Christmas 2021: Vic Saves Christmas

Welcome back, guys. It’s time once again for my annual Christmas short story, my little gift to all of you out there who actually take the time to read the stuff that I write. And while 2021 turned out to be 2020’s nasty, petulant little brother, there have been a few high points. One of those, for me, has been my serial story Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a continuation of the Siegel City universe that I launched in the original Other People’s Heroes novel and that I’ve returned to several times (including in a few of these selfsame Christmas stories).

This year, we’re going back to Siegel City and spending the holidays with a few of the heroes of Little Stars. This short tale can be read independently of the larger work, but those of you who have been following along may get a little more out of it. In a world where people can fly, teleport, lift a train or run faster than sound, is the concept of Santa Claus really so outlandish? And what do you do when you realize your friends aren’t believers? Let’s go to the cafeteria at Lieber High School to meet up with a few of the Little Stars gang in a story that could only be called…

VIC SAVES CHRISTMAS

“What are you putting on your list for Santa Claus?” 

It’s a common question. Parents need to know what toys their children lust after. Kids on the playground want to make certain that their lists are superior to those of their rivals. Even certain adults, in a fit of playfulness, will ask the question in a coy attempt to determine what someone on their list wants that year. Andeana Vargas did not expect to hear the question, however, while eating lunch with her best friend and the human-shaped lump of metamorphic protoplasm they had taken under their wing.

“Come again, Vic?” Tony Gardner asked. 

“I asked the two of you what you’re putting on your Christmas lists,” Vic Teague said. The chubby boy with russet hair smiled at them, slowly picking away at his cafeteria spaghetti while they stared at him, dumbfounded. Behind them one of the TV monitors in the cafeteria scrolled through the usual slideshow of school announcements and pictures, and Vic smiled at the clip art Santa Claus that accompanied the invitation to the band’s Winter Concert. 

“Are you serious?” Andi said.

“Of course. I’ve been working on mine ever since Thanksgiving. I’ve managed to narrow it down to twelve pages, but I’m still trying to decide what else I can prune. What do you think is more important, a Powr-X Game System Turbo, or little socks with snowflakes on them?”

“Socks,” Tony said without hesitation. “But back to this list for Santa Claus…What do you intend to do with that list, Vic?”

“Mail it, of course. That’s what the youth of the world do when their letters to Santa Claus are complete.”

“Yeah, but…” Andi stammered. “Vic, you’re a teenager.”

“Technically, I am slightly more than two years old.”

“Okay, but you look like a teenager. And you’re in high school.”

“So?”

“So…high school students…” She fumbled over the words. It was stupid, of course, it was ridiculous, but…somewhere in her gut, she didn’t quite have the nerve to be the one to tell somebody this innocent creature that there was no Santa Claus.

“There is no Santa Claus,” Tony said. He was far less hesitant than Andi. “He’s just a myth. A fairy tale. Something parents tell their children to try to bribe them into behaving.”

Vic looked at the two of them, his eyes darting back and forth. Although he had mastered replicating the human form, he had not captured the intricacies of emotional expression, so it was very difficult to tell what he felt simply by looking at him. Andi was only marginally surprised, then, when he began to laugh.

“That’s funny!” he said. “That is very funny! Right, all the parents in the world tell their children the same myth. They all just agree to fabricate this story year after year, and then the children grow up and have children of their own and play along with the same fabrication.” He chuckled. “I know I am still struggling to grasp the details of humor, but even I got this one.”

“Vic…he’s serious,” Andi said. “There’s no such thing as Santa Claus.”

“You are dedicated to your humor! I appreciate this.” Vic beamed and stood up with his tray. “I know that playful jokes are a rite of passage among human teenagers, and are often a sign that one has been accepted into the group, and I am most grateful. By the way, Tony, your shoelaces are untied, and Andi has a large dalmatian growing out of her neck.” He chortled at his own attempts at humor. “I am very grateful to have friends for Christmas this year,” he said. “I look forward to reconvening for more non-malevolent joshing at the earliest convenience.”

He turned and walked to the front of the cafeteria, his empty tray ready to be scraped and discarded. Tony and Andi looked at each other.

“Can we just fight the time traveler again?” Tony said. “I think that was easier than this is going to be.”

*   *   *

Andi, Tony, and Vic were students at Lieber High School, the biggest high school in Siegel City. The school had gone through a lot this semester — robot invasions, zombie attacks on a field trip, Mr. Cohan’s history midterm — and Andi felt personally responsible for much of it. The chaos had begun when someone (she still didn’t know who) had released a video announcing to the world that the beloved superhero called Shooting Star was actually Carmelita Vargas, Andi’s mother. Since then, despite the fact that she had no powers of her own, Andi had become a magnet for weirdness. Having Tony and Vic on her side was one of the only reasons she had survived this long.

Tony’s father, Patrick Gardner, was a teammate of Andi’s mother. Particle was a super genius inventor with the ability to shrink himself down to microscopic sizes, a trait he’d passed down to his son. Vic, on the other hand, was more complicated. Two years ago their parents’ team, the LightCorps, had battled a protoplasmic shapeshifter called the Form, and in that battle, a chunk of the Form’s biomass had been severed. Tony’s father, ever the scientist, collected the small piece and brought it back to his lab where, to everyone’s surprise, it began to grow. They were even more shocked when it began to speak. The lump eventually learned to control its own shape and chose its own human name, “Vic Teague.” He was enrolled in Lieber High along with the others after Shooting Star’s secret came out — partially to have some added protection for Andi, but mostly because everybody agreed that he needed to learn to socialize with humans beyond what he got from TV.

They had not counted on the fact that TV would have given him a unique perspective on Christmas. 

“Vic, we’re high school seniors,” Andi told him as they walked home from school that afternoon. “You can’t go around telling people you believe in Santa Claus.”

“Why not?”

“Because some people aren’t as understanding as us,” Tony said. “One bonehead hits you hard enough in the stomach and his fist sinks into your flesh and your secret is blown wide open.”

“Also because they would hurt your feelings,” Andi said, glaring at her best friend.

“Right, that too.”

“I’m not concerned about my feelings. I know the truth, and I know that those who do not yet know the truth are simply going to have to wait for the life-changing Yuletide experience that will instill in them the proper Christmas spirit.”

Andi groaned. “‘Life-changing Yuletide experience’?”

“Yes. Three ghosts is a classic, it has happened many times. But others have had personal encounters with Santa Claus, or his reindeer, or his elves. Some of them do not encounter him personally but are given evidence of his existence in the form of a toy they coveted as a child. There also appear to be many small towns, especially in the Pacific Northwest, where businesswomen retreat around the holidays in an effort to form a pair-bond with a rugged single father. He may also own a dog.” 

“Vic, for the last time, not everything you see on television is a documentary.”

“I am aware of that, Tony. But even fiction can be useful to reveal truths about the human condition. Is that not what Mr. Hooper teaches us in English class?”

Andi was forced to concede. “Yeah, but those are more thematic truths, literary truths, not…literal truths.”

“Think about it logically, Vic. How could Santa Claus deliver toys to every child in the world in just one night?”

“He doesn’t,” Vic said.

“Good, I’m glad to see you’re finally making sense.”

“He does it on three nights.”

“Beg your pardon?”

“Yes. In some cultures, the day of gift distribution is not on Christmas, but on the feast of St. Nicholas on December 6. Others wait until the feast of the Epiphany on January 6th, which is the twelfth day of Christmas — it’s not a countdown, did you know that?”

Andi nodded. Tony shook his head.

“Furthermore, Santa Claus is not the gift-giver in all countries. In Italy gifts are delivered by the Christmas witch La Befana, for example, and in other countries they are delivered by Sinterklaas or Christ Kindel or–”

“Okay, okay!” Tony shouted. “Fine, it’s not the whole world and it’s not just one night. But still, think logistically. How could he possibly move so fast–”

“Speedburn used her metahuman abilities to remove every bystander from Lee Park in seconds during our encounter with Draugr. And she was not going at top speed. Extrapolating from her abilities, Santa and his reindeer obviously draw on a similar reservoir of power to accomplish their task.”

“Wait, Vic,” Andi said. “Are you trying to tell me you think Santa Claus is a superhero?”

“Of course. It’s the only reasonable deduction. His abilities are vast, he has a secret headquarters and a costume, he has battled and conquered the forces of evil on numerous occasions…I have often wondered why he has not been nominated for membership into the LightCorps.”

“Okay, forget the deliveries,” Tony said. “What about the toys? Where does he get all the toys?”

“There are a number of highly advanced builders on the planet. Malefactory, for example, has invented microscopic robots capable of creating more microscopic robots. What would preclude Santa Claus and his elves from using similar technology to produce toys and gifts in sufficient quantities to fulfill his orders?”

“How about his workshop then? People have been to the North Pole a lot of times, man. If he had a base up there why haven’t they seen it?”

“Light manipulation powers similar to Spectrum’s could easily render the headquarters invisible to anyone passing by. And if anyone should happen to stumble upon it, Mental Maid or somebody with her abilities could wipe their memory and return them to civilization none the wiser.”

“Okay then, how does he get into all of those houses?”

“Heck, Tony,” Andi said, “He could just shrink down like your dad and sneak in through any crack or air conditioning duct.”

“Andi, don’t help him.”

“Sorry, but you dropped the lowest hanging fruit there is, I couldn’t resist picking it.” 

Tony lifted his glasses and mashed the palms of his hands into his eyes. “I can’t deal with this,” he said. “I can’t. Look, I’ve got to do a little shopping. You guys just go on without me and I’ll catch up to you later.”

“You sure?”

“Positive. Let me forget this conversation ever happened.”

As he walked off, flustered, Andi couldn’t help but feel a little amused by the entire situation. Tony was one of the smartest people she knew, and while that intelligence came in handy on more than one occasion, she couldn’t deny there was something a little satisfying about a problem he couldn’t logic his way out of. Next to her, though, Vic was trembling. Although his face remained as impassive as ever, she thought she could see something in his eyes. Was that a hint of…

Worry?

“Vic? You okay?”

“Andi, Tony needs our help.”

