pole: parties, gatherings with friends, subversive meetups under the mistletoe, and one mega-blowout on the 31st before the whole Pole went on vacation for the month of January. Not this year. The past week had been chaos. Elves running everywhere, search parties scouring every corner of the Pole, trainers trying to get the reindeer to retrace their steps. All they had uncovered were a few chunks of vine and brown feathers stuck in the reins.

Now, as midnight hit Greenwich Mean Time, the rest of the senior staff was gathered with Edgar in Santa’s office, looking at his enormous green chair. Nobody had touched it in a week. Nobody wanted to.

Finally, a silver-haired elf from the licensing department cleared her throat. “Edgar?” she asked. “What do we do?”

He cleared his throat, wet his lips. He didn’t know if he was parched or just stalling, unwilling to say the only thing he could say.

“Cancel leave,” he said. “All of it. We need to keep looking.”

The other elves nodded, one at a time. It wasn’t the answer anyone wanted to hear, but it was the one that made the most sense. Nobody was particularly in the mood for a vacation anyway. How could anybody justify a month at the beach or riding roller coasters when Santa, Blinky, and Eleanor were missing? Everybody wanted to keep looking. The trouble was that nobody knew where to look.

“He has to be in the Real World somewhere” said Dale, the elf in charge of preadolescent surveillance. “We can keep up the search.”

“Of course you can,” said Jamie from Reindeer Care. “You guys watch the entire world. How hard can it be to find Santa?”

Dale shook her head. “We’re equipped to surveil children,” she said. “Our equipment is trained on them. We’ve got a computer system that analyzes the footage and alerts us if the kid does something naughty. Other than that, we never actually see them. We’re actually going to have to start combing through film, looking for some sort of trace of him. In footage of every child in the world. Even if we had a specific region to look in, some way to narrow it down–”

“Just do what you can, Dale.” Edgar put a hand on her shoulder and she nodded. He looked at the faces of the rest of the senior staff, their eyes pleading with him for some sort of guidance. He didn’t want this, he reminded himself. He never wanted this.

“What if we don’t find him?” Jamie finally said. “What if it’s February first and it’s time to start getting ready for next Christmas and there’s still no Santa Claus?”

Edgar nodded. It was exactly the question he’d been asking himself since he realized he was the one in charge. “Then we do our jobs,” he said. “Whatever it takes, we make sure that Christmas happens next year.”

December 31, 11:45 p.m.

New York City was cold. Oh, it usually was when Santa visited. They might not have a white Christmas every year, but it was usually at least chilly when he came through. Despite being open-air, his sleigh had precision climate control, and it never bothered him. Today it bothered him. It bothered him a lot.

Santa and Blinky had hitchhiked to Manhattan after they finally found the road outside of Rochester. It only took them two days to make it, with Santa using a tiny bit of his magic to make people treat them with good cheer along the way. In a way, Santa felt lucky they’d crashed in New York state. It wasn’t home, but no place in North America loved Christmas as much as New York City. His magic drained rapidly after Christmas was over, but he felt certain this was the one place he could cling to as much of it as possible.

But that magic was dying quickly. He’d managed to generate enough goodwill amongst his fellow men to get them some new clothes and a pair of cots at a shelter. But here it was, New Year’s Eve. No home or food, no sign of Eleanor, no sign of rescue.

At a quarter to midnight, Santa and Blinky were out on the street, miles away from Times Square and all the lunacy that gripped that piece of real estate on this day, still able to see the glittering ball from a distance. Santa sat down on the bottom stoop of a building, arms folded over his knees. Blinky was on the top stoop, making him eye-level with Santa. Across the street, with the shimmering ball above, a bar was loud and raucous with celebrants ready to bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the new.

“Well… happy new year, Santa.”

“Would that it were, Blinky,” he said. “In all the years we’ve been in operation, I’ve never felt as lost as I do right now.”

“There’s nobody you can call or something?”

“Like who? There aren’t any mortal telephones that can dial the North Pole, and that’s by design. Can you imagine the hassle if children could actually contact us there?”

“Anybody we can recruit to get us back? A non-holiday Icon like Sandman? Tooth Fairy?”

“The Icons only serve children. We couldn’t summon them, even if I punched your tooth out of your mouth.”

“NORAD?”

Santa shot his elf a dirty look, and Blinky shrugged. “Hey, if you’ve got a better suggestion…”

Santa sighed. “All I’ve got is a headache. I wish everyone would just be quiet.”

“Aw, the bar’s not that bad from out here, boss.”

“It’s not the bar, it’s everyone else.”

“What are you talking about? There’s nobody else here.”

Santa looked around, realizing for the first time that he and the elf were alone on the sidewalk. “If there’s no one here, where are the voices coming from?”

