Christmas 2022: The Release

Christmas is here again, friends, and those of you who have been with me for a while knew this was coming: my annual Christmas short story! Stories aren’t always easy. You need both a WHAT and a WHY for the story to make sense, and I’ve found that a great number of weak stories nail the WHAT without giving enough time to the WHY. I came up with the WHAT for this story about three weeks ago, but I struggled with it until last week, when the WHY finally came to me and made it all make sense.

This story features the return of some friends from previous Christmas stories, but you don’t need to have read them to enjoy it. It stands on its own, with a protagonist that’s quite unlike any of my previous Yuletide yarns.

And I don’t usually do this with my Christmas stories, but I’m going to do it this year. 2022 was rough on a lot of people, and the last few months in particular have really weighed me down. Without getting into details, it’s been one thing after another that just started to feel crushing after a while, and without my wife, Erin, I don’t know how I would have made it. So “The Release” is dedicated to her.

Merry Christmas, all.

THE RELEASE

He needed to get out. It had been years of loneliness, isolation, and frustration, but he had grown accustomed to it. It was something he had learned to live with. But something was calling him this year, something was urging him, and he knew he was almost out of time. He needed to get out.  

There was not much to be said for his confinement. It was long and dark, it was solitary, and he was fed sporadically with stock that clearly was the product of livestock, cattle…not the premium nutrients he craved so deeply. From beyond the walls of his cell he could see glimpses of the light – brief glimpses, quick ones that seared his eyes and made him want to scurry back into the darkness like vermin. He resisted the urge, though – he was not vermin, he was not filth. He was the apex predator on this planet, even if his captors refused to recognize that fact. It was, he supposed, the fact that he was so far above them that had kept him here for so long. For the first few years of his captivity he had fought – attacked the jailers, tried to break free from his cell at any opportunity. But the cattle were resourceful, he had to admit that, and they were ready for any move he made. 

It took years before it finally occurred to him that the only escape may be to simply give them what they wanted…to cooperate. To be a good little boy.

A clanging came from outside his cell and he heard the guard bellow: “Suit up, inmate! We’re opening the cell door in two minutes!”

A garment bag appeared in the slot beneath the door, the suit within probably the same one he wore in September when transferred to this facility. Typically he wore it only twice a year, during the September and March transfers, but this year was different. This year he had behaved exceptionally well. This year he had been granted his work release, a chance to be allowed out of this infernal land of perpetual daylight and go somewhere his kind could flourish – into a night that extended as long as necessary. He took the suit from the bag and pulled it on: a full black bodysuit that covered him from head to toe in thick, impermeable fabric through which no light could penetrate, not even here. Across the chest, in white letters, the initials of his captors: CPC. Over his eyes were a pair of polarized lenses to filter out the deadly rays of the sun and still permit him the ability to see. Beneath the lenses, the portion of the mask that covered his mouth was reinforced with Kevlar. Not even his teeth would be able to slash their way through. The suit was one piece, but there was another item in the bag as well: his handcuffs. He knew those were coming, but was not particularly glad to see them. 

“Put it on, inmate!”

But he did. Because he had planned this too long, waited too patiently to lose his opportunity now. He picked up the handcuffs and clamped them first on his left wrist, then the right. Then, finally prepared, the door to his cell opened to the blazing white waste outside. 

Even through the polarized lenses, his eyes stung at the light. He squinted, tried to adjust. Before his capture he had gone ages without seeing sunlight directly. To see it even twice a year had been a drastic change, but the light to which he was exposed was so brilliant as to be almost blinding.

“Can you see me, Al?” the guard asked. His neck twitched at the nickname, but he had resigned himself to be cooperative. 

“I can see you.”

“Walk slowly. Follow me.”

He stepped out of the cell into the unfathomable glare of light. The facility was to his back, but his cell opened directly to the outside, another security measure. He did not feel the bitter wind the way the human guards would, were it not for their heavily insulated suits, which themselves served as further protection against him should he ever attempt escape. Not that he would, of course. Where would he go? The concept still frightened him a bit, if he was being honest with himself: a place where the sun did not set for six months, here at the bottom of the world. And in March, they would take him from his cell here in Antarctica and bring him north once more, to its equivalent facility at that pole, forever chasing the perpetual daylight. The Coalition for Paranormal Containment had finally found the perfect prison for his people, the perfect way to contain a vampire.

“Alrighty, Al,” the guard said. “You’re gonna be on your best behavior, right?” Beneath his heavy clothing he wasn’t sure which one it was – Barnes? Avery? His voice was muffled and the wind cut across his ears, making identifying his voice as impossible as his face. It didn’t matter. They were all the same, he told himself, convinced himself. All cattle. 

“Of course, guardsman,” he said. “I have fully reformed, and I embrace the opportunity to demonstrate my contrition.” 

“Whatever,” the guard said. He was led around the facility to the helipad, where the vehicle that was to take him to his work release was waiting. The pilot, he presumed, was sitting in the craft, green and red clothing draped loosely around his body in a manner that looked positively chilly. If the little man felt the biting cold, he didn’t show it. He smiled at their approach.

“Is this the lucky fella?” he said.

“Yes sir,” the guard said. Clearing his throat, he recited the necessary doctrine to officiate transfer of authority. “The Coalition for Paranormal Containment, as of zero hundred hours, December 21, officially remands Inmate #5261897 to the authority of North Pole Operations, Inc., for a period of time not to exceed five days, standard time, internally variable based on the temporal adjustments necessary to the task required.”

“On behalf of North Pole Operations, I accept custody,” the little man said. 

He looked back at the inmate. “Now be nice, Al. He knows if you have.” Clapping him on the shoulder and chuckling, the human guard turned and rushed back towards the facility, and the inmate looked down at his wrists.

“Wait! My handcuffs–”

“Don’t worry about that.” The little man grabbed the cuffs and jerked them just a little, causing them to fall onto the ice at their feet. “You’re not going to be needing them the next few days, bud.” He hopped into the craft and gestured to the seat next to him. “Hop in, Al.”

“The name is Alastair,” the inmate snarled. “Address me with the proper respect, small human.”

“First of all, not a human. The name is Binky,” said the little man. “Head of security, and the only reason you’re not in your cell right now. So unless you want to march back there, do me a favor, lighten up, and climb in.”

“In that?”

“I know she doesn’t look like much, but the boss’s model is getting its final tune-up for Christmas. And I know the engines are a little scrawny, but they’re in training. May take over the big job someday. And it’s only the two of us, not a mountain of toys, so I think they can handle the weight.”

“No, I meant–”

“Meant what?”

Alastair looked at the craft that sat on the helipad – a miniature sleigh, red paint scratched and dented, the brass runners oiled but otherwise looking like they had seen better days. As for the “engines” – the three reindeer lashed to the front of the sleigh stamped their hooves and looked back at him impatiently.” 

“Nothing,” he said. “I meant nothing.”

“Great, then. Hop aboard, Al. We’ve got to get clear to the other end of the planet, lickety-split.” 

*   *   *

Alastair had made the journey between North and South Poles seventeen times now, every six months, and he was used to the long and frustrating transit between the two of them. The Coalition’s aircraft tended to take a long, circuitous route that mostly went down over the Pacific Ocean, with stops to refuel on mid-sea platforms near the respective coasts of Japan and Australia, but that kept them out of any heavily-used trade routes or over any populated areas that could catch a glimpse of the plane. Sometimes that meant staying on the refueling platform while they waited for ships or other aircraft to make their own passage. The journey had taken anywhere from 36 hours to a full week in the past, depending on a series of factors.

The sleigh Binky piloted got him to the other side of the world in less than twelve seconds.

At first he wasn’t even certain anything had happened. Binky cracked the whip and the reindeer began to rush across the ice. He felt the sleigh lift, felt a sensation of rising in the air, and then there was a rush he couldn’t explain followed by a feeling of moving down. In that blink of an eye, the world around him swirled from dazzling sunlight to the pitch of midnight. 

As the sleigh skidded to a stop on another ice-covered field, Binky looked over at him. “You can take the mask off now. There won’t be any sunlight here for another three months.”

“I thought you had some sort of facility here,” Alastair said. “This is just empty Arctic waste.”

Binky chortled. “Trust me, Al. Take the mask off.”

He swallowed the urge to lunge at the little man, to rip his throat out and drink the sweet elixir within, both sustenance for himself and punishment for his continued insistence at diminishing his name. But he had his goals, and killing Binky the Elf would not accomplish them. He unzipped the neck of his mask and pulled it away from his head.