“Nah, he’s fine. He just doesn’t like being outsmarted because it almost never happens.”

“That’s not what I mean. Tony has lost his Christmas spirit. He refuses to believe in Santa Claus. If he does not regain his faith, his holiday will be ruined.”

“Vic, it’s going to be okay. Tony’s just a little frazzled, but he’ll get over it.”

“Andi, it will not be okay! People who have lost their holiday spirit cannot regain it without help! Scrooge needed his ghosts! George needed Clarence the angel! Kevin needed the creepy old man that everybody thought was a serial killer!”

“Turn off the streaming services for a second, Vic. What exactly are you getting at?”

“Tony is in trouble, and we are his friends. That means that it is up to us.”

“What is up to us?”

We must create Tony’s life-changing Yuletide experience. Andi…we must save Christmas.”

*   *   *

It was the rattling chains that woke Tony up that night. He’d been asleep, dreaming about observing places in Lee Park from a subatomic level, when a jingle and clink of metal links roused him from his slumber. He opened his eyes to a blue blur in the corner of his room, limbs flailing about, and a low groan emanating from the center mass of the creature.

“Anthony Gardner…” it moaned.

“What’s going on?” Tony mumbled. He reached for the nightstand, fumbling for his glasses, and rubbed the sleep from his eyes before putting them on. The figure came into focus. Even in the dark room, it glowed with a sort of inner phosphorescence that allowed him to see every detail: a tall man, thin as a rail, with a cloth wrapped around his chin and tied up behind his stringy hair in a knot. His clothes looked as though they had once been expensive, but were worn and filthy as though they’d been on a man who clawed his way out of the grave.

“Anthony Gardner,” it repeated. “Repeeeeeeeeent…”

“Repent? Repent what?” 

“I have come to give thee warning, Anthony…You must chaaaaaange you ways…” He pointed a bony finger at Tony, chains dangling from his arm and rattling in the darkness. “Change your ways and repent, for your hour of reckoning is at hand.”

“Vic, what the hell are you doing?”

The figure froze. 

“I’m not…I mean…who’s Vic? I am the spirit of Jacob Marley, and I have come–”

“Vic, it’s late, and we’ve got school tomorrow. Why are you here?”

“I told you, I’m not Vic! I–”

“First of all, Jacob Marley was a fictional character. Second, even if he was a real person, why would his ghost be visiting me? Third, my dad has got security systems out the wazoo in this apartment, and only someone who is on the approved entry list could have even theoretically gotten into this place without setting off every alarm in the building. Fourth, only a shapeshifter could have snuck into my bedroom without being noticed and assumed the form of a fictional ghost. Fifth, Vic Teague is the only shapeshifter on the approved list that’s currently in Siegel City. Sixth, even if you weren’t the only shapeshifter currently in the city, you’re still the only one who would actually think I would be fooled by being approached by the ghost of a fictional character.”

Marley looked at Tony, the two of them sizing each other up.

“Booooooo…” he lamely mumbled.

“I’m going back to bed.”

Marley’s form grew shorter and plumper, his features shifting and the color returning to his body. As the glow faded from his form, Tony snapped on the bedside lamp. “Want to tell me what that was about?” he asked.

“I’m here to help you, Tony. I’m here to get you into the Christmas spirit.”

“I’m not Mr. Magoo, Vic, I’ve got plenty of Christmas spirit. I just don’t believe in Santa Claus. And why the hell would re-enacting A Christmas Carol make me start believing in Santa Claus? Santa Claus isn’t in that story.

Vic stared at him.

“I admit I might not have thought this through,” he said.

“Good night, Vic.”

“Good night, Tony.”

‘Nice trick with the glowing, by the way.”

“Oh, thank you. I’ve been practicing.”

*   *   *

“He just wants to help you, Tony,” Andi said the next day on their walk to school. “He thinks you’re going to have an awful Christmas because you don’t believe in Santa and he doesn’t want that to happen. It’s actually kind of sweet.”

“Decaying flesh can be sweet, Andi, that doesn’t mean I want it all over my Christmas.”

“Wow, way to kill the room, dude.”

“I’m just saying.”

“Look, why don’t you just play along with it? Let him think he’s convinced you about the Santa Claus thing? Then he’ll drop it and everybody will be happy.”

“I’m not going to pretend to believe in something that doesn’t exist just to placate a child. It’s irrational. There’s science involved here, there’s logic, there’s the simple fact that there is no Santa Claus, and I’m not going to capitulate to somebody who doesn’t accept facts.”

“Okay, so maybe it’s irrational. But how rational is it to try to use logic to convince a ‘child’ of anything?”

“He’s got to learn some time.”

“Then let the world wear him down and wring the joy out of his life like it does to everybody else. If he wants Christmas to keep being magical, where’s the harm in that?”

“How is he going to feel on Christmas morning when he wakes up and ‘Santa’ hasn’t left him anything?”

“Um…Well, since you mentioned it…”

“Andi. You didn’t.”

“Only a few things! A couple of model kits, some LEGOs, you know how crazy he is about building things.”

“And how did you presume to get them into his apartment without him noticing?”

“Funny thing – I’ve got this best friend who can shrink, you see, and–”

“That’s it!” Tony threw his hands up in the air and started walking faster. “I’ve heard enough! You’re all crazy!”

“See you in English class!”

“You’re crazy!”

*   *   *

Vic backed off for a while, at least in person. He didn’t bring up Santa Claus and didn’t even really mention Christmas in general that much, at least not in Tony’s presence. However, Tony did start to notice a marked increase in holiday-related shenanigans when he was around. Mistletoe appeared in doorways where there had been none previously. Every time he opened his locker a Christmas card fell out. Bell-ringing Santas appeared on street corners with far greater frequency than they previously did, and although they looked very different from one another, every one of them had the same voice. In fact, Tony once glimpsed a pair of Santas getting into a scuffle down the block, one of them yelling at the other that this was his corner, dammit, and he needed to get the hell away from him. Tony changed direction and walked two blocks out of his way to avoid the nonsense. 

It wasn’t until the last day of school before Christmas break that he made another major move. Tony sat down next to Andi at lunch, their back to one of the three TV monitors in the cafeteria. The monitors were scrolling through a slideshow of pictures and short video clips submitted by students of them playing in snow, putting up Christmas decorations and other assorted seasonal festivities. Tony, it need not be mentioned, had not submitted anything to the slideshow.

“He’s going to do something,” Tony said. “I can feel it. There’s something in the air.”

“It’s called holiday spirit, Tony. Breathe it in. Feel it. Love it.”

“I mean it, Andi, he’s got something up his protoplasmic sleeve and I have this awful feeling it’s going to bite me on the ass.”

“Oh, what’s he going to do? Show up at your house dressed like Santa? Turn into a reindeer and offer to take you flying? Make you dress up like an elf?”

“No, I’m fairly certain it’s going to make me wish he did something that simple.”

Tyson Pinkard walked up to their table, chuckling. “Hey Tony, I thought you said the school slideshow was stupid.”

“It is.”

“Then what’s with the video?”

“The what?”

Tyson pointed to the TV behind them and they turned to look. As Tony felt his lunch begin to curdle and lurch about in his stomach, Andi was overcome with an uncontrollable fit of giggles and had to pull her hat from her bag and laugh into it or else she would have overwhelmed the entire cafeteria. Tony was on the TV screen. So was Santa Claus. Usually not together – the video was clearly edited, but carefully so, and captions scrolled across the bottom to make sure everyone grasped the meaning of the story.

“Tony, don’t you see? Without Santa, your holidays just won’t be as merry.”

“I am sorry, Santa Claus – it has been so hard to believe in you ever since a car hit my puppy as a small child and you did not bring it back to life.”

“I am Santa Claus. I bring presents, but I cannot bring back the dead. But I never stopped believing in you, Tony.”

“I am sorry, Santa, I believe in you too now.”

Andi wheezed, trying not to suffocate from her laughter. “Oh my God, this is my new favorite Christmas movie,” she said. 

As “Tony” and “Santa” embraced on the screen, the Tony next to her had turned seven shades of green watching it. “Oh my God, he turned into me,” he whispered. “He turned into me and he turned into Santa Claus and he made the worst short film in the history of short films and it’s all my fault because I’m the one who taught him how to use editing software when he had to make that video for our science project.”

“I mean it,” Andi said. “Like, Bruce Willis who? Jimmy Stewart? Adios! The kid in the bunny suit? Why don’t you–”

“Andi, this thing is a crime against humanity.”

“I know, I love it!”

As everyone laughed at the video – which now featured Tony and Santa hand-in-hand dancing through what appeared to be the Santa’s Village set up in Lee Park – Vic casually strolled up to the table and sat down. “Hello, everyone! Oh my! Tony, look at your video!”

He craned his head and looked at Vic in horror. “You sociopath,” he said. “What did you do?”

“I’m just here to show you the joy that comes with being part of Christmas,” he said. “Look at the screen! Look at how you’re smiling!”

“That isn’t me, you lunatic!”

Andi grabbed his arm, finally managing to quell her own amusement. “Okay, cool it, Tony. Let’s not say anything people shouldn’t hear.”

“I suspect it’s the sort of story that will only grow more beloved in the retelling,” Vic said. “Don’t worry, I tagged you in the post so you’ll be able to find the film and watch it again and again.”

“You put this online?”

“It’s the 21st century, Tony. Nothing counts unless it’s online.” Vic smiled so wide that he pushed the edge of maintaining his “human” face. “It’s almost Christmas, my friends! That means the time of miracles is at hand!” Beaming, prouder with himself than anyone Tony had met in his entire life, including Tony’s father who had built a time machine, Vic casually strolled away. 

“This is a nightmare. This is insane. This can’t be happening.”

“This has 20,000 views already,” Andi said, looking down at her phone.

“What am I going to do? He’s not finished. He said the time of miracles is at hand? Oh my God.”

Andi struggled to compose herself. “Look, I know you don’t want to encourage him, but I can still think of one sure way to get him to back off.”

“Oh geez, you’re right,” Tony said. “I’ve got to let him convince me that there’s a Santa Claus.”