Not for the first time since the crash, Blinky looked worried. “What voices, boss?”

Gotta be better than last year…

…gonna lose weight, go back to the gym, give up the fast food…

…this year, I swear, I’m going to get a new job…

…he doesn’t propose by Valentine’s Day that’s IT, it’s OVER…

…has to be better than last year.

“Blinky?” Santa asked. “What’s happening?”

A slow tapping sound echoed down the street. Santa looked up to see an old man – an ancient man, in fact – staggering down the sidewalk, cane in hand. They saw this man just a week ago, but already he looked so much older than he had then. “Ah, Santa Claus,” he said. “I told you we’d meet again tonight.”

“Santa, who is that?” Blinky asked.

“It’s the Old Year,” Santa said. The old man laughed.

“Only for another eleven minutes, Claus!” he said. “Then I become the New Year all over again. Or, more accurately, you will.”

“What’s he talking about, boss?”

“Like we told you, little elf, this year your master is taking on the duties of each of us Icons. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Santa, you’re already hearing the prayers.”

“Prayers? For what?”

“For the New Year, of course!”

In his head, the voices started to get louder. Pleas for money, for health, for children, for love. One woman’s voice swore that this was the year she would visit Europe, another was begging this year to be the one when she found a job in which she could finally afford day care. A man asked if this year he would get a new car, a young one swore with all his might that he was going to buckle down this semester and study, dammit, because he was lucky not to have been thrown out of school already, and if he didn’t fix things it would break his grandmother’s heart. One girl wanted a puppy this year. A boy promised to make the baseball team. A man said he’d try to go vegan, while his wife anxiously promised to get him to stop spending so much time on the internet. More than one voice, more than one chilling voice, asked that please could nobody else die this year, because they couldn’t take any more.

Santa grabbed Blinky’s arm trying not to tip over. He looked up, gasping, while the Old Year’s face continued to grow more wrinkles, longer whiskers, eyes sinking into their sockets and cheeks hollowing before their eyes. “What are you doing to me?” he asked.

“Nothing I don’t endure every single year,” he said. “You’re lucky I come first, Claus. You still have a good deal of your power. Christmas technically lasts until January 6, after all, so your residual magic is probably making this easier on you. Can you imagine if you had to listen to these voices in June?”

“Boss, what’s happening to you?”

“Prayers… cries… people pleading… people everywhere.”

“Prayers for the New Year, Claus.”

“It’s overwhelming,” he said, squeezing Blinky’s arm even tighter. “Everybody wants something. Everybody needs something.”

“Boss, you hear people ask for things all the time. It’s your job!”

“I hear children, Blinky. This…”

“Yes, adults are quite different, aren’t they, Claus?”

…going to learn to speak Mandarin this year…

…this glass of champagne and then that’s it, I’m done drinking…

…just so tired of being alone…

“They’re all in pain!” Santa shouted. “They’re all in misery!

“Oh, not all of them,” the Old Year said. “Just the loudest ones.” In the distance people in Times Square were howling with joy. The countdown had reached one minute to midnight. He looked down at Santa, his face almost skeletal now as the skin pulled taught against his leering skull.

“I don’t understand!” Santa slumped forward, grabbing the Old Year by his cloak. “Isn’t anyone happy tonight?”

“Of course they are,” the Old Year said. “But they don’t need us, do they? That’s the incredible thing about the New Year, Claus. As a marking of time, it’s really quite meaningless. It’s arbitrary. The mortals could have decided the year ended any time they wanted – the beginning of July, the day the crops were planted. It doesn’t mark someone’s birthday or a historical anniversary or any of the things some of the other holidays do. Closing one calendar and opening the next is irrelevant. But they’ve placed so much emphasis on it, haven’t they? They pretend that things are ending, that it’s a time when everything else can start over.”

The countdown was happening. Santa could almost hear it over the voices in his head.

…this is it…

…it all starts now…

…thank God it’s over…

“Don’t you understand why you’re hearing from people in misery, Claus? Because nobody needs a New Year more than someone whose Old Year was agony.”

He closed his eyes as the voices behind them turned into an incomprehensible din, a sickening miasma of prayers and hopes and grief. Screams and cries of celebration broke – from Times Square, from the bar across the street, from all directions. Santa thought that the voices would stop, but if anything, they got louder.

show them some real fireworks at the office…

…dammit, I knew she’d kiss somebody else at midnight…

…last glass of ch—ah, but I’m still AT the party, right?

“Why isn’t it stopping?” Santa asked. “Why isn’t it stopping?”

“Santa?” Blinky asked. “Where’d the Old Year go?”

Santa opened his eyes and looked down. The Old Year was, in fact, gone, his cloak lying on the ground in front of them. Lying in front and… moving. Santa reached down and pulled the cloak aside. On the ground, wearing a smirk that one would never have expected in one so young, was a newborn baby.