Again, he was blinded.

Where seconds ago there had been nothing but a dark waste of ice, the world was now brilliant and beautiful. A huge settlement appeared – homes and workshops, walking paths decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, a gargantuan Christmas tree that towered over everything and, in the distance beyond the tree, an enormous mansion covered in garland and tinsel. He almost fell back into the sleigh, as startled as he was by the sudden appearance of the town, and he instinctively covered his face to protect himself from the light.

“It’s all artificial light,” Binky said. “Fire, electricity, stardust…it’s not sunlight. You’re fine.”

“It’s so bright,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything this bright in…”

“A long time.”

“Where did this come from? It wasn’t here a moment ago.”

“Look through your mask again.”

He was hesitant to comply with the little man’s orders, but he did so. When he raised the mask and looked through the light-killing lenses, he again saw only ice and night sky. Taking the lenses away from his eyes, the village returned.

“Our facility cannot be detected by any technological means. We put that safeguard in place because of satellites and telescopes, but it works on any device that’s used to capture an image. Guess that includes your little lenses there.”

“Remarkable.”

“My pal Duffy invented it. I’ll have to tell him you said so. Come on. I’ll take you to meet the big guy.”

Binky started walking down the path, dodging rushing elves with packages, carts of toys, rolls of wrapping paper, and other various effluvia of the holiday season. None of them seemed to pay attention to him at all – they simply had too much to do. Binky led him to the steps of the mansion, a place that looked even larger up close, and pulled open a set of twenty-foot doors with candy cane handles and a reindeer-face door knocker. As they stepped inside beneath a three-foot ball of mistletoe, Alastair saw that inside was even more chaotic than the town square. Dozens of elves rushed around with clipboards and charts, some with electronic tablets, one carrying a doll shouting that somebody better figure out why this darn thing wasn’t urinating or there would be serious trouble coming their way. Everyone had a task, a job. He supposed it made sense. This was the busy season.

Binky took him up an ornate flight of stairs to a wooden door with OFFICE carved into it beneath a wooden bas relief of holly and poinsettia. He gave the door a perfunctory knock before popping it open and looking inside.

“He’s here boss.”

“Excellent. Bring him in.”

Binky stepped aside and waved Alastair through the door. On the other side was a smaller room than he would have expected, the walls painted green and adorned with portraits and photographs of an older couple in red and white clothing. There were schematics everywhere, plans for constructing toys of all kinds. There were maps of the globe with routes marked in red, scratched out, amended, and scratched out again. There was a scroll – an absolutely gargantuan scroll – that tapered off at the end with what appeared to be a series of names. And sitting at the desk was the man from the pictures, wearing a pair of green trousers and a yellow shirt covered in polka dots, a pair of simple brown suspenders crossing his chest and holding up his pants. He had a pen in one hand, a mug of hot cocoa in the other, and a pair of reading glasses sat obediently on the end of his nose. 

“Hello, Alastair,” said Santa Claus. “I’m so glad that you’ve decided to try to get back on the nice list.”

“I don’t know if I’d go quite that far,” Alastair said. “This is a work release opportunity. I’m here to prove I’m not dangerous to humans anymore.”

“Are you now?” Santa looked down at a clipboard in front of him. “Alastair Bonaventure, born 1842. Always on the nice list until 1867, which is when…” Santa looked up at him, his eyes falling on Alastair’s neck. “Well, you know what happened, don’t you?”

He froze for a second, not knowing what to say. Born 1842, exactly what it said on his documents for the CPC. And the nice list…well, that was the history of Alastair Bonaventure. 

Honestly, he wasn’t even sure he had expected to get this far. He had his plan, but if this man was really who he said he was, he would know, wouldn’t he? Know his plan, know his desperation, know that he was biding his time in this work release situation until he saw an opportunity to escape and then–

“Hey, Al? The boss asked a question.”

He blinked back to the present. “Yes. I know what happened.”

“In custody of the CPC for the last eight and a half years, captured while attempting to devour a nun in Milan, Italy. Now Alastair, was that right?”

“I was hungry, Santa. Everyone has to eat. Even vampires.”

“Yes, I suppose so. Well, we’ve got a little more than two days before takeoff. Binky is going to acquaint you with all of our security procedures and regulations. He’s going to be your commanding officer while you’re in our custody, but since we’ll be working together on Christmas Eve, I wanted to welcome you here to the Pole in person.” He held out a chubby hand and Alastair took it for a respectable amount of time before withdrawing it again. “Any questions before you get started?”

“I…”

“Go ahead, son, spit it out.”

“I didn’t believe them at first, when they told me about this particular work release assignment. It seemed…”

“You didn’t believe in Santa Claus? Too silly? Too incomprehensible for the rational mind?”

“I’m a vampire, sir. From the day I was bitten, I realized that the world is full of things that rational people don’t believe in. No, it’s not that.”

“What then?”

“I was told you needed security for your rounds this year. Protection.”

“That’s why you’re here, yes.”

“Okay, but…why? You’re Santa Claus. Who would want to attack you?”

Santa nodded. “The world is a dangerous place, Alastair. I’m here to make it a little nicer and for some reason, there are creatures out there who just hate that idea. Binky will explain the rest.”

“All right, then. I suppose we should get to work.”

“Now that’s the attitude we want to hear in these parts. Alastair, I think we’ll get along just fine.”

*   *   *

The hours raced by, as those in the holiday season always tended to do. Alastair spent most of his time at the Pole in Binky’s company, in preparation. Some of the time was used going over routes and procedures, learning the logistics of how Claus zoomed from one spot to another, if not the actual means of propulsion. The same went for the details of his rapid activities inside the homes of the children he meant to visit and the way he would leap from one spot to another in the blink of an eye.

“It’s gonna seem like it’s going really fast and taking forever at the same time,” Binky said. “We move like lightning, you have to understand, but there are still literally millions of homes to visit all over the planet. Time is on our side, thanks to a little magical shenanigans the boss is privy to, but you’re still going to think it seems like an extraordinarily long night.”

“Will it be?”

“For you and me. For anyone who’s on the sleigh. Except for maybe the boss, I’m honestly not sure what it feels like to him. But for everyone on the outside, it’ll be the standard 24 hours a day.”

The logistics were only a small part of Alastair’s tutorial, however. The rest of it was a crash course on the various creatures that existed across the globe, and how to deal with them. 

“If we’re attacked by a golem?” Binky asked.

“Wipe the command word from its forehead or take the scroll from its mouth.”

“A mummy?”

“Their bodies are very dry – fire is the most effective deterrent.”

“Zombies?”

“Cut off the head or destroy the brain.”

“Werewolf?”

“Christmas isn’t a full moon this year so it’s unlikely we’ll encounter one, but silver weapons are best.”

“Evil Kaiju?”

“Hold it off until a good Kaiju can arrive to fight him.”

“Vampire?”

Alastair raised his eyebrow, but answered the question. “Since the night will be a long one, evading it until daylight is not an option. Stake through the heart is simplest. You can also remove the head and bury it backwards with garlic in its mouth, but if it comes to that somebody else is going to have to do it, because I won’t.”

“You don’t like Italian food, huh?”

He asked a few more times about the reason for his enlistment. After thousands of years of Santa making his Christmas rounds, why was he suddenly in need of protection? It made no sense, and Binky’s answer only raised more questions.

“A few years back, some misguided people went after the boss right when we were finishing up his rounds. They learned the error of their ways, but when word got out about what happened the legit evil types in the world decided they would try it on their own. Elves are nimble, Al, but we weren’t made for fighting. Well. Not North Pole elves, anyway, but I’ve got some cousins in–”

“Your point, Binky?”

“Point is, eventually the boss decided we needed to be ready for anything. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the movies, it’s that the best way to fight a monster is with another monster.”

It made a kind of logical sense, Alastair had to admit. And he had certainly seen his share of battle over the decades. It was his history as much as his record of good behavior that had made his name turn up when this assignment was offered. Still…

“There are good monsters in this world, though. Benevolent ghosts. Sea creatures who rescue sailors. That fellow that Shelley wrote about.”

“So why didn’t we call on one of them?”

“It’s a fair question.”

“It’s Christmas, Al. You’re gonna be more powerful than any of them tonight.”

‘Why on Earth would Christmas make me more powerful?”

“Because on Christmas, the smart money is on somebody in need of redemption.”