*   *   *

The fervor around the video eventually faded, some 1.5 million views and a few appearances on late night talk shows later, and Tony resigned himself to the fact that, one way or another, he was going to have to believe in Santa Claus again. Fortunately, Andi had agreed to talk to Vic. There was going to be no stopping whatever he planned next, they knew, but they hoped she could at least mitigate the damage and keep it from becoming another public spectacle. The worst part was waiting for whatever the last stage of Vic’s plan was to happen.

“Please just tell him to get it over with,” he said to Andi.

“It won’t work,” she said. “He’s convinced that the reason he couldn’t convince you before is because it was too early. He says that he should have known that life-changing Yuletide experiences are at their most effective on Christmas Eve.”

“Oh God, oh God, oh God…”

“Well, ‘Oh Santa’. I don’t know, maybe he’ll work on God next year.”

The anticipation began to get to Tony. He began to tremble in fright every time he heard a jingling bell. Every time his father or Andi’s mother were called out on a case, he half-expected to see them flying through the air next to a reindeer. Even walking through snow made him queasy, as he realized he couldn’t be entirely certain that it was snow and not the protoplasmic mass of a shapeshifter waiting for him to march through and pop up to begin some sort of Christmas shenanigans. It was shaping up to be the worst Christmas of Tony’s life.

When your parents are superheroes, you learn that Christmas usually goes either one of two ways: either villany decides to take the night off and you get to spend a warm, cozy holiday with those you love, or some bad guy tries to pull off the scheme of a lifetime and every hero in the city has to mobilize to put a stop to it. This year, it turned out to be the latter. Tony and his dad were putting up a few last-minute decorations when the emergency alert went off, and within minutes, Tony was alone in the apartment. Andi knocked on the door moments later.

“Yours too, huh?” he said, letting her in.

“Yep. Mom said it sounded like the Army of Anarky has set up some sort of camp down in Wrightson Falls. Might take them all night to shut it down.”

“Merry Christmas to us, I guess.”

“Speaking of which, word has it that you’re going to be getting a visit from a merry spirit pretty soon.”

“I don’t know if I should be irritated or just relieved that it’s almost over.”

“Oh, it’s not going to be so bad. I know what he’s got planned, just try to enjoy it.”

Enjoyment was not necessarily on Tony’s list for the evening, but he buttoned his lip and the two of them settled down on the couch with a Christmas movie. They didn’t get past the point where the squad of thieves took over the tower, though, before an odd scratching sound began to resonate above their heads.

“What in the world?” he asked.

Andi smiled. “Just go with it.”

As they listened to the shuffling, which made very little sense, as they were not on the top floor of the apartment building, Tony saw a swirl of color appear against the wall. “What’s this?” he whispered to Andi.

“He borrowed a holo-projector from your dad.”

“Dad knew about this?”

“He didn’t know what he was doing with it. You know your dad, he just likes making gadgets for people, he never asks too many questions.”

The burst of light began to twirl faster, spinning out and finally coalescing into the shape of a fireplace. There was no fire, of course, but that was by design. As they watched, a rumble of ash rolled out of the fireplace and, in the middle of the cinders, Santa Claus plopped into his life. Tony knew that the entire illusion was crafted through a mixture of his father’s technology and Vic’s shapeshifting powers, but he had to admit, it looked pretty real.

“Hello, Tony! Hello, Andi! Ah, my young friends, it’s so good to see you!”

Andi squealed. “Tony, look! It’s Santa!” She rushed over and hugged him, planting a kiss on his cheek, and Santa’s already-rosy cheeks blushed even deeper. “My dear Andeana, it’s so good to see you! Have you been a good girl this year?”

“Well…I’ve tried, Santa. I mean, this year has kind of been a disaster, but I’ve done my best.” 

“I know you have. And you, Tony? Have you behaved?”

He sighed, forcing himself to play along and get it all over with. “Yeah, Santa, I’m good.”

“Of course. You know, Tony, a little bird told me that you don’t believe in me anymore.”

“Well…”

He held up a hand, arresting Tony’s excuse. “It’s all right. I know that a lot of people stop believing as they get older. But as long as you keep the faith, you can still count as a good boy.”

“Well, that’s a relief.”

“But listen, perhaps I can give you a little present to help you remember what it was like to believe in me.”

In truth, Tony didn’t remember a time he had ever believed in Santa Claus, but he didn’t think making that clarification would be helpful right now. “Okay, Santa, what is it?”

“Why don’t we take a little ride?” Santa pointed a finger and the window burst open. A gust of wind whipped into the room, blowing snowflakes in with it (even though, Tony noted, there had been no fresh snow for almost two days). Tony walked over to the window and looked out, only marginally surprised to find a sleigh and eight tiny reindeer hovering outside.

More holograms, he thought to himself. And the sleigh is a hovercar – probably another one of Dad’s. Vic put the work in, I’ll give him that

“How would you two like to take a ride around the city before I have to move on with my nightly rounds?”

“Oh my God, I get to ride in Santa’s sleigh!” Andi jumped up and climbed through the window, taking a seat behind Blitzen. Santa smiled at Tony and gestured to the window. “Please, son, come and join us.”

“Oh, what the heck?” Tony said. All things considered, whipping around Siegel City in Santa’s sleigh wouldn’t be the worst way he had ever spent Christmas Eve. He climbed in next to Andi and settled in for the ride.

“Oh, one last thing,” Santa-Vic said. “If you’re going to ride in my sleigh, it’s best that you look the part.”

“Wait, what?”

Santa wiggled his fingers and a burst of sparkles appeared, swirling around Andi and Tony and completely blocking off his vision. When it cleared, he looked down to realize his clothes had been replaced with a green elf costume, complete with pointy shoes and a hat with a bob that dangled down in front of his eyes. It was another hologram, he knew, he could still feel his real clothes, but he also knew what he looked like.

“Hey, wait a minute, I didn’t agree to this!”

“Oh, it’s cute!” Andi said. He looked over to realize her clothes had been replaced by an identical elf uniform. “This is going to be great! Tony, we’re Santa’s elves!”

“I cannot believe I’m going along with this.”

Santa climbed into the sleigh, grabbing the reins, and with a crack they lit off through the sky.

*   *   *

Even Tony had to admit, the view was unreal. Their parents were superheroes, both Tony and Andi had flown over the city countless times either being carried or riding in some sort of high-tech vehicle no doubt identical to the one being obscured by the hologram. But something about seeing Siegel City from the seat of a sleigh, the entire town lit up for Christmas, gave Tony a warmth he had not expected. Even down in Wrightson Falls, where there were sparks and flashes of battle, the light seemed kind of…glamorous.

“Don’t worry about your parents,” Santa said. “I’m sure they’ll be fine.”

In their guts, Andi and Tony both always had a feeling of unease when they knew their parents were out fighting supervillains, but they had learned to suppress it. He supposed it was similar to having a parent who was a cop or a firefighter – you always knew there was a chance that they could get hurt or worse, but you had to pretend that chance didn’t exist, otherwise it would be impossible to function. A column of green light burst into the sky, no doubt the work of General Chaos, the Army of Anarky’s leader. In his mind he could picture the LightCorps fending off the General, Corporal Punishment, Sergeant Slash and the rest of them as they tried to ruin Christmas for people in Wrightson.

“Let’s not get too close to the fight, Santa,” Andi said. “I don’t think my mom would want us over there.” 

Santa-Vic nodded and cracked the reins again, veering the sleigh off to the west of the battle. As they did so, however, another green burst launched into the sky. Training in their direction, they watched as it soared across the sky, finally coming down in Kelly Plaza, crashing into the fountain in front of the corporate headquarters of the city’s largest bank. The crash-landing disrupted what looked like a Christmas festival. There were bands there, and people clapping and singing along with Christmas carols right up until whatever it was hit the ground. Parents had their kids – lots of kids – all in a long line leading up to Santa’s village, where a sign was hanging that said “FEEDING MY REINDEER: BACK IN 15 MINUTES.” All of this collapsed into total disarray when the thing from the green burst hit the fountain.

“What was that?” Andi asked. As they approached, they saw the shape from the burst standing up. It was a man, an enormous one, nearly eight feet tall and bursting with muscle every time he moved. Tony studied enough about his dad’s enemies to recognize him: Private Pain, muscleman of the Army of Anarky, and as he grabbed a Christmas tree and hurled it at the band, it seemed he had decided to take advantage of being hurled from battle to spread that Anarky a little bit further.

“Is anybody coming?” Tony asked. “Are any of the LightCorps going to come after this guy?”

“They may have their hands full with the rest,” Andi said. “I don’t see anybody flying this way. How about the ground? Speedburn?”

“There’s always a flash of lightning when she runs at super-speed,” Tony said. “There’s nothing coming this way.”

Beneath them, Private Pain roared at the crowd, which buckled away in panic. Tony saw a pair of small children ripped away from their mother, who got pulled into the crowd. They were screaming, and flailing, and moments away from being trampled.

“Oh my God. Vic, take us down!”

“Vic? But–”

Vic, take us down there right now!

Santa looked at him for a split-second, the joy falling away from his eyes, but turned his sleigh down. As they approached, Tony reached for his belt. He didn’t use it often, but he always wore a belt with some of his father’s tricks built into it – including a jetpack that was strong enough to work on somebody tiny. He leapt from the sleigh, shrinking as he went, and flew down to where the kids were screaming. He didn’t go all the way down – a three-inch rescue wouldn’t work here – but he calculated that the belt could carry his own weight and the two kids, at least far enough to escape the crowd, if he didn’t get any smaller than 40 inches or so. He swooped down, grabbing one child in each hand, and rocketed up and away from the crowd. The jetpack sputtered, overtaxing itself, and he knew he didn’t have a long flight ahead.

“The snow!” he shouted. There was a large pile of fake cotton snow surrounding a Santa village, and he aimed for that. He dropped the kids into the cotton before banking himself, crashing into the manger of the nearby nativity scene.

He brushed himself off, his head spinning from the rescue. The kids looked okay – scared, but okay – as he staggered over to them. “Are you all right?” he asked.