“It’s not stopping, Santa, because it’s not over yet.” The newborn rocked up onto his bottom, smiling up at Santa and Blinky. “People don’t stop asking at midnight. It takes a few days, even weeks sometimes before they stop asking the New Year to be different than the old one.”

“But… all of those cries… all that pain. What are we supposed to do?”

The infant looked surprised. “Do? Santa, you’re already doing it. You’re hearing them.”

“Aren’t I supposed to help them?”

“They’re not kids, Santa. They don’t want dolls and candy. How are you gonna help them? Give Tory Kittridge a new job? Find a way to make Edna Carson’s son call her for a change?” He stood up, grabbing Santa’s beard and pulling it down until they were eye-to-eye. “You got a cure for cancer in that sack of yours, Santa?”

He let go of the beard and Santa rocked back onto the stoop, staring up into the sky. His stomach was curdling, despite the fact that there was relatively little inside it. As he gasped, the voices continued, although they started to settle a bit.

“Here’s the harsh truth most humans don’t want to admit, Santa. No matter how much they want to believe it, the year doesn’t control anything. If something is going to change, it has to come from them. But who wants to hear that? It’s not my fault I’m broke! It’s not my fault I’m lonely! It’s not my fault I’m sick! No! It’s just this crummy year.” The cynicism coming from such a young face was almost comical. Santa may have laughed if he weren’t trying to prevent the conflicting voices in his head from driving him mad.

“Nah,” New Year said. “There’s nothing you can do to help them, Santa. They have to help themselves. All you get to do is listen to each and every prayer they have.”

He patted Santa on the cheek, smiling. “Well, I’ve said my peace. Have fun on the next holiday. Someone will be there to hold your hand then, too.”

Santa watched as the New Year, still waddling around in a baby’s body, gathered up his cloak and toddled away. As he did so, the voices, the prayers, the pleading in his mind continued.

“Boss, are you all right?”

“It’s too much, Blinky. It’s just too much.”

He put his head down on the stoop, trying not to allow tears to break his eyes. Across the street, the doors to the bar had been thrown open and people were cheering in the fact that they all had to buy a new calendar, and nothing else. Santa rolled his head and looked up at the stars in the cold January morning.

“How am I going to do this? How can I handle an entire year of this? We’re lost, we’re alone, we…”

“Hey, are you all right?”

Santa tilted his head and looked at the man approaching them. He was coming from the direction of the bar, a few chunks of confetti fell from his shoulders as he walked, but he didn’t have the joyous expression that most of the revelers wore. He was a bulky man, with deep brown hair and a tiny scar in his upper lip, which was pulled down into a look of concern.

“It’s nothing that should worry you, young man,” he said.

“Are you sure? You sounded pretty downbeat.” He reached out and Santa realized he’d heard this man’s voice before, only moments before. He was one of the many, many people who was pleading for a better year.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Come on, pal, it’s Christmas.”

Blinky frowned. “It’s January First.”

“Yeah, and like my grandmother always told me, Christmas lasts until the sixth. Epiphany. You’ve heard of the twelve days of Christmas right?”

Santa looked the man in the eye, and for the first time since his sleigh went down, a small smile crept onto his face. “Have I met you before, son?”

“Could be. It’s a big city.” He held out his hand. “Gary Valechi. You?”

“Nick. And this is Bill.”

Gary Valechi. Nice list. Asked for a Super Nintendo when he was seven years old.

“Look, the party across the street turned out to be… not what I wanted. I was going to go get something to eat. You guys want to join me? My treat.”

Santa and Blinky exchanged a look, and Blinky shrugged.

“All right, Gary,” Santa said. “Maybe there’s a little Christmas left out here after all.”

*   *   *

In Central Park, Chuck Parker listened to people cheering all over the city. Must have been New Year’s Eve again. Eh. December, January, Christmas, New Year… out here, it was pretty much all the same. The only thing about the holidays ending was that people got a little less generous with their spare change. Whatever, he made it through last year, he’d make it through this one.

He shuffled down to a bench, one of his favorites, and pulled his coat tight around him. Someone had left a pile of newspaper on his bench, filthy animals in this city, and as he lay down to stretch out, he kicked at the paper to clear it out.

“Ow! Watch it!”

A hand grabbed at the paper and yanked it away. Beneath was a small, angelic face fringed by silvery golden hair. Her face was dirty, but unwrinkled and unmarred, and the green hat atop her head was cocked at an angle.

“Kid, what are you doing out here?”

“I’m no kid,” she said.

“Well I ain’t seen you around here before. You lost?”

She looked up into the sky, staring as if she were looking for something. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”

To be continued…