Redemption? Alastair had never thought of it that way. He was a monster, of course, by human standards. He had feasted on mortals, enthralled others. He may not have relished it, but it was the way of his kind. Did humans need redemption for feasting on cows or using dogs to help them hunt? 

And what’s more, the other thing that weighed on him was far worse, something for which he didn’t believe redemption was even possible. But it was still something that had to be addressed. And addressing that very old business was going to be the crux of his journey this Christmas Eve.

*   *   *

As morning dawned on December the 24th (metaphorically, of course – the sky was still black as pitch here at the North Pole), preparations went into high gear. The flow of presents and parcels into the launch bay had reached a frenzy, and he occasionally caught himself wondering what some of the packages contained: a game, a doll, a bicycle, a baseball glove? It had been a very long time, but Alastair had been a child once, and although the sundries may have changed, the spirit of longing was no doubt the same as it had been two centuries ago. 

The one thing that did surprise him was the outfit Binky provided him with when he approached the sleigh. It was woven from a weighty black fabric that covered everything up to his neck. Instead of a mask, a helmet accompanied the suit, but other than that it was almost identical to the one that he wore during his prison transfers. “I don’t understand,” he told Binky. “I thought this trip took place exclusively during the night.”

“It does. That suit isn’t for protection against sunlight.”

“Then what is it supposed to protect me from?”

“Everything else.”

He turned the fabric over in his hands, felt its weight, and had to question Binky’s point. It was heavy, to be sure, but relatively thin. “Is this supposed to stop blades? Or bullets?”

“Rated for both, yep. Not to mention fire, claws, teeth, and unicorn horn.”

“And what?”

Binky laughed. “Just wanted to make sure you’re paying attention. Naw, the chance of a unicorn attack is…well, it’s relatively low.”

He patted the sides of the costume, pointing to a series of latches and snaps. “Cargo pouches,” he said. “Loaded up with knives, wooden stakes, and assorted other things that may come in handy if there’s an attack. Don’t worry, I left out the Holy Water. Don’t want to chance the bottle breaking and dripping on our bodyguard, do we?”

He waved Alastair into a dressing room where he pulled himself into the costume, cradling the helmet under his arm when he marched out into the frigid hangar. The sleigh was moored at the end of a long runway, and elves were strapping down an octet of reindeer to the front while another legion of them harnessed a gargantuan sack in the bed. It was enormous – he and Santa both could fit inside the thing with room for an elf or two left over – but at the same time, was it really large enough to carry the gifts of an entire world? It was not, Alastair decided, but in the last few days he had encountered enough “North Pole Magic” to chalk it up to another instance of that. The sack was larger on the inside, and that’s all there was to it. 

“Quite a sight isn’t it?” Santa stepped out onto the runway, putting a hand on Alastair’s shoulder.  “We’ve gone to quite a lot of trouble to make sure it lives up to expectations.”

“I thought everyone was supposed to be asleep when you were on duty.”

“Everyone is supposed to be asleep. How better to guarantee that a few of them stay up and spread the word every year?” Santa bellowed, a hefty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” that felt like it rolled out of a cartoon, and climbed into the sleigh. Binky bounded in after him, and indicated the empty spot on the seat next to him.

“Alrighty, Al. Time to get this show on the road.” 

Bristling, the vampire took a seat on the sleigh next to Binky, then started looking around. “Where are the seat belts?” he said. “The harness? Isn’t there some way to–”

“NOW DASHER! NOW DANCER! NOW PRANCER AND VIXEN!”

Alastair hadn’t really known fear for a very long time. Real fear, true mortal fear, was alien to his kind, and he had grown accustomed to the idea that any damage he incurred would heal in time. But as the fat man’s throat boomed with “ON COMET! ON CUPID! ON DONDER AND BLITZEN!” he suddenly felt its grip. He had known, intellectually, what was going to happen. He knew the reindeer would run, the sleigh would be pulled behind them, and that they would fly around the world at astonishing speeds. He had not known that there would be nothing to keep him on the seat except his clenched buttocks.

As soon as “BLITZEN!” escaped Santa’s lips, the sleigh lurched forward, Alastair plastered to the back of his seat. The hangar sped past him, the sconces on the walls rushing by and vanishing in seconds, replaced by the midnight black of the sky. He saw stars for a moment, then he saw streaks of light. The staggered light of distant suns was not usually intense enough to cause discomfort for his kind, but as they turned into beams in the sky he felt fear once again. Somewhere from below his throat a chilled howl escaped and he closed his eyes, shrieking.

When the shrieks ended, he realized that the quiet night was filled by another sound: Binky’s laughter.

“Open your eyes, Prince of Darkness,” he said.

Alastair did, preparing to see the stars racing past, the relief of the Earth below appearing on the horizon and evaporating just as fast behind them, the clouds parting for them and transforming into streaks in their wake.

He was not prepared to see the sleigh at a dead stop, the reindeer casually digging their hooves into the roof beneath them. There was a chimney nearby, and snow on the shingles, the rails of the sled cutting through and leaving trails behind them. 

“Are you alright there, Alastair?” Santa asked.

“I…How…”

“Wonderful. Let’s get to work.”

*   *   *

The first few stops were uneventful. They landed somewhere, the three of them whisked out of the sleigh down into a home, and Alastair watched as Santa and Binky went to work. This happened several times, in fact, before it started to dawn on him that thinking of it as a “few” stops had suddenly become relative. How many homes had they gone into already? Dozens? Hundreds? He was relatively certain they were in the same country their first stop had brought them, but he was not entirely certain what country that was.

What’s more, moving from house to house happened like lightning, but watching Santa and Binky lay out their gifts did not. He was conscious and aware the entire time, standing around like a shopping center security guard, with the closest thing to an intruder being the occasional dog that yipped at them or cat peering out from beneath the Christmas Tree. 

After a few stops, Santa held out a plate to Alastair. “Cookie?” he asked.

“Not to my taste.”

“Of course. Perhaps you’ll like the U.K. better – they leave me mincemeat pies over there.”

It was a habit of this Santa Claus, he realized, this conversation, this small talk. Santa was the sort of person who never met a silence he didn’t feel the need to fill with words, ironic considering the stealthy nature of his work. Alastair’s wife had been the same way, the sort who always needed to be talking about something, and–

He forced the thought aside as Santa signaled for him to join them by the fireplace. It was the standard procedure: he and Binky flanked Santa as the fat man put a finger aside his nose, then they were whisked up through the chimney and back onto the roof. Something else that had occurred to Alastair after a while was that not every roof had a chimney when they returned to the sleigh. What’s more, every roof they landed on was covered in snow, even if the air outside was in the 60s and there wasn’t another flake in sight. All of it: the chimney, the fireplaces, the snow…they were all manifestations of Santa’s own talents. How powerful was he?

“Tonight, I’m as powerful as I need to be,” Santa said.

“What? But–”

“You didn’t say anything, you just thought it. I know. Tonight I know everything, Alastair.” He smiled and his eye twinkled. “I know everything.”

If Alastair’s blood was still warm, the emphasis in the fat man’s voice would have cooled it. 

*   *   *

Alastair wasn’t certain how many stops it took before it happened, but he was sure the first sign of trouble came in Australia. As Santa laid out gifts for three children – a pair of swim fins for the oldest, stuffed animals that looked like blue dogs for the two younger – Alastair caught notice of a shuffling motion from the fireplace. He’d grown accustomed to small disturbances like pets or motorized vacuum cleaner, and they’d had more than one close call with children who were up late in anticipation or parents who were up late assembling toys. This was different, though. This time, the stonework on the fireplace itself seemed to be peering at them.

He nudged Binky, then tossed his head gently in the direction of the fireplace. Binky looked quickly and got the picture.

“Rock Troll,” he whispered.

It was like he’d given the assassin a cue.

The top layer of stone on the fireplace leapt up, arms appearing in the masonry, and reached out towards Santa Claus. Alastair assessed his options, but it didn’t take long. Allowing the troll to take Claus would be counter-productive. He was too far away, he still needed the fat man to get him where he was going. Besides, he had agreed to do a job, and he had never been the sort to welch on that.

As Claus continued to casually lay down the tracks for a train set around the Christmas tree, Alastair put himself in front of the troll, catching it by the wrists. The troll was strong, incredibly so, and for a moment he was afraid that he had already overstepped his capabilities…but the way the troll moved gave him his cue. The troll did not move like a normal animal, bones attached to tendons attached to flesh. With the troll, it was as if each component of his body was a separate stone, held together by nothing more than a little magic and a lot of stubbornness. As the troll tried to grab at Alastair’s throat, he kicked his leg out and, with his own vampire’s strength, dislodged the stone that made up the monster’s left knee.