Closer, he could see that he was looking at a girl of about six years old and a smaller child, four maybe, her little sister. The older girl was staring at him in wide-eyed amazement. “Are you an elf?” she said.

“Am I a–” he cut himself off. The hologram that covered his real clothes was still there. He was wearing all green, with pointed shoes and a stocking cap. He was slightly more than three feet tall.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’m an elf. Are you guys okay?”

In answer, a woman rushed through the crowd and grabbed them, pulling them to her chest and gasping. “Alaina! Lauren! Oh my God.” The girls clung to their mother, and the three began to cry together. For a second, Tony understood why his father did this sort of thing every day.

That feeling was broken up a moment later when another tree whipped past, nearly hitting him in the head. 

He turned to see Andi and Vic – still in Santa-shape – facing the man. Andi had turned on the hidden force-field harness his father made for her shortly after her mother’s identity had been revealed, and she was allowing Private Pain to smash down on her with his oversized fists. The force-field could take the blows, and as long as he was concentrating on her, he wasn’t hurling lumber at children. Of course, it wasn’t getting them any closer to stopping him either. 

Pain flicked his wrist, smacking Andi’s force-field one last time, then turning away. It wasn’t any fun to hit someone who didn’t feel it. Instead, he looked at Vic and bellowed, an incomprehensible roar escaping his throat. All around them, children were screaming, either because they couldn’t find their parents or because they were just plain terrified. Tony hit the button on his jetpack. It sputtered a little, but if he shrank down again, he thought it would work.

“Hey, you guys are okay with you mom, right?” he asked the girls he’d rescued. The older one – Lauren, it seemed – nodded, and he nodded back. He shrank down again, hitting a size barely larger than a marble, and flew into the sky. He rushed past Vic, buzzing in his ear.

“Hey! I’ve got an idea!” he said. 

Andi rolled her ball into Private Pain’s back, knocking him to the ground. While he was down, Vic put Tony’s plan into action. He took a deep breath and began to puff up, growing, expanding until he was almost twice as tall as Private Pain himself. The enormous Santa Claus was mostly hollow inside – Vic could not increase his mass – but by stretching it out he could look giant. He stood up and looked down at the rampaging villain.

“PRIVATE PAIN,” he rumbled. “YOU’VE BEEN NAUGHTY!”

Tony hit another control on his belt. Size-changing was a tricky proposition. Vic’s mass didn’t change when he shapeshifted, but Tony and his father each got proportionately lighter when they changed size. His dad wasn’t sure where their extra mass went, exactly (he had once rambled on at length about it being “tucked away in a pocket dimension somewhere”), but he had figured out a way to bring it back if need be. As the giant Santa brought his hand down towards Private Pain, Tony flew into his fist and hit a control on his belt. The tiny young man suddenly shifted from weighing about the same as a peanut to having his entire 190 pounds back, all of it concentrated into a single spot barely larger than a dime. It was this immense weight that struck Private Panic in the back of the head, knocking him flat and sending him into a tizzy. As he did so, Andi unsnapped her force field harness and turned it around, projecting outward, and the villain was caught in a bubble.

Tony popped back up to his own size. “Everybody okay?” he said.

Andi nodded, reaching into her pocket for her phone. “Calling my mom to do some clean-up,” she said. 

“Great. What about–”

He looked up at Vic, who was slowly returning to his normal size. Although the villain had been defeated his eyes were heavy, dejected, and Tony felt a lump of coal in his stomach. Of all the times for the shapeshifter to master the art of human expression.

“I’m sorry, Tony,” he said.

“Dude, there’s no reason–”

“I intruded on your Christmas. I failed to show you magic, and I…”

He was cut off when a small hand grabbed his arm. Looking down, he saw one of the kids who had been scattered in the chaos. The boy was maybe four years old, maybe a small five, and he looked up at Vic with a light in his eyes that rivaled every light they had seen across the city that evening.

“Santa?”

“No, I’m…”

“Darn right, he’s Santa!” Tony stepped over to the kids, shrinking back down to the size he’d been at when he saved the girls. “Santa’s right here, kids. Everything is fine.”

One by one, the faces in the sea of children began to shift. Terror and fear fell away, smiles began to spread, and before he knew what was happening, Vic was swarmed by children hugging him, cheering…every trace of panic was gone.

Vic – Santa picked up the first child and hoisted him up onto his shoulder. The boy hugged him. “I’m Nathan,” he said.

“Of course you are!” Santa said. “I know you, Nathan, and I know how good you’ve been. Now what I don’t know is…” he took a deep breath, opening up a hollow in his chest and turning his body into an enormous natural amplifier. In a voice loud enough to fill the square, Santa Claus bellowed, “WHERE ARE NATHAN’S PARENTS?”

A couple shoved through, rushing up to grab their son, smiling. The mother hugged Santa, kissed his cheek, and thanked him. He blushed again, and then he looked at the next child. “Okay,” he said. “And you are…”

“Val,” she whispered.

“WHERE ARE VAL’S PARENTS?”

As Santa Claus took each child, one at a time, and held them until their parents could be found, Tony shuffled off to where Andi was standing, hanging up the phone.

“They’re almost done with the rest of the Army,” she said. “Mom said that Blip and Turnabout will be here in a few minutes to collect Private Panic. She also wanted to know what in the world we were doing in the middle of a rumble and how could we be so irresponsible and she’ll have words with me later, young lady.”

“Love your mom,” Tony said. 

A few hours later, the clean-up begun, the villains apprehended, the children reunited with their parents, Tony found himself, Andi, and Vic sitting in his living room, waiting for their own parents to return.

“Are we going to get in trouble?” Vic asked.

“Nah, my mom just worries a lot,” Andi said. “She knows I don’t go looking for stuff like this.” She sighed. “It sure seems to find me a lot, though.”

“Price of living in Siegel City,” Tony said. “Anyway, what were we supposed to do? Let that guy hurt a bunch of kids? Our parents will understand.”

“It was exhilarating,” Vic said. “I enjoyed stopping the villain, even it…” he trailed off, looking at Tony, then looking down. Tony and Andi exchanged a look, and Tony sighed.

“Vic, what are you talking about?” he asked. “You weren’t even there.”

“Of course I was,” he said. “I was in the shape–”

“Dude, I know what I saw. And I didn’t see you for one minute tonight, not until we got back to this apartment. All I saw was Santa Claus.”

Somewhere in Vic’s eyes, a twinkle appeared. He smiled at his friends. They smiled back.

Really getting good at that glowing thing, man.”

“Yes, I know.”

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. If you enjoyed this story, please consider following along on the weekly adventures of Andi, Tony, Vic, and the rest of the crew. Merry Christmas!

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Ghostbusters: Afterlife — A Review

Let’s be honest here: reboots are hard.

Studios like them, of course, because they’re counting on the audience carrying over and giving the refurbished IP the gas it needs to get to a new audience, one that maybe didn’t grow up with the original. The trick, then, is to create something that the original audience will support, but at the same time is satisfying to someone unfamiliar with the property. A lot of reboots fail at least one of these two essential tasks. And a lot of them, trying to do both, wind up pleasing no one.

Ghostbusters: Afterlife is the unicorn, that reboot that will have the old fans applaud and bring the next generation with them.

I won’t talk much about the plot, except to say that it’s set in the modern day, the events of the first two movies happened but are considered by many to be a hoax or an urban legend, and that it’s about some kids uncovering a legacy they were entirely unaware of. 

That said, the plot isn’t the thing that’s got me so in love with this movie. Oh, I enjoyed it immensely, don’t get me wrong, and I think it hits almost every beat without fail, crafting a story that is respectful to the movies of the 1980s without ever running the risk of locking out somebody who doesn’t know anything about the Ghostbusters except that their dad really likes to wear the costume on Halloween. The script is funny and creepy and full of energy, and it just plain works. But that is by no means the most important thing about this movie. The tone, the feel of the thing matters much, much more.

I’ve heard people calling it Ghostbusters by way of Stranger Things, which is fair, in that both this movie and Stranger Things draw from the 80s, Spielbergian, Amblin-esque concept of a world where children are brave, heroic figures instead of props to be held hostage or obstacles getting in their parents’ way. This is the type of E.T., Goonies portrait of childhood where kids are willing to place themselves on the line and face dangers for adventure, for their loved ones, and for the greater good. McKenna Grace absolutely steals this movie as Phoebe, a 12-year-old socially awkward girl whose predilection towards science and logic has left her without much in the way of human contact beyond her older brother, Trevor and her mother. This is her movie, a movie about her finding herself, finding her history, finding her team, and doing so in an utterly triumphant way. 

The characters are not a simple “Generation Xerox” from the original films either. It’s true that Phoebe has much of Egon’s intellect and adorkable nature, and that Podcast carries over a lot of Ray’s wide-eyed wonder and excitement, but that’s pretty much where the similarities end. These two, along with the other newbies, are allowed to grow and develop into their own people instead of just being “The New Peter” or “The New Winston.” You learn about each of them, you feel for each of them, and chances are at some point in your life you’ve been at least one of them. (I was Trevor in high school. And college. And most of my 20s, if we’re being entirely honest here.) 

Fans of the original Ghostbusters know that no future incarnation of the franchise will ever be like the first two films again. It can’t be, not since Harold Ramis passed away in 2014. So instead, Jason Reitman took his father’s most famous work and used it as a foundation for a new Ghostbusters, a new world that I am so happy and eager to explore. But at the same time, this is a movie I want to watch with my 11-year-old niece, who has never seen the first two movies but wants to be a scientist, so she can see a girl just one year older than her utterly kicking ass. And with her seven-year-old brother, who just loves monsters and the Ghostbusters. 

Too many reboots think about one of two audiences, the old or the new, and try to just leave a back door open for the other. Afterlife is wide open, inviting in everyone, having something for everyone, and reminding us just how good bustin’ can make us feel. 

Review also shared on my Letterboxd page.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He has been that dad wearing a Ghostbusters costume on Halloween, along with his son Edward, whose own Ghostbusters jumpsuit just said “Rookie.” His wife wore a Slimer t-shirt, and it was adorable.