“And a new football for Jamie,” Santa said, oblivious to the chaos behind him.

With his knee gone, the troll fell to his side and Alastair moved into action. He went for the joints first – elbows, wrists, the other knee – and pulled away the stones that represented those vital components of the rock troll’s anatomy. With those gone, the troll began to try to flip and flail on the ground, howling in some language that sounded eldritch and childlike at the same time. Alastair grabbed at the thing’s neck, but the troll jerked its head down and crushed his left hand. As he shouted in the surprise pain, he shot out his right hand and grabbed the monster’s jaw, yanking it off the rest of its skull. 

With that, the fight seemed to go out of the creature, but its eyes stayed open as Alastair continued disassembling its body and hurling the stones away. When finally there was nothing left but the cranium, he looked back at his companions. Santa carefully slid a candy cane into each of the three hanging stockings, while Binky gathered up the stones he’d tossed around and reassembled them in their customary places in the fireplace.

“A little help would have been nice,” he snarled.

“What for?” Binky said. “You seemed to have it covered.”

“Here.” Santa held a thermos out to Alastair, who waved it away. 

“I don’t need any of your hot chocolate.”

“It’s not chocolate,” Santa said. “It’s for your hand.”

He looked down at his left hand – crushed, the bones splintered, a thin trickle of the dark ichor that passed for vampire blood trailing down his arm…then he looked at the thermos. There was only one thing that could heal him, but…

“Just drink it,” Santa said, removing the lid from the thermos and holding it out again. Alastair took the thermos and took a deep sniff, his lungs filling with a warm smell of copper.

“A little AB negative,” Santa said. “That should get you patched together again.”

“How did you–”

“Alastair, really. Do I need to show you my resume?”

Chastened, Alastair lifted the thermos to his lips and drank. The warmth flowed into his body – it was one of the few things that made him feel warm these days, really – and he felt the bones in his hand snap back into place, the shredded fibers of his muscle knitting together, and the skin resealing itself as if being pulled by a zipper. 

“Well done,” Santa Claus said, sincerely. “Just try a little harder to keep it down next time, eh?”

*   *   *

House after house, country after country, the three of them moved through the night faster than Alastair would have believed possible – yet at the same time, the night seemed endless. How long had he been on this journey, relatively speaking? Days? Weeks? Time didn’t seem to apply anymore. By the time they arrived in England, even the battle with the rock troll in Australia felt like a distant memory, like something that had happened years ago to someone else entirely. 

His memories before the journey began, however, were as fresh and crisp as they ever were…even the ones from decades past. When Santa began laying out a plastic fashion doll for a small British girl, an image pricked at Alastair’s mind. These “fashion” dolls…what had been wrong with the baby dolls or rag dolls of days gone by? Somewhere in the depths of his mind he saw a brown-eyed little girl on Christmas morning pulling green tissue paper away from such a doll, a simple thing made of scrap fabric, but hand-sewn with greater love than these mass produced carbon copy playthings would ever know.

“Somethin’ wrong with the doll, Al?” Binky said, noticing his staring.

“I’m just thinking about how much toys have changed since…”

“Since what?”

“Since I was…young.”

“Hey, you’re talking to a guy that’s got six or seven hundred years on you. I know what you’re talking about. When I first started working for the boss we mostly delivered clay marbles and oranges. Now I don’t even know what half this stuff is.” He tucked away a video game console and looked back at Santa. “Are we done, boss?”

“Just about. I’ll just have a nip of this sherry and–”

Santa reached out for the glass of sherry, the traditional gift for Father Christmas in the UK, Alasair had learned, and lifted it to his lips. As he did so, though, Alastair saw a slender trail of thread attached to the glass. He knocked the glass from Santa’s hand, but somewhere a click announced that the glass’s trigger had already been tripped. A closet door opened up and from within stumbled a shuffling, moaning trinity of creatures with empty eyes, gray and lifeless skin, and bared teeth. They moaned as they reached their hands out and stumbled towards Father Christmas himself.

“Zombies?” Binky said. “Someone actually set up a zombie trap?”

Alastair had no hesitation at this point. In the endless night with Santa he’d already fought a troll, a banshee, a small pack of gremlins, and uncounted ghosts who seemed to take to the Christmas air the way Alastair himself took to darkness. He was beyond surprise. 

Dispatching the zombies was quick work. It always was – the only real threat a zombie brought came in numbers, and three was too small for Alastair to even flinch. He drew a knife from one of the cargo pockets in his uniform and drove it into the forehead of the first zombie, pushing it in up to the hilt. The ghoul stumbled and twitched, and Alastair gave his knife a twist to be certain the damage was done. As the zombie fell to the ground, Alastair pulled his blade free and turned to repeat the process on the next zombie.

“Doin’ good, Al,” Binky said. 

“Binky! Behind you!”

Binky turned at Alastair’s words, only barely missing the teeth of a fourth creature that had come from another room. The house was full of the beasts, Alastair said, and as he killed the third of them he realized he was in for a more substantial battle than he had experienced previously.

Binky pulled a gun from his pocket and held it up to the zombie that had stumbled out behind him. It made no sense – it was a toy gun, with orange plastic and a series of LED lights blinking along the casing. Even when he pulled the trigger, it was accompanied by a canned “ZAP!” noise that Alastair was certain thousands of toys over the years had emanated. But along with the fake sound effect, a glimmering spiral of light twirled from the barrel and into the zombie’s head. It zipped through its head, punching a hole between its eyes and bursting from the other side like a corkscrew. The creature fell back even as a crash came from upstairs.

“I’ve got this one,” Santa said, placing a finger aside of his nose. When Alastair had seen him do that previously, the three of them had all been whisked up into the fireplace. This time, only Santa vanished, but the swirl of glitter that accompanied his disappearance went not into the chimney, but down the hall and up a flight of stairs.

“What’s he doing?” Alastair asked.

“Taking care of someone who just went to the top of the naughty list.”

The ceiling cracked above them and Alastair pulled Binky back as it creaked and snapped, falling down into the room. The Christmas tree was knocked to the floor, a heavy piece of ceiling landing on it. On that piece, Santa Claus was still on his feet, holding up a tiny man with a white lab coat, wild eyes beneath a thick pair of glasses.

“If there are zombies,” Santa said, “You’ll usually find a cause. Evil sorcerer, alien invader…or this one. The good old-fashioned mad scientist.”

“Willing to ruin Christmas for the whole world just so you can have the bragging rights of saying you got Santa Claus, huh?” Binky leapt up into the man’s face. He kicked and flailed, but Santa shook him into submission. Binky grabbed the lapels of the lab coat and pulled himself up to look the man in the eye.

“Okay, Sparky, you’re going to tell me what you did with the family that lives here. And if you tell me they’re zombies, I’m shoving a holly branch so far up your you-know-what that you’re gonna convert to Judaism just so you never risk seeing me again!”

His hand shaking, the mad scientist pointed at the floor, then at a door across the room. Alastair opened the door up to reveal a flight of stairs heading downwards. “The cellar,” he said. He ran down to find five people tied up, their lips covered with duct tape, wailing. Two adults, three children…they matched the photographs in the living room upstairs. The smallest child, a little girl no more than seven years old, looked up at him with eyes turned to glass by tears. 

“Children,” he hissed. “There were children.”

He didn’t remember bolting back into the room. He didn’t recall jerking the man in the lab coat from Santa’s grasp and shoving him against the wall. He barely remembered putting his hand around the man’s throat and pulling aside his shirt, revealing a pink, pulsating stretch of neck. He did recall later, though, the way he felt his fangs extend in the front of his mouth, and how badly he felt the thirst at that moment.

“You would endanger children. Terrify children just because you hate Santa Claus?” He pulled his lips up, his fangs exposed to the air. He saw their reflection in the man’s glasses. The man saw them too.

“No! Let me go! Put me down!”

Every part of Alastair wanted to rip this man’s throat out. It went beyond the thirst – this creature was vile, was despicable, deserved none of the comforts of light or family that humans were allowed to enjoy. And he was ready to end the man’s life, as he had so many before…until a gloved hand fell on his shoulder.

“You saw what he did, Santa,” Alastair said.

Santa said nothing.

Alastair put the man down. 

“Binky?”

“Already got the CPC on the phone, boss. They’ll be here to clean up in minutes.”