80,000 and counting…

Can I just, though, for a minute?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And my goodness, it feels phenomenal.

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

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

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

Halloween Kills: A Review

I’ve seen a lot of people complaining online about Halloween Kills. In and of itself, there’s nothing unusual about that. People complaining online is part of the natural downfall of our species — hell, some may argue that’s what online is actually for. However, it’s rare that I find myself not only disagreeing with the mob mentality, but utterly incapable of figuring out exactly what they’re angry about in the first place. All of this is to say, I thought Halloween Kills was fantastic.

I enjoyed the 2018 Halloween movie (which I STILL by God wish they had given a subtitle, because did we really need THREE movies in this franchise simply called Halloween?), but in some ways, I think I enjoyed Halloween Kills even more. I’m going to talk spoilers here, because I can’t really think of a way to explain what I liked so much without them, so if you want to remain spoiler free, go away now, secure in the knowledge that I just really, really liked the darn film.

The movie picks up mere moments after the end of the previous movie — Laurie Strode, her daughter Karen, and granddaughter Allyson are in the back of a truck fleeing from the burning remains of Laurie’s home where they trapped Michael Myers and left him to die. (Quick tangent: all three of the Strode women were utter baddasses in the first movie, they continue to be so in this one, and how great is it that Judy Greer is finally getting to play a character that’s not just the hero’s ex-wife?) Before we pick it up, though, we bounce back to 1978, the night of the original Halloween movie, for one of several scenes that flesh out what happened both on that night and during the previous film. In particular, these scenes recontextualize Frank Hawkins’s storyline, amplifying the tragedy that he’s facing in his own quest to see Michael destroyed.

“Amplifying the tragedy,” by the way, is a good way to summarize this movie as a whole. Frank accidentally killed his own partner while trying to stop Michael back in 1978. And if that wasn’t enough, we later learn that he carries even more guilt for the current slaughter because he stopped Dr. Loomis from killing Michael that night. In the present day, Michael survives the inferno when the gas is cut off and the fire extinguished by firemen who are doing what firemen are supposed to do, and then get butchered for it. Across town, we meet a new-ish group of characters having their annual Halloween support group at the bar: survivors of Michael’s original 1978 massacre (some of which are even played by the original actors). 

This is the first thing that set this movie apart for me. So many slasher movies — going back to when Halloween first popularized the genre — are about celebrating the killer. Fans aren’t necessarily going for the story or the characters or for anything except to see how many people Freddy and Jason and Michael can kill and if they can do it in a more creative way than they did last time. And I get it, I enjoy those movies too, but in a very dark way it strips of us of our ability to think about what the consequences of a night like that would be for real people.

Halloween Kills is very much about those consequences. In a rare move for a slasher movie, this film spends a lot of its run time dealing with the survivors of Michael’s rampage and the families of his victims, to the point where original survivor Tommy Doyle manages to whip dozens of them into an angry mob that puts the ones that used to chase Frankenstein’s monster to shame. It forces us to think about the fact that every time a slasher movie shows us some teenager getting impaled on a pike, in-universe this would be somebody’s son or daughter or mother or father. What Michael Myers does shouldn’t be applauded. He’s leaving behind a trail of orphans, widows, and friends who will never heal. A few moments in the film focus on the mother of Oscar, one of the teenagers killed in the last movie (a few hours ago in movie-time) for scenes that add absolutely nothing to the story, but drive home the gut-wrenching nail that this mother has just lost her son to a senseless act of violence. In one scene, Karen and Allyson argue because Allyson wants to join the aforementioned mob, whereas Karen (whose husband died just hours ago and whose mother is in a hospital bed) just wants her daughter to stay the hell where she is and be SAFE, dammit… and in that moment, both of these women are 100 percent right to feel the way that they do. 

Perhaps ironically, the other way the filmmakers this time demonstrate the real horror of a Michael Myers is by spending more time with the victims before they get ripped apart in some of the most inventive kills yet. We get to see more of their lives and who they are, and so when they die (in increasingly brutal ways) it’s far more disturbing than those of us who cheer when Victor Crowley takes a belt sander to somebody’s face are used to. 

As much as I love the tone, story, and characterization, there are a couple things about the film I have to take issue with. One is the dialogue. I don’t mind a little cheese, but there are a lot of one-liners and some heavy speechifyin’ from Anthony Michael Hall’s character that add enough ham to make a whole charcuterie tray. 

Then there’s the ending, which frankly, is baffling. In the last moments of the film, we are presented with the theory that killing literally makes Michael Myers stronger and more unstoppable, and you realize that the kills in this movie and the previous one have gotten increasingly brutal even as he seems to have grown increasingly powerful. In this moment, Michael has been beaten, shot, and stabbed to a degree that it seems for certain even HE must be dead. And then he just… stands up. And resumes the rampage, killing even several survivors we have come to love. It seems very clear that the filmmakers are taking a supernatural take on Michael Myers, something that the previous film pointedly avoided.

Whenever this has happened in previous iterations of the franchise, this has been one of the weak spots of the character — he’s much more interesting when he’s a human driven by a soul of pure evil than a demon or driven by a curse. So the decision to go in this direction is, frankly, troubling. But I remind myself that this is the end of act II, not the end of the story. The third and final film in this trilogy is coming out next year, and at this point I’ve enjoyed the first two parts of the story enough that I’m willing to go along for the ride and see if they stick the landing. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. His current child is Edward, who at the moment is watching YouTube videos of cars running over what the guy who makes the videos CLAIMS is rotten fruit, but Blake is skeptical.

What is art?

Earlier today I read something that argued the purpose of art is to subvert and shine a light on how the individual has been failed by society. It’s an interesting argument and one that got me thinking… certainly, that’s a function of art, and it’s a message that art can convey much better than most other means of communication… but to say that’s the sole purpose, or even the primary purpose… that doesn’t ring true to me.

So I asked myself, “What is art?” I tend to lean towards the definition from Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics, which (to paraphrase) is that art is anything a human does that does not further one of the two basic instincts of survival or reproduction. In the book, he illustrates this by a caveman sticking his tongue out at a wild animal he narrowly escaped. Fleeing from the animal was survival, but taunting it afterwards… that was art.

It’s a simplistic definition, to be sure, but it’s broad enough to encompass virtually any kind of art you can name, which is what I like about it. Having said that, this works to define art, but doesn’t actually explore the purpose of art, which is what I was thinking about. Why do I — on those rare occasions I have time anymore — make art? Why do I write or sing or act or draw (poorly)? 

The common thread, I decided, is that art is something created because a person has a need to take something inside themselves and shape it, mold it into something different. It’s the creation of an inherently metaphorical representation of a piece of the artist’s soul. (Obviously, some works of art are less metaphorical than others, but the act of creation invariably creates some layer of metaphor.) 

Some people would argue, of course, that — well sure, but there’s art, and then there’s ART. HIGH art, not LOW art. I inherently reject this notion. The idea that the value a work of art has is dependent on how “elevated” the artist’s message would be is pretentious and absurd. Hell, in his time Shakespeare was a popular writer just trying to pay the bills. Had these people been alive at the time, no doubt they would have dismissed King Lear as just another money grab by a hack writer.

To me, the value of a piece of art is determined by how successfully it conveys the emotions and ideas that the artist intended. That’s true whether the art is subversive or celebratory, whether it’s dark and moody or light and joyful. If you have made people feel the way you want them to feel, your art is successful. 

Hamlet is, in my opinion, a successful work of art. So is the preschooler cartoon Bluey. So is Mark Waid and Alex Ross’s Kingdom Come, and the Mike Schur’s show The Good Place, and Weird Al Yankovic’s “Frank’s 2000-Inch TV” and Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game and Penelope Spheeris’s Wayne’s World and J. Michael Straczynski’s Babylon 5. And Huckleberry Finn and Newsradio and Casablanca and The Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck and “Rainbow Connection,” and Dave Barry’s Complete Guide to Guys. Not because all of these are going to change the world, but because each of them evokes in me a powerful emotional response, and laughter is just as legitimate a response as tears — although when you can create them both at the same time (lookin’ at you, Mike Schur), then you really have gone to the next level.

Art is subjective, and art intended for public consumption is dependent on the audience to determine its value. So while I enjoy consuming art and analyzing art and discussing art, I’m not big on somebody telling me what is and isn’t art. Never have been. 

Christmas 2020: Warmth

It’s been a long time since I started doing this little tradition — a new short story every Christmas. And it hasn’t always been easy. This year in particular, with so much going wrong in the world, it’s been very difficult to find the inspiration and the emotional fuel to write. I didn’t know for sure if it would happen this year. But somehow, it did. It’s my own little miracle, the way it always does. The germ of this story came to me about a week ago. The story itself took shape in about an hour. That may be why I think it’s good. The best stories, in my experience, are the ones where you aren’t fighting to get the words out… they’re the ones where you just peek into a world that’s already there and share it with people.

So Merry Christmas, everybody. I hope you enjoy your gift. It’s something that, in 2020, I think we all need a little of…

WARMTH

Jim was in the small lounge area the mall provided for the seasonal employees, eating a sandwich from the food court. Deena Stuart had been working with him for weeks now, this gargantuan man, the tallest person she had ever seen in real life. She — like everyone in the world — knew the basics of his story, where he came from, how he came to be, but seeing him in person was still strange. Seeing him eat a sandwich like anybody else was stranger still. She sat at the table across from him, poking a fork into her salad, and smiled. He returned the smile, but neither of them spoke at first.

“It’s permissible to ask, you know,” he finally said.

“Sorry. It’s just… I figure you must be sick and tired of answering questions all the time.”

“I appreciate the concern my dear, but in my advanced years I have found it far more practical to simply say what’s on your mind rather than pretend it isn’t.” His eyes met hers and, although she suppressed a shudder at the notion, she saw no malice in them. “Go ahead.”

“Well… What do people call you? I mean, I know you go by ‘James Pratt’ now, but that’s not your real name, is it?”

“It is the name on my driver’s license, my passport, my credit cards,” he said. “It is real enough for the government.”