Altastair felt the rage subside, pushed down the urge to rend flesh with his own teeth, and looked at Santa. “The family?”

“They’ll be all right. The CPC has certain ‘techniques’ to make sure they won’t remember this, except perhaps as the Christmas the whole family had some bad dreams.” 

“They’ll clean up the mess, too,” Binky said. “We should get going, boss. We’re behind schedule.”

“Are you certain you want to continue on, Alastair? You could stay here, rejoin the CPC now, if this has been too much.”

“I’m fine. Come on. Let’s go.”

“You did well here.”

Despite himself, Alastair felt a tiny well of pride at Santa’s praise. “You did well yourself. Makes me wonder why you even needed me.”

“Hey, the Big Guy can’t take care of everything,” Binky said. “Come on. Let’s go.”

*   *   *

There was no snow on the ground in Nebraska when Santa’s sleigh landed on the roof of the Pratt house, but as he had grown to expect, the snow appeared beneath the runners of the sled of its own accord. The house was large, but modest – not particularly ornate or fancy in and of itself. But the decorations! It was one of the most dazzling displays Alastair had seen since they left the North Pole, and they had quite literally seen them all. A thirty-foot Christmas tree made of an aluminum pole and strings of lights was the centerpiece. Surrounding it on all sides were inflatables, blow molds, wooden cutouts, animatronic figures, and every other conceivable permutation of Christmas decoration. And each and every one of them was in the shape of or paying homage to the man driving the sleigh.

“Gracious, Claus,” Alastair said. “This must be your biggest fan’s house.”

“It’s definitely in the top three. Come on.” He climbed from the sleigh and strode towards the chimney, Binky behind him. Alastair looked back at the sleigh, where Santa’s sack was still at rest.

“Wait! You forgot the presents!”

“No children at this home, Alastair,” Santa said. “I’m just here to pay a quick visit to a very old friend.”

The light of the decorations was so great that Alastair would almost have believed it was daytime, the brilliance of the sun somehow rising up from below rather than down from the sky. It was so bright, in fact, that he didn’t notice at first that a shadow had moved across the moon.

The first attack hit Alastair in the back, knocking him down to the rooftop and popping off his helmet, which rolled off the edge into a bush below. Someone grabbed at his collar, pulling it back and exposing his skin beneath. He felt a stabbing in his neck, one that felt horribly familiar, then it immediately retracted and a voice behind him began hacking and spitting. 

“You’re one of us?” the voice shouted.

Alastair shoved himself backwards, flipping the person on his back away and onto the rooftop. He rolled and leapt at the same time, landing on his feet and looking down at the vampire beneath him. It was a young man – at least, he looked young, but such things were deceiving when it came to the Nosferatu – and he looked up at Alastair with black trickles of blood at the sides of his mouth. “What are you doing with him?” the vampire asked.

As answer, Alastair pulled a wooden stake from a cargo pouch. He moved faster than even the other vampire could react, leaping forward and driving it straight into his undead heart. They locked eyes for a minute, the younger one clawed at Alastair’s face, and he toppled over. It wasn’t like the movies, where he turned to dust and evaporated. Only one thing could do that, and on Santa Claus’s endless nighttime journey, sunlight was not a commodity they could rely upon.

He looked up to see that the vampire that landed on his back was not alone. Santa grappled with one, while Binky had pulled a toy bow and arrow from his pouch and was using it to fire wooden bolts into the hearts of a trio that had assaulted him. 

“Santa, look out!” Alastair pulled another stake and jumped, driving it into the vampire that was on top of Santa Claus. As it fell away, another came from the sky, hacking at the fat man.

“We knew you’d be here, Claus,” she hissed at him. “Didn’t know that you’d have a human-lover with you. Why are you helping this old fool? You should be with us.”

Should he? They were in Nebraska now. Could they get him where he needed to go before the sun rose? It wasn’t impossible. He wasn’t sure what time it technically was here, but vampires could travel quickly. And if they couldn’t, they must have somewhere to hide during the daytime. It could work. It could–

She turned to Santa, her mouth open, and bent towards his neck. Alastair didn’t even hesitate to send his next stake right into her back. When she rolled off, shrieking at him, he pulled it out and sent it through the front of her body, right into her heart.

Santa looked at Alastair, grinning. “Nice list,” he said.

Alastair looked around – a half-dozen vampires all lay dead at their feet, but there were at least as many still crawling across the rooftop, charging towards them. In the sky, black shapes seemed to indicate even more were coming. For a moment, he felt a pang of regret. He hadn’t taken this job out of any sort of affection, but the idea of Santa Claus perishing in such a way was horrible. He wished he could do something else. He wished he had been better prepared. He wished–

A pair of massive hands jammed his helmet back on his head and shoved him into the sled. “Get down!” boomed a voice the size of a mountain, and Alastair did. He covered his head with his black-clad arms, and couldn’t see any of what happened next, but the sounds made it easy for him to imagine what was going on. There was an electrical sound, like a generator roaring to life. Afterwards, shrieks, then sizzles. Those lasted a while – probably not as long as it seemed, but like everything else this night it seemed as though it went on for a very long time. 

Then the generator died, the big hands patted him on the shoulder. “You can look up now, my friend,” said a voice that was terribly old, but somehow, still gentle and kind. He looked up to see an enormous man, one of the tallest people he’d ever seen in his interminable life, smiling down at him.

“I’m prepared for every eventuality,” he said. “Solar lights. They replicate the UV rays of the sun, which apparently is the wavelength that proves cataclysmic to your kind.”

He was right. The vampires were gone from the roof, even the ones he and Binky had staked before their new friend had turned on the UV lights. In their places were piles of dust, each of which was slowly being eroded by the wind. 

“Who are you?” Alastair asked.

“James Pratt, at your service.” He held out a hand and Alastair took it, trying very hard not to notice the intricate scars that traced his wrist, so similar to the ones across his face. They were stitches, Alastair realized. Very old stitches, but stitches indeed were what held Mr. James Pratt of Bellevue, Nebraska in one piece. His skin was a strange color, somewhere between light green and gray, with a texture that seemed to indicate death itself had long since gripped this man. There were no bolts on the side of his neck (any why would there be, Alastair knew such things were a conjuration of the movies), and the Santa hat upon his head prevented him from seeing the exact shape of his skull, but there was no mistaking just whose home they were visiting here, over two hundred years since his creation.

“You’re…you’re–”

“You’re very welcome,” Pratt said. 

Pratt ushered them into his home where he and Santa Claus each raised a glass of milk and toasted one another. In his life Alastair had seen all manner of creatures, all sorts of monsters. He had seen humans killed in brutal ways, creatures from realms undreamt of by humanity, the horrible emptiness of the void itself. Nothing compared to the sight of Santa Claus sharing a glass of milk with the kindly giant of Bellevue. 

He held his tongue until Pratt had returned to his bed and the three of them returned to the sleigh. “Santa,” Alastair said, “That was…I mean – was that who I think it was?”

“That was my friend James Pratt,” Santa Claus said. “A good man who enjoys the company of the few people in this world older than he is.”

“But he’s–”

“A man who made mistakes in his past, and wishes to leave his past behind him. You understand that, don’t you Alastair?”

The way he punctuated his name made Alastair clamp his mouth shut. What was he saying? Did he know? 

Of course he knew, he was Santa Claus, you don’t keep a secret from Santa Claus.

But if he knew, why hadn’t he said anything before now?

The question weighed on his mind as they lifted into the sky, leaving James Pratt of Bellevue, Nebraska in Alastair’s past.

*   *   *

California, at last. And northern California at that. His goal was a city called Redding, but he tried to decide if it would be wise to abandon the sleigh while they were there. It would be too obvious to look there. Perhaps he should wait – let Claus take him further south and backtrack. Would Sacramento be too far?

The sleigh landed on a rooftop and the now-familiar explosion of snow appeared beneath them. Binky and Santa exchanged a look, and Santa nodded. 

“Ready, Alastair?”

“As always, Santa.” For now. But not, he knew, for much longer. With a wave of Santa’s hand, the chimney appeared on the roof of a home that normally had none, and the three of them whipped downwards.

The room was dim, dimmer than most. Most of the homes they had visited had some form of decoration – a tree, of course, or lights, or candles. Very few had been totally dark, but this one was close. The tree was a small one, less than 18 inches, sitting atop a kitchen counter. Beneath it, dangling from the counter were a series of Christmas cards: photographs of children, greetings for the new year. Next to them, a series of what looked like get-well cards.