“I’m sorry, I meant–”

“I know. That’s fine. What you really want to know, I believe, is why I decline to use my father’s name.”

“I guess so.”

“It is perhaps the question I am most used to. My father rejected me. Most resoundingly. And although I have grown wise enough to realize my response to that rejection may have been out of order, why would I choose to take the name of someone who wanted no part of me?”

“I guess that makes sense.”

“Thank you. No, Jim Pratt will suffice. It gives honor to men who did far more for me than my creator ever did, and I have grown quite accustomed to it.”

“Okay, fair enough.” She returned to her salad, hoping the warmth in her cheeks wasn’t too obvious to his ancient eyes… eyes which, she tried not to notice, were still trained on her.

“I must say, I’m surprised.”

“By what?”

“Your question. I’ve heard it many times, of course, but considering the circumstances of our mutual employment, I confess, I expected you to ask me why I was here.”

“Well… I mean, there is that. You’re one of the most famous people in the world.”

“Indeed, for deeds both famous and infamous. And while many good people — such as yourself — have accepted me as part of the same natural world that birthed you, there are still others who have not. How many of our patrons, do you suppose, would panic and flee if they realized who I was? How many would contact the media, would protest in the front of the shopping center, would–”

“Get out the torches and pitchforks?”

For a second, Deena was afraid her joke had gone too far, but after a moment of shocked silence, the wrinkles at the edges of Jim’s eyes crinkled and his mouth pulled up into a smile. His laughter boomed in a way that no doubt would betray his location to some of the children outside if the hustle of the mall the week before Christmas wasn’t loud enough to drown it out.

“Precisely, my dear, precisely. Oh goodness, see what I mean? Isn’t it preferable to be able to say what’s on your mind rather than dancing around the situation?”

“Yeah, it is,” she said. She ate a little more, watched him return to his sandwich, would have been content to end the line of questioning there, but…

“Why do you do it?” she asked.

“Young lady, do you really want to know?”

“I think you really want to tell,” she said. “I don’t think you would have brought it up if you didn’t.”

“Miss Stuart… you are in college, is that correct?”

“Yes.”

“Psychology major?”

“No.”

“You should be.” He took another bite from his sandwich and chewed. With his beard off, she could see the muscles in his jaw and neck work, how they rippled past a seam, how the tissue all connected and was pieced together. The work was flawless, almost a perfect construction, with only the inevitable telltale signs of patchwork betraying Jim’s true nature. His creator may not have been much of a father, but what he did, he did masterfully.

“My life, Miss Stuart, has been a cold one. My father decided immediately upon my birth that he wanted nothing to do with me. I found myself attached to a kind and loving family at one point, but they too spurned me upon discovering how I had… well, in modern terms, I suppose I was technically stalking them. In fairness, their reaction may not have been undeserved.”

“I guess not.”

He picked up a napkin and brushed some crumbs from his lips. “The last time I saw my father was on a ship in the arctic. We had pursued one another there, each intent upon our mutual destruction. And many believed that we were successful — it was not until some decades later that it became known to the world at large that I had survived our encounter. By then, Mr. Whale’s film had become wildly popular, you see, and I thought it would be safe to reveal myself, that I would finally find acceptance. I was… regrettably incorrect.”

“What are you talking about? People love those movies — they love you.”

“They love the idea of me, my darling. They love a tragic beast they can stamp into lunchboxes or turn into a Halloween mask. But when faced with the reality… well, I don’t know how much you know about my life in the last half-century, but there were many difficult times. You have a kind face. You seem to have a kind heart. Not everyone can claim the same.”

“There have always been ignorant people in the world.”

“And there always will be, but there are also good people, fine people who stand up and force the world to count everyone. I admire such people. But I, my love, am a demographic of one. There is no one else in the world like me, no one to stand up for me except for myself.”

“And people don’t like it when someone stands up for themself, do they?” 

“In over two hundred years of life, dear, I assure you, that has always been a constant.”

She shook her head. “I guess I never thought about it. I mean, racism, sexism… we can see that anywhere, but you–

“At first, I accepted the derision. After all, it was not entirely unjustified, was it? There is blood on my hands, as anyone who read Madame Shelley’s book knows. But that was so very long ago. I regret it. I have attempted to atone for it, and even in a court of law, I was judged to have served an adequate sentence for my crimes.” He sighed, another process — like eating — which drew her eye to the necessary imperfections in his form. “But there will always be people incapable of forgiveness. Their coldness is, in many ways, worse than my father’s. He had the defense of having to deal with something the human race had never seen before. But there are few people left in the world who remember it before I was a part of it. What’s their excuse?”

“How can people still hate you? I mean… knowing what they know?”

“People know what they wish to know,” he said. “But it is in the past few decades that the chill has truly begun to set in.”

“How?”

“About ten years ago, I was in Los Angeles. It was one of those periods where it again became fashionable to attempt to profit from my story, and while I may not be able to stop all the retellings, I can at least attempt to ensure their accuracy. While there, I was befriended by a film producer and her husband. We became quite close. We would dine at restaurants together, attend the theater, visit all the fashionable functions. After several months, one day I decided to visit their home unannounced. Their son — he was perhaps eight years old at the time — greeted me at the door, and the mother promptly hid him away. She tried to hide the fear and disgust in her eyes, but it was there. And when I heard his father in the next room berate the child for opening the door and telling him to ‘disinfect’ himself…”

“Oh my god.”

“Yes. I realized, then, just how public all our many adventures together were. There was no place without an audience, no place without a camera. Until that day, I was not even aware that they had a child.”

“Jim, that…”

“Sucks?”

“That’s what I was looking for.”

“I was born in an age without electronics, without film, without recording devices. Even simple photography was in its infancy. Now we live in a world where deeds that go undocumented may as well not have even happened. The vipers this world have unleashed are the coldest of all. A public bigot may be a bigot, but at least he is honest. Some, I have discovered, may even be reasoned with. But an individual who claims open-mindedness, when in fact they merely want to signal to the world how ‘open-minded’ they are… That is a type of frigidity the arctic itself cannot match.” 

“I had a roommate like that in college. She chose her boyfriends based on how ‘generous’ it would make her look when she posted their pictures online.” Deena chuckled. “The best day ever was when this guy with Multiple Sclerosis told her to get lost, he wasn’t there to get her Fake Internet Points.” She and Jim shared a laugh at that.

“The lovely irony is that so many of the people out there will share a picture of me after they leave and have no idea what they’re sharing,” he said. “The parents, anyway, the children don’t care either way. They sit on your lap and tell you they’ve been good and tell you what they want and tell you they love you. That or they cry and urinate. And even that isn’t so bad, as it is genuine. Everyone in the world knows who I am. The children are more impressed by the man I pretend to be.” He smiled. “I wonder, sometimes, if any of the parents I see today are children who sat upon my lap when I first started doing this. I wonder if they’ve continued to behave themselves, as they promised me they would back then, or if they’re simply like everyone else who wants to show the world that they’re good, instead of genuinely being good. But in those moments, you know, it doesn’t matter. When I sit in that chair and hold the child and have my picture taken, it’s entirely real. Children have no guile, Miss Stuart. It is one of the many ways in which they are superior to the rest of us.”

He glanced at the clock, then reached for the beard and hat on the chair next to him. “Our break time is almost up, love, we had best make ourselves presentable.”

She picked up her own hat — green, contrasting his bright red, but carefully shaped to not disguise the pointed ears she wore. “You still haven’t really answered the question, though, Jim. Why, out of everything in the world you could be doing… why this?”

He smiled at her. “My darling Miss Stuart, I thought that would be clear by now. I do not know that ours is the coldest world imaginable. I don’t even know if I hope that it is or that it is not. But I do know this.”

The white beard covered the seams on his neck and jawline perfectly. The mustache seemed to change the shape of his features, and when the hat was placed upon his head this giant of a man took on a wholly different persona. Although his eyes were never unkind, it was only in full costume that Deena saw them twinkle.

“In all the icy years of my life, this task I have chosen to undertake once a year is the first time I have been truly warm.”

Senior Trip (A Tale of the Tempus Fugitives)

TimeLike so many of us, in this bizarre time of isolation, I’ve been trying to use my energy towards something creative. A few days ago, I had an idea for a short story that I realized I could tie into an older story of mine, one I’d never really done anything with. I’m presenting the short story, “Senior Trip,” right here. If you like it, I invite you to check out Tempus Fugitives in my QuaranTidbits folder, where I’ve been giving out different pieces of writing for weeks now, totally free, to help everyone out there pass the time. And as always, if you like the story, I would LOVE to hear from you on my Facebook Page.

Senior Trip

Felicia arrived to find Douglas sitting at his workbench, almost vibrating with excitement. A small control screen was on the bench, next to an empty metal plate. A piece of old-fashioned writing paper, a pencil, and an envelope were on the other side of the bench, nearer to where she walked in. There were wires connecting the plate to a contraption about the size of a suitcase — wires and tubes, and something that looked a little like a copper slinky. The smile on his face could have split his head in half.

“You look pleased with yourself,” she said.

“I usually am,” he said. He pointed to the metal plate. “Watch this.”

“Watch what?”

Tapping the control screen, he looked down at the bench. The empty plate was no longer empty. There was another envelope there, identical to the first. At the same time, a timer on the control screen began counting down from 120 seconds.

“How did you do that?”

“You’ll see.” He pushed the new envelope aside and handed her the piece of paper. “Write something. Anything. Then put it in the envelope and seal it.”

She frowned at him, skeptical, but did as he asked. Then, he pointed at the plate where the other envelope had appeared. “Put it there and wait.”

“Wait for what?”

The timer was down to 93 seconds. “Just trust me. And hurry.”

And because she did, she did. She started at the envelope intently, skeptically. Until, exactly two minutes after the first envelope materialized, the second one vanished.

“Okay, how did you do that?”

He smiled. “Open the envelope.”

She picked it up and broke the seal, pulling out a piece of paper and reading it. When she looked back up at him, the grin on his face said it all. “Well? Is it what you wrote?”

She turned the paper towards him. Scrawled in her pristine handwriting were the words, “You’re a putz.”