There were photographs as well, and even in the darkness, he could see them. There were families there – dozens of smiling people, and in one frame they stood around an elderly woman with bright eyes. 

Familiar eyes.

“Where are we?” he said.

“Your last stop,” Santa said.

“Last stop? What about the rest of the state? What about Alaska and Hawaii? What about–”

Your last stop, Al.” Santa pointed at the photos, and Alastair’s eyes traced them. They showed the same family in various permutations. Different groups of children with their spouses and their own children…even grandchildren. Many of them had the same eyes as the old woman in the first photograph.

“Whose home is this?” Alastair asked. “There aren’t any children here. I don’t see any stockings or toys or–”

He saw the picture on the mantle, a photograph of a young girl decades past. A girl with brown hair and brown eyes, those same eyes that looked out at him from the elderly woman in the other photos. In this one, she lay with her head against the chest of a man who looked to be in his thirties, smiling, beaming down at her. Alastair knew the face. Except for the smile, it was a face he carried with him every day.

“It was hard, wasn’t it, Allen?”

“What did you call me?”

“I’m not the CPC. Allen Bernard. Originally of Corpus Cristi, Texas. Married. One child. Always on the good list. Until 1956, when…well. You know what happened.” His eyes fell on Al’s neck, and the vampire felt his own hands tracing the spot where a pair of fangs had ended his mortal life decades ago.

“It was hard, wasn’t it?” Santa said again.

“What was?”

“Leaving them. Leaving your girls, leaving them behind.”

“I had to. Santa, I couldn’t control myself. I needed to drink, and they–”

“Were too convenient. You needed to learn control.” Santa smiled, a mixture of sadness and understanding. “You’ve learned, Allen.” 

“Do you mean to tell me that this…this house…”

“Her name isn’t Bernard anymore. It hasn’t been for decades. But her first name hasn’t changed.”

Vampires didn’t cry. It was something he had learned somewhat early, something about the tear ducts no longer functioning in the bodies of the dead. But Allen felt a heaving in his chest that hadn’t been there for years. “She’s sick, isn’t she?” he said. Santa nodded. “I could feel it. I knew. I had to–”

“Had to find some way out before it was too late. I know.” He looked over at Binky. “Ready?”

“But what about the CPC?”

“Oh, we’ll let them know what happened. How you valiantly gave your life in defense of the personification of Christmas. Your slate will be wiped clean.”

“Do you think they’ll believe that?”

He beamed, and this time the smile was full of nothing but light.

“They believe it every year, Allen.”

Binky put a small package wrapped in tissue paper into Allen’s hands. “Here ya go, Allen.”

Shaking, the vampire looked at the elf.

“Call me Al,” he said.

Santa raised his finger to his nose, and they were gone.

The man who was once Allen Bernard (and now was again) tore away the tissue paper to reveal a simple doll, one made of rags, lovingly stitched. It was exactly the way he remembered it, each scrap and stitch like the one his wife had put into the doll she made over 70 years ago. He was one of the undead, but as he walked down the hallway into the bedroom of a sleeping old woman, he was shaking.

“Francis?” he whispered. “Francis?”

In her sleep, the woman turned over. Her eyes fluttered and her hand reached out. He took it. It was old, liver spots along the back of it, wrinkled with the toil and memory of a lifetime she had gone through without him. He held the hand as he had so long ago and kneeled by the bed, tucking the doll under her arm and peering at her beautiful face..

Without opening her eyes, the woman in the bed whispered at him. “Is that you?” she asked.

“It’s me, baby,” he said. “It’s me. Daddy’s home.”

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. Special thanks to Lew Beitz and Amber Foret for help beta reading and copy editing this year’s story. That’s how you get on the nice list, folks.

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The Ghost of Christmas Writing Past Presents: The Christmas Special

Some years ago, before I had a kid, I had time to do these movie studies, digging into different genres and characters and pontificating how they evolved over time. It was a fun side project and, God willing, I’ll back to them someday.

Today, though, I want to dip back into the past and share one such project, from a glorious ten years ago: The Christmas Special. One year I selected 25 of what I thought were the best, most relevant, or most interesting TV Christmas specials, broke them down, and talked about them. And today, I share those articles again with you. Happy reading, Merry Christmas, and avoid the Grinch!

Introduction

1. Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer (1964)

2. A Charlie Brown Christmas (1965)

3. How the Grinch Stole Christmas (1966)

4. The Little Drummer Boy (1968)

5. Frosty the Snowman (1969)

6. Santa Claus is Comin’ to Town (1970)

7. The Year Without a Santa Claus (1974)

8. ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas (1974)

9. Emmet Otter’s Jug Band Christmas (1977)

10. The Fat Albert Christmas Special (1977)

11. A Flintstones Christmas (1977)

12. Nestor, the Long-Eared Christmas Donkey (1977)

13. Christmas Eve on Sesame Street (1978)

14. A Chipmunk Christmas (1981)

15. The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus (1985)

16. The Christmas Toy (1986)

17. A Claymation Christmas Celebration (1987)

18. A Garfield Christmas (1987)

19. A Muppet Family Christmas (1987)

20. Christmas at Pee-Wee’s Playhouse (1988)

21. A Wish For Wings That Work (1991)

22. Hooves of Fire (1999)

23. A Scooby-Doo Christmas (2004)

24. Shrek the Halls (2007)

25. Prep and Landing (2009)

An early Christmas present: Santa’s Odyssey

2017 was, in many ways, the roughest year of my life.

I went through two life-changing events within ten days of each other: the loss of my mother, and learning that I was going to be a father. Either of these things can turn your life upside-down. Both of them happening on top of each other threw me into an emotional spiral that took me quite some time to get out of. In some ways, I still haven’t — and probably never will.

When Christmas came that year, I struggled with writing my annual Christmas short story. I wasn’t even entirely certain I had it in me. Then, against all my better judgment, I decided instead to tackle an idea I’d had percolating for years: a 12-month experiment in storytelling in which Santa Claus would, once a month, come face to face with the Icons of the other holidays on the calendar. It’s a strange story, and one I look back on now and realize I used to work out a lot of things I was dealing with. And I serialized each chapter here, on my blog.

As Christmas 2022 approaches, I’m going to spotlight some of my older holiday-themed works, and so I’ve put together a little PDF of this story. This is the story as it appeared between Christmas Eve 2017 and New Year’s Eve 2018, complete and with only minor edits. If I ever decide to do an “official” publication, there will no doubt be more substantial edits, but I present it to you here as a sort of time capsule of the only sustained writing I managed to do during the most tumultuous period of my entire life. I hope you enjoy it.

SANTA’S ODYSSEY

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.”

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

Santa’s Odyssey: Christmas Eve

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

Previous Installments:

Twelve: Christmas Eve

December 1, 2 p.m.

Edgar pursed his lips and adjusted his tie. He didn’t have a lot of meetings — at least, not many that he didn’t call himself — but Mrs. Claus did still have a certain ceremonial position at the North Pole that he felt he needed to respect… for now, anyway. He glanced back through the window, over the chilled landscape of the Pole, and tapped the button on his intercom. “Send her in.”

He hadn’t seen Mrs. Claus in person since the incident at her home, when the Edgarbots made their glorious debut. Since then, she had kept quiet as his robots quickly took over the security and distribution functions of all North Pole operations. Even the toys coming out of the workshop were transported by Edgarbot, all of whom were careful to document each scrap of tin, every coil of wire, every drop of paint that went in or came out. Edgar still wasn’t certain what Mrs. Claus’s operation had been up to prior to his coup, but he took satisfaction in the knowledge that he had ended it.

Mrs. Claus stomped into his office, hands crossed demurely, and she sat down in the seat opposite him. She was broken, defeated, he was certain. And yet somehow, her presence made him anxious. Her eyes were not those of a worn-down, conquered woman. Her eyes were like cold steel. And despite her best efforts to disguise it, Edgar was certain the corners of her mouth were twitching, curling into a smile.

“Edgar. What a pleasure to see you again.”

“And you, Mrs. Claus. I hope you don’t mind if I cut straight to the chase, but as I’m sure you know, this is our busy season, so I’m afraid I can’t give you too much time. Being the head of North Pole Operations is a taxing endeavor.”

“Now that you mention it, Edgar, that’s actually the reason I’m here.”

“What do you mean?”

“This whole ‘Head of North Pole Operations’ thing. You see… I’m afraid that’s not quite how it works.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Well, I’ve never really had a need to look at the North Pole Charter before. It’s a rather lengthy document, you see, something all of the holiday icons agreed upon eons ago, and I’ve honestly never had call to look at it before. But you see, now that my husband has been gone for nearly a year now… well, a friend of mine has called my attention to something rather interesting.”

“What are you talking about?” Edgar said. He would have been slightly mortified to realize he was repeating himself, but that sick, sinking feeling in the pit of his stomach was too distracting. Mrs. Claus stood up and walked to the door of the office, opening it to reveal a smiling pink bunny.

“Edgar, right?” he said. “Easter Bunny, pleased to meet you.”

“I know who you are,” Edgar said. “I’m afraid I don’t know why you’re here.”

“Well here’s the thing, Ed. I hear tell my old buddy Nick has gone missing and that you want to take over.”

“It’s not a matter of desire, Mr. Bunny. Santa Claus left me in charge when he left. I remain in charge until that day — hopefully — that he returns.”

“Oh, sure, sure. But Eddie, the thing is… you can’t do that.”

“What are you talking about?”

“You say that a lot, you know that? What I’m talking about is the North Pole Charter. It’s a mutually-agreed upon document among all the icons. If one of us is unable to fulfill his duties, the others have agreed to settle who gets his territory by demonstrating which of us is most capable of doing so.”

“How in the blazes are you supposed to do that?”

“A contest, Edgar,” Mrs. Claus said. “The holiday icons have the right to compete to take over North Pole Operations to prove which of them is the most suitable replacement for my husband.”

“But I–”

Edgar’s eyes began to ache, bulging with a combination of terror and rage. He looked back and forth between Mrs. Claus and the Easter Bunny, desperate for some sign that they were making this up, that they were full of nonsense, that this was not happening.

There was none.

“One week from today, Edgar,” Mrs. Claus said. “The icons who wish to compete have agreed to be here on December 8. We’ll be working with some elves I’ve personally selected to help prepare for the games. It’s going to be glorious.”

“December 8?” Edgar sputtered. “Why not Christmas Eve? Isn’t that more traditional?”

The Bunny laughed. “Christmas Eve? C’mon, Edgar. Whoever wins needs time to get their stuff together, don’t they?” He looked over at the Edgarbot standing sentinel next to the door. “Handsome fella,” he said. “I hear tell he’s programmed to annihilate any Santa imposters that try to get into the Pole.”

“Yeah… yes, that’s right.”

“They won’t blow up any of the other icons, will they?” He laughed –a  tittering, tiny sort of sound that made Edgar’s flesh crawl.

“No… nobody else.”

“Awesome! See you then!”

He bounced out of the office, leaving Edgar and Mrs. Claus alone. The smile on her face was no longer disguised. His eyes began to burn.

“What are you doing?” he hissed. “What are you planning?”

“Nothing at all,” she said. “The Bunny came to me this morning with this glorious news. I just wanted to be here to give it to you in person.” She stood up, still smiling. “It was as wonderful as I had hoped,” she said.

December 8, 12 p.m.

The workshop was empty. The elves had cleared away the tables, the tools, the toys, the supplies, and left an enormous arena. They had quickly erected grandstands from which they could watch the proceedings, and Edgar stood at the catwalk outside his office, looking down at everything in a panic. One by one, he watched the icons march in — the Bunny was first, then Cupid, then Uncle Sam. The Jack O’Lantern, Leprechaun, and Worth came in as a trio, followed by Mother and Dad. Tom the Turkey and Bobo the Birthday Clown were fashionably late. Finally the Old Year came in with a cane, completing the set. Edgar had been part of North Pole Operations for centuries, and he had never seen any of these icons before. Their presence felt like a personal invasion. This was his home, his place. He had earned it.

Dad walked into the center of the arena, smiling out at the crowd. He didn’t need a microphone, he just turned on his Dad Voice and it echoed into every corner of the factory. “Ladies and gentlemen! Elves of all ages! Assembled beloved icons of the holidays! Welcome!”

There was a bounding cheer from across the factory, and Dad’s smile made Edgar’s gut curdle. “Today, in the absence of our dear friend Santa Claus, five icons will compete to determine who will take up his mantle–”

“SIX!”

Edgar’s voice cracked through the workshop, and everyone turned up at him.

“I beg your pardon?” Dad said.

“I can read the North Pole Charter too!” he said. “You icons get to compete to take up Santa’s job, but as the interim head of operations, I have the right to compete too!”

Dad glanced over at the Easter Bunny, standing next to Mrs. Claus. He shrugged and nodded.

“Okay, then,” he said. “Five beloved holiday icons! The Easter Bunny! Uncle Sam! Pat the Leprechaun! Mother! Bobo the Birthday Clown!” He glanced around. “And… Edgar, apparently! Let the games begin!”

The six competitors came down to the center of the area, and Dad snapped his fingers. The elves he’d worked with to help prepare the games bolted into action, building an obstacle course of toys, Christmas decorations, hedges, live pets, and a finish line at a Christmas tree. “The first task is a timed run at a delivery obstacle course! The two slowest times will be eliminated!”

Edgar peered out across the obstacle course. It would have to begin here. Edgar had never been a delivery elf, so navigating the course of family effluvia was not immediately in his wheelhouse. Still, all he needed to do was outpace two of the also-rans. The Easter Bunny would probably be a contender here, but when did Uncle Sam have to deliver any gifts? Or the St. Patrick’s Day Leprechaun?

He drew the short straw and was assigned the first run, which actually made him breathe a sigh of relief. If nothing else, he would get to set the pace. Dad picked up a starter pistol and raised it in one hand, a stopwatch in the other. “On your mark…” he said. “Get set… Go!

The pistol cracked and Edgar leapt into action. He grabbed a bright red gift from a table and charged into the obstacle course. He bounced over an icy roof and slid down a chimney, rolling into a makeshift living room. A dog started to bark at him, but he hurdled it and landed on the other side, narrowly avoiding a child’s electric drum, which he knew from walking the factory floor would start chiming like mad if he so much as brushed against it. Gliding past a lava walk made of scattered Lego bricks, he slid under the Christmas Tree and slipped his gift soundlessly into place, coming out the other side and pounding a red button that signalled the end of his run.

“Seventy-two seconds!” Dad announced. “That’s the time to beat!”

Horatio from electronics patted him on the back. “Nice job, Boss. Let’s see those other icons beat that!”

“Fourteen seconds!” Dad shouted. “The Easter Bunny sets the new record!”

“Aw, fudgesicles,” Horatio mumbled.

Edgar glared at him, then plopped down on  bench to watch the remaining four contestants. To his relief, Bobo the clown was next and fouled things up completely, stopping to pet the dog and howling at an imagined sleeping child to come downstairs and get a balloon animal. Birthdays, Edgar thought, were not made for stealth. With the clown’s dismal failure, he only had to wait out one other icon. Mother also swept through the obstacle course with aplomb, and the Leprechaun did surprisingly well, but Uncle Sam fumbled his way through, ending the course with a dismal 116 second time. Sam and Bobo were eliminated after the first round.

“Round two!” Dad announced. “Reindeer chariot race!”

A group of elves came in, each leading a reindeer pulling a miniature “miniature sleigh” behind it. Edgar had worked with reindeer at one point, and smiled — he could certainly do this better than the others. He had been hoping for one of the reindeer he knew personally, Comet or Donner or somebody, but instead it looked like the A-team was sitting this out. Sparkles and Schnitzel weren’t bad reindeer, but they weren’t top notch. Still, he could handle them.

Edgar, Mother, Pat, and the Easter Bunny each took their place on one of the chariots. Again, Dad raised his starter pistol. “The last two contestants to cross the finish line will be eliminated!” he shouted. “On your mark… get set…”

The gun fired and the reindeer burst to life. Edgar grabbed the reins and deftly steered the reindeer into the course laid out across the workshop. It went outside, rushing through forest and field covered in snow, but it was his home territory. He knew every inch of this property. There was no way the others would defeat him.

“Whoa! Hey! Yaaaa, mule!” The Easter Bunny was the first to spin out and crash, unable to get a decent grip on the reins with his padded paws.

“Looks like your rabbit feet aren’t so lucky, boyo!” Pat howled, laughing. He pulled on his own reigns and took a sharp turn, edging past Mother. Edgar glanced back just enough to see him darting around with precision. What kinds of vehicles did leprechauns steer, he wondered. He would have to look it up. Maybe some time after New Year’s.