“It is,” she said. “What are you doing?”

* * *

Douglas gripped the wrench as hard as he could and gave it one last twist to the right. The seal was the most important thing here. If there was any break in it whatsoever, when the machine started up he and Felicia could be sucked out and get completely lost in space and time.

“Are you done yet?”

“Almost, Fel.” He dropped the wrench and hit the seal on the bubble with a blast from the spray can of epoxy. It would harden in seconds, finishing off the airproofing he needed to make the journey through time safe, and then he could take a test run. He counted to ten and ran his fingers down the seam. It felt perfectly smooth, perfectly secure.

“Okay.” He pulled himself out from under the sphere and stood up. The bubble was a little larger than his car, filling up most of his father’s garage. It was tinted blue — a bit of a polarizing effect because he wasn’t sure what the visuals of the timestream would be and he thought a little protection was called for. The hatch was opened and closed by the remote control Felicity was holding. There was nothing left but to run the test.

“Are you ready?” she asked.

“I’ve been ready since ninth grade.” The project had taken up the last four years of Douglas’s life, two and a half longer than he and Felicia had been together. It was one of the graduation requirements at Salk Magnet High School: students had to map out a four-year course of study culminating in a senior project that corresponded with their chosen scientific concentration. Douglas was by no means the first person to choose the timestream as his course of study, but most senior projects had involved viewers into the past, most of which were ineffective for looking back further than a few days. If he could pull this off, Douglas Green III would be the first student in history to create a working, functional time machine. And if that didn’t get him an A in old man Lynch’s quantum physics lab, nothing would.

“I still think you’re crazy,” Felicity said. “What if this disintegrates us or something?”

“You’ve been watching too many old movies,” he said. “I showed you the prototype.”

“You showed me a magic trick. I’m still not totally convinced.”

“It was perfect!” he said. The trick with the envelope had been the start. A few more experiments convinced her that he wasn’t totally crazy, and from there it hadn’t been hard to persuade her to help him in the final construction of his device, with the understanding that next year he’d help her in any way she needed when she completed the oxygen replenishment system she was working on for her own senior project. Now though, with the time bubble finished, looking at it in all its splendor… she was starting to get nervous.

“You don’t have to get in,” Douglas said. “I can test it myself.”

“And let you get stranded in the Renaissance with all those nude models literally lying around? No way. Let’s go.” She hit the button on the sphere and one side of it slid open. Taking her hand, they climbed in together and she shut the hatch.

“So where are we going? What’s the maiden voyage of the S.S. Terrible Idea?”

“I thought hard about that. I wanted it to be something personally significant to me, not like going back to see dinosaurs or throwing a tomato at Hitler or anything. And my grandpa…” his voice trailed. Douglas’s grandfather had been his biggest supporter, his biggest fan. Nobody had believed in his project more. The fact that he was no longer there to see its completion, she knew, was a dagger in his spirit.

“Okay, then, let’s go visit him when you first told him about your project. We can show him that your machine works.”

He shook his head. “No, I can’t do that. Too great a risk of running into myself. If I’m right about how all this works, you can’t actually change the past, but your younger self seeing your older self still probably isn’t the best idea.”

“I’ve got just the thing, then,” she said. “Let’s go back to the day he was born. We can see him in his little hospital bassinet and nobody will ever know what’s going on.”

The smile broke his face. “That’s perfect,” he said. “Okay, setting a course for April 10, 2020.”

If pressed, Felicia would have to admit there was a thrill in watching Douglas work. Granted, the whole point of Salk Magnet was to shape students into creating things that could change the course of human history, but it was really only about twenty-five percent of them who actually succeded with their inventions, and even fewer tried something as ambitious as Douglas did. Being inside the bubble with him would be an even bigger mark on her record — even if her oxygen system failed (she did not anticipate failure, mind you, she was very confident about her work) she was still going down in the history books as being one of the first time-travelers. It was the main thing on her mind as he tapped his commands on the control screen, set course for their destination, and activated the device.

When she observed his experiments from the outside, the time transition had been surprisingly subtle. Something either was gone or simply appeared, with no fanfare, although Douglas told her that a large enough object would probably cause a popping sound as air rushed in to replace its mass when it was gone. From inside the bubble, taking the trip, it was very different. When he tapped the button, the clear plastic of the sphere sparked and their view of the garage workshop was replaced instantly with a swirl of blue light. Tendrils of energy clawed at the surface, and she watched as bolts of electricity in the distance raced towards them, glancing off the plastic and dissipating in their wake.

“It’s working,” he said. Although his voice grew no louder or faster, the excitement underlying what he said was clear. “It’s working. We’re going back in time.”

“It’s like we’re… rolling into the past.”

“Something like that,” Douglas said. “I think it’s more likely our brains can’t quite comprehend the four-dimensional structure we’re moving through, so they’re interpreting it in a way that’s more familiar to us. It doesn’t really look like this.”

“Well whatever it is, it’s something else,” she said.

“I think we’re accelerating,” Douglas said. He pointed to a box on the control screen that showed their current date. When he’d hit the button it showed their date of departure. Now it was scrolling backwards, and he was right, it was speeding up. They were in the 2050s now. Now the 40s. Now the 30s.

As they rolled further backwards, the electricity dancing around them intensified. It became louder, brighter, more violent. Bolt after bolt lanced into their screen, and more than once Felicia was afraid it would rupture the plastic, but Douglas’s design held. Still, as they crept past 2033, the bubble began to quake. She grabbed the sides of her seat, then grabbed Douglas’s arm. He was already holding hers.

“Is this supposed to happen?” she asked.

“I’ve never done this before,” he said. “But I don’t think so.”

2029, and the shaking became worse. 2024 and Felicia could feel her teeth rattling inside her skull. 2022 and she finally began to question the value of being the answer to a trivia question one day.

When they hit the spring of 2021, the shaking stopped.

So did the bubble.

“What’s happening?”

“We’re caught,” he said. “Something has frozen us, we can’t go any farther.”

“Is it the lightning?”

“I don’t know how it could be, it’s just a random manifestation of the timestream.”

“Random?” she said. She pointed out the screen. “Are you sure about that?”

“That I am sure of. Why?”

“Because that wave of electricity ahead of us looks like a fence.”

The bolts crisscrossed each other, forming a perfect lattice, and stretching out in all directions, wrapping around something in front of them. Douglas look at her, the shock in his eyes unnerving her. She’d never known Douglas to be shocked by anything. “This doesn’t make any sense,” he said. “There shouldn’t be any… any thing floating around in the timestream. This looks artificial. Manmade.”

“Or woman-made.”

If not for the seat restraints they were wearing, they both would have leapt from their chairs and crashed into the control panel. As it was, the voice speaking from behind them startled Felicia enough that the straps dug into her shoulders and chest, and she was pretty certain there would be a bruise tomorrow.

They turned around to see the woman who had joined them in their bubble. She was only a few years older than them, with a smile that was knowing, but not unkind. “Hey there Felicia. Douglas. I’m Diane. Big fan.”

“How did you get here?” Douglas said, his voice hushed. “Where did you come from?”

“I got here more or less the way you did, Douglas. I used a time machine based on the principles you invented. Good for you.” She pointed out into the timestream, behind them, towards a cluster of electrical bolts. “You might not be able to see it, but it’s out there, waiting to bring me back.”

“My designs?” he said. “What are you saying?”

“That ship was made in your future,” she said. “And it works great. You’re in the books, just like you wanted. You too, Felicia. Your oxygen system is what keeps us alive inside that thing. You guys are like the Curies a couple hundred years from now. I mean, minus the slow and painful death brought about by radiation poisoning.”

“That’s a relief,” Felicia said.

“How do I know you’re telling the truth?”

“I guess you don’t, but I promise you I’ve got no reason to lie. I’m just here to give you a heads-up. What you’re about to try to do? Don’t do it.”

“Don’t do what?”

“Go to 2020.”

“Why not? If I’m right about the timestream, it can’t actually be altered. Whatever happened always happened. Any time travel would simply cause the original events to happen in the first place.”

“You’re almost right,” she said. “Time is pretty resilient. It’s hard to change, and almost impossible to change the big stuff. But the little details can be changed. That’s why the electrical net is there to prevent anyone from going to 2020. No researchers, no chrono-tourism, nobody is allowed to travel to 2020 for any reason.”

“But why? What’s so special about 2020?”

“I know you guys are all sciencey and whatnot, but didn’t you pay attention in history class? Do you have any idea what happened in 2020?”

“I remember some stuff,” Felicia said. “Australian wildfires, a viral pandemic, then there was the–”

“Well so what?” Douglas said. “There were worse disasters. Pompeii, anybody? There were worse pandemics. You mean I could go back to the Black Plague, but not to 2020? Why not?”

“All that crap that happened in 2020 — none of it was the first time, you’re right. But it was the first time anything like that happened in the information age. People spent weeks, sometimes months at home, locked away with their families, barely seeing anybody else.”

“It must have been awful,” Felicia said.

“For some people, sure. But for the first time, even stuck at home you could still talk to people. Phone calls, text messages, video chats. Musicians played concerts online, filmmakers streamed their work and talked to the viewers, writers gave away books and artists taught tutorials. It sucked being stuck at home, but what people did with it… that was something else.”

“So what? I can’t see my grandfather’s birth because some guy locked in a basement was watching a boy band do a livestream?”

Diane shook her head. “You’re missing the big picture, Douglas. That’s okay, it wasn’t until we started using your design to map the timestream that we figured out how important this was.”

“What difference does it make?” he snapped. “You said yourself we can’t change the big things!”

“Douglas, listen to what she’s saying. She’s not talking about the big things. She’s talking about the little things.”

Diane pointed at Felicia. “You see, I knew you would be the smart one. The stuff that people did to keep themselves sane during the 2020 madness? All of it was little, but–”

“But the little things make up the big things.”

“You’ve got it again, Felicia.”

Douglas shook his head. “I still don’t understand this.”

“The things people are doing inside that giant electric fence in the timestream form the foundation of culture for the future. Stories that are written, songs that are composed, friendships and partnerships that are forged on the net that later branch out into the real world… they’re important.”

“You’re still talking about art. So what? Science is what matters.”

“Science is how the universe works, Doug. Art? The things that bring us joy? For a lot of people, that’s why the universe matters.”

He looked at her, stammering, still trying to argue his point, but Felicia glared at him, making it clear that she wasn’t going to take his side on this one. “Well,” he sputtered, “I guess I’m outnumbered.”

“Anywhere else in the timestream,” Diane said. “Any other point in the entire continuum is yours. But stay out of 2020, for everybody’s sake. Nobody breaks that rule, not even the most ruthless time pirates.”

“Time pirates?” Felicia said. “There are time pirates?”

“Oh yeah. Bounce into 2255 some time, there’s a great movie about us.”

“About you?”

She smiled. “See ya.”

Before Douglas could voice another objection, Diane was gone. She’d simply ceased to be, just like the envelope he showed Felicia the day he first explained his experiment. And, as anticipated with a larger mass, her disappearance was accompanied by a small “pop.” Before Douglas could say anything else, there was a flash in the distance. The blue lightning glanced across a huge mass, something green and metallic that had huge fins protruding from the side. It pulled away and retracted into the timestream, finally vanishing completely.

“Are we going to be able to get out of this?” Felicia asked, looking at the electric barrier.

“Yes,” he grumbled. “It’s not restraining us, just preventing us from entering. I can go back or go around, but not through.”

“What are we going to do, then?” she asked.

He shrugged. “I don’t even care,” he said. “You pick.”

She smiled and put her hand over his. “Why don’t you set a course for the future?” she asked. “You can take a girl to the movies.”

QuaranTidbits

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

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

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

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

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

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

Christmas 2019: I Can Explain

dearsantaEvery year, for almost two decades now, I’ve created a new short story for Christmas. After the 2017-18 marathon of Santa’s Odyssey, I wasn’t sure if I would continue the tradition. Especially in light of how the holidays have gone for my family this year, it seemed increasingly unlikely. But then something hit me.

So the tradition continues. Please enjoy this year’s epistolary short story (and it’s shorter than usual, I admit), I Can Explain.

And Merry Christmas.

Dear Santa Claus,

First of all, I wanted to thank you for the microscope you gave me last Christmas. It was really cool and I saw all kinds of awesome things until Corey gunked it up it trying to see if the molecules in regular peanut butter cups look the same as the ones in the Easter peanut butter eggs.

Speaking of Corey, I know you and your elves are watching all the time, so I thought I should give you my side of the story. The only reason Corey wound up in Urgent Care last week is because he kept coming into my room even after I told him not to. I told him that Mrs. Beans was not his teddy bear, and I told him to go play with his own. He never listens!

It is also not my fault that Mom needed that ice pack. How was I supposed to know she was going to bend down to help Corey up as soon as she walked into the room? If she stayed standing straight up, her head wouldn’t have been anywhere near that chair when it was falling down. Totally not on me.

I have been a very good girl this year, and I would like a rock tumbler and some Bixby and Pals cards for Christmas. Thank you.

Love,

Dana

* * *

Dear Santa,

I know Dana wrote you a letter, and I know she’s probably made it sound like everything that happened was my fault, so let me set the record straight. I wasn’t trying to play with her dumb old bear. The only reason I was in her room is because the batteries in my Rocket Ranger Laser Gun were dead, so I was going to borrow the ones from her talking Princess Castle, since she never plays with that anymore anyway. I only touched the bear because it was on top of the castle. I didn’t realize that she’d rigged up a stack of Lego boxes on top of her desk chair so they would fall down as soon as I moved the bear.

I guess I overreacted a little when I started screaming that she broke my head open, but I didn’t even realize the boxes were empty. And I’m sorry I told Mom that the avalanche punctured my spleen so she would take me to the doctor and make Dana feel bad, but Mom needed the doctor anyway after she hit her head on the chair. I am very, very sorry.

In conclusion, please bring me a set of golf clubs and a basketball pump this year. The basketball you gave me last year doesn’t bounce anymore.

Corey

* * *

Dear Santa,

I wasn’t snooping, Corey just never turns off his iPad, so it’s his fault I saw the letter he wrote to you. What a liar! He’s got a billion toys he could have gotten batteries out of if that’s all he wanted. Why did he need mine? He’s been sniffing around Mrs. Beans for months now, and it’s really getting me mad.

Did he tell you what happened at Halloween? I couldn’t find Mrs. Beans anywhere, I looked for days and days, and then when we were getting ready to go Trick-or-Treating he showed up dressed like a superhero with his bear and Mrs. Beans wearing masks like they were bank robbers. And he stuck the masks on with glue. Mrs. Beans still has a smudge on her face where he put the glue on!

Corey has been a real jerk this year. Bring him a sack of coal, or some scorpions, or some coal scorpions.

Affectionately Yours,

Dana

* * *

Santa,

Dana just stomped into my room and read that last letter she wrote to you. I think she was trying to make me think she “got” me. My Halloween costume wasn’t as good this year, so I needed some props so that people would know who I was supposed to be. That’s why JoeyBear and Mrs. Beans were dressed like robbers. And the bottle said “fabric” glue. I thought that means that it was safe to use on fabric and it would come off. Did you know that it’s really the opposite? They should call it “don’t use this stuff on fabric” glue.

She’s crazy about that bear anyway. For the first week of school, we couldn’t even convince her to leave it at home instead of taking it with her. Oh yeah, that reminds me — the fight wasn’t my fault either. Kevin Dardar was making fun of her because she was carrying around a teddy bear at the bus stop. I mean, I thought it was stupid too, but she’s my sister. What was I supposed to do, just let him say stuff about her? Anyway, I saw Merril Alvarez eat some of that grass on a dare last year, so I knew it wouldn’t hurt Kevin. I am completely a victim of circumstance and a biased media.

Oppressedly,

Corey

* * *

Kindest Santa,

Corey doesn’t know I know his password.

Okay, so Corey beat up Kevin when he was picking on me. I guess I owe him for that. But he’d spent the entire summer picking on me himself! He said the same stuff Kevin did every time he saw me carrying Mrs. Beans anywhere. He said only babies walk around with teddy bears (not that it stopped him at Halloween) and that I should just grow up.

Corey also doesn’t know I can hear him through the bedroom wall, or how many times I heard him talking to JoeyBear late at night. I can’t hear what he’s saying, but I know that’s who he’s talking to because one night last May I got up to go to the bathroom and I peeked into his room and saw him holding JoeyBear and telling him– well, it doesn’t matter what he was telling him. What matters is that he talks to his bear, but he makes fun of me for carrying mine. I think that makes him a hippogriff.

I don’t want this to be a big thing, Santa, but Corey’s been such a jerk this year and I don’t know why. Bring him a dead fish.

Yours in jollytude,

Dana

* * *

Dear Santa,

I’m changing my password, and Dana needs to learn how to log out when she’s using somebody else’s tablet.

I do NOT talk to JoeyBear. I mean, I don’t have conversations or anything. It’s not like he talks back. I just have to talk to someone sometimes, and his shirt… I want to talk to his shirt, okay?

Teddy bears are for kids. I just wanted to talk to someone.

Stupid Dana needs to mind her own business.

Corey

* * *

Dear Santa,

I heard Corey talking to JoeyBear again last night. I haven’t heard him talk that much since we got JoeyBear and Mrs. Beans, and so I went out to hear what he was talking about. He talked about when we got JoeyBear and Mrs. Beans, and how they used Grandma’s shirts. And he talked about how she helped us get ready for school, and cook, and make our Halloween costumes and everything else. And I first I thought he was talking to JoeyBear about Grandma, but… after I listened for a little while…

Well, he wasn’t talking about her.

Kevin Dardar is a jerk.

Love,

Dana

* * *

I’m sorry, Dana.

* * *

I’m sorry too.

Santa, you don’t have to give him a dead fish this year.

Love, Dana

Dreams, y’all.

Dreams, y’all.

This is kind of long, but read to the end. It’s worth it.

I had a dream where I was pushing Eddie’s stroller through a transportation center; we’re waiting to meet some people and then catch a bus or something. Erin is on her way there. And as we’re standing around talking, I feel somebody squeeze my butt. Underneath, like REALLY intrusive and uncomfortably. So I look at the person who did it and I tell them to stop — that it’s not funny, you’re a grown adult, cut it out. I turn away and resume my conversation.

And it happens again.

I spin back on the person who did it and I start yelling. This is NOT right, this is NOT funny, it’s embarrassing and invasive and you–

And while I’m yelling… It happens AGAIN.

I reach down and grab it and I’m holding on to a kids toy fishing pole. The person poking me with it works there and is laughing. I grab the pole and break it over my knee and I start shouting at him, while at the same time trying to apologize to the person I thought had done it in the first place. I’m fuming. I walk outside to calm down and call Erin and tell her what happened. After a few minutes I go back inside and I’m apologizing to the people we’re with for causing a scene, while the manager of the place is scolding the guy who was poking my ass.

And it happens AGAIN.

I grab the hand of the person who is doing it and, without even looking to see who it was, I PUNCH THE GUY SQUARE IN THE FACE. This is something I have never done in my life, but at this point I’m so angry and hurt and violated that I don’t have any other option. I smash his face in, and while I’m whaling on the guy…

IT HAPPENS AGAIN.

Now EVERYBODY in the place is grabbing my ass in the SAME SPOT, laughing because they think it’s funny that I’m reacting this way. I start to run and they keep after me, grabbing and laughing and laughing and grabbing and–

And I wake up. It’s one of those times you’re glad to be awake but confused and a little shaken up by how vivid and strange the dream was, but at least it was over–

AND. IT. HAPPENS. AGAIN.

Well now I’m FREAKING out, because the dream is over but WHAT THE HELL. And I reach behind me to solve the mystery–

And I grab Eddie’s foot. The little squirt was in bed with us, and sometimes he sticks his feet under us because it’s warm. And his foot. Was. Twitching.

And that’s how my adorable, precious, angelic little son nearly gave me a panic attack while we were both asleep.