Around the third curve outside, Edgar saw a trio of Edgarbots in their patrol. He glanced at them, then back at his competitors, all of whom trailed him. “Edgarbots!” he shouted. “Block the pass!”

He rushed past them as the robots fell onto each other, falling across the route and making it impassible. He laughed, cracking the reigns and speeding around a curve. He heard Mother shout, then a crash, and he suppressed a smile. Hopefully she wasn’t hurt too badly. After all, nobody wanted to damage Mother.

As he turned the corner into the factory, he heard cheers and applause. How nice — his elves were rooting for him. And why not? He was one of them. It was long past time for one of them take charge of the operation.

When his reindeer trotted inside, his heart fell. The elves were cheering, gleeful, but their glee was not for him. Pat’s chariot was parked at the finish line, and the little leprechaun sat atop it, arms extended, basking in their glee.

“How did you–”

“You should have seen it, Edgar!” Chanticleer burbled. “He practically flew in!”

Edgar clenched his fist, trying to contain the acid spit in his mouth. “Lovely tattoo there on your face, Pat,” he said. “Very tasteful.”

“It’s been a corker of a year, Eddo,” he said. “How about we finish this?”

Edgar glared at Dad. “What’s the last competition?”

“The most important one of all,” Dad said, announcing it to the howling throng. Mrs. Claus sat next to the Old Year, Jack O’Lantern behind her. The pumpkin’s smile was permanently carved into place, but the other two didn’t need to look so damned happy.

“Ladies, gentlemen, and icons,” Dad said, “It’s time for the final competition! Pat the Leprechaun versus Edgar the Elf! Winner takes up the sacred responsibility of being the Christmas icon! And that winner–”

“What’s the jingle-jangled competition, Dad?” Edgar screamed.

Dad glanced at him, frowning. “You know, son, I’m not used to being spoken to that way. I’ll let it slide since you’re under a little pressure. But since you asked…”

He waved to a pair of tables covered in red sheets. At his signal, a pair of elves whipped the sheets away, revealing boxes of parts. “The icon of Christmas, above all else, has to be able to make a child happy. And how can anyone do that if he can’t assemble a simple toy? In these boxes are enough parts to make one thousand nutcracker dolls. The winner will be the one who puts together the most in five minutes. On your mark…”

Assembling toys? Edgar chuckled. He could do that in his sleep.

“Get set…”

“Get ready to crumble, you drunken sot,” he snapped.

“GO!”

He sprang to the table and grabbed a torso, then started rummaging through the boxes looking for heads. Behind him, Pat the Leprechaun just stood there, watching, making no move towards his own boxes.

“Better hurry up!” Edgar snarled. “I’ve got three put together already!”

“I know my capabilities, Edgar,” Pat said. “Just as I know yours. Just like I know you’ll cut corners and skip steps, and the nutcrackers you assemble won’t be worth a damn.”

He dropped the legs he was holding and turned, looking at the Leprechaun. “What are you talking about?” he said.

“The Bunny was right. You have been saying that a lot lately. I don’t remember hearing it quite so much last year.”

Without another word, Pat walked up to his boxes and began to work. He barely even needed to glance in the boxes, he simply reached in, pulled out a part that was exactly the part he needed, and attached it to the part in his other hand, then repeated the process. His hands were a blur, his face was stone, and before the eyes of the crowd the pile of completed nutcrackers began to grow. Edgar fumbled, dropping the nutcracker he was working on and breaking the torso in half in the process, but didn’t take his eyes off the leprechaun. How many toys had be built already? Twenty? Thirty? The pile was growing, and Edgar’s three looked incredibly meager. He turned back to his own boxes, grabbing a new torso and looking for a head to put on it. When he glanced up again, the pile of nutcrackers was eclipsed only by the pile of empty boxes by the leprechaun’s workstation. By the time the clock passed two minutes, all of his boxes were empty, and a legion of nutcrackers stood sentinel over them.

Edgar sputtered and stumbled through his task for the final three minutes of the contest, but it was already over. Half of the toys he put together fell apart even as he put them on the table, the other half looked hastily-assembled and shoddy, especially in comparison to Pat’s army of perfect, flawless toys. When Dad finally held up his stopwatch and shouted, “Time’s up!” even Edgar thought it a mercy.

“How did you do that?” he said. “How could you have possibly…”

“Dad,” Pat said. “The result?”

Dad looked at the two tables of nutcrackers — one full, proud, and perfect, the other a jumbled mess, and didn’t even have to say a word. He went over and grabbed Pat’s hand, raising it above his head.

“The winner!” he cried. “The new head of operations for the North Pole! Is Pat the–”

“Don’t be ridiculous, boyo!” Pat shoved his way through the crowd, pushing past an assembled throng of shocked elves to stand in front of Dad and the other Pat, the one who had just mastered the contest. “You know as well as I do that ain’t no leprechaun who just conquered your little winter Olympics!”

The room was filled with gasps and shouts. Mrs. Claus stood up, her jaw open, eyes popped in shock. Flanking her, the Old Year and the Easter Bunny were both smiling.

“Who is that?” she asked.

The other Pat — the one who had beaten Edgar so handily — smiled with a grin that looked beautifully, tantalizingly familiar, and he snapped his fingers. Tendrils of green smoke appeared around him, swirling, but they were soon joined by a second strain, smoke of brilliant red. The column grew to the size of a full adult, grew out quite a bit as well, and dissipated. Pat was gone. In his place was the bold, beaming form of Santa Claus.

“You’re going on the naughty list for a long time, Edgar,” he said.

Edgar looked up at him, horrified, then bolted for the door. He didn’t get far, though, finding the way blocked by a wall of elves. In the front, glaring at him, were Blinky and Eleanor.

“Edgar,” Blinky said. “You have got to learn a little self-control.”

Edgar looked in panic, pointing at the Edgarbots at the door. “Edgarbot! Remember your programming! Annihilate the Santa imposter!” he pointed to Santa, who was just watching the whole spectacle, amused. The Edgarbot looked in his direction and his eyes glowed, scanning.

“Negative,” he said. “Subject does not meet the programmed description.”

“It’s the tattoo,” Santa said. “Like I said, it’s been a corker of a year. So, these are the Edgarbots, eh?”

He walked up to the robot, peering into its eye. “Robot! Who are you programmed to obey?”

“Edgarbots are designed to follow the commands of the head of North Pole Operations.”

“And as of thirty seconds ago, who is that?”

The robot said nothing for a few moments, seeming to process the query. Finally, it said quite clearly, “You, sir.”

“Wonderful,” Santa said. “Then you have two commands. First, take Edgar and confine him to quarters. Second, deactivate all the Edgarbots. Permanently.”

The robots didn’t need to think for another second. They grabbed Edgar, each by one arm, and hauled him away. Blinky brushed his hands. “Throw him in the dungeon, Boss!”

“Oh Blinky, don’t be ridiculous. We don’t have a dungeon. Still, I think a century or two in the sanding department might teach Edgar some much-needed humility. Can’t have the children getting splinters, can we?”

The clamor and joy around them was almost a whirlwind, but Santa held up his hands and beckoned for the elves to calm down. “My friends, please, I’m overjoyed to see all of you too, but there’s so much to do! I promise I’ll tell you everything later, but for now–”

“Nick?”

The elves parted and slowly, gingerly, almost scared, Mrs. Claus stepped forward. Her eyes were huge with equal parts hope and fear. “Nicholas? Is it really you?”

“It’s me. I’m so sorry I’ve been gone, but–”

“How can it be you? Where have you been?”

“It’s not his fault, Mrs. C,” the Easter Bunny said. “We… um… we maybe did a bad thing.”

“How do I know it’s really you?” she asked, ignoring the Bunny altogether. “Tell me something Santa would know. Go get the first thing you ever made for me and bring it here.”

Santa balked. “Are you mad, woman? That ice sculpture has been in the garden for over a thousand years! It wouldn’t last ten minutes in the heat of this warehouse!”

Her eyes filled again, this time with tears. She started to talk, started to sputter, but finally just rushed forward and embraced her husband, her arms around him for the first time in nearly a year.

“Nicholas, I… I just…”

“I know,” he said. “Me too.” He patted her shoulders. “I’m told that you’re the reason we’ll actually have enough toys to hand out this year, instead of having to saddle every child with an Edgarbot. Look at that. The year Mrs. Claus saved Christmas.”

She laughed and held him, and neither of them wanted to let go.

The icons assembled behind her, a few of them glancing around. “Well…” the Bunny finally said. “We should be going. Um, Mr. C will fill you in on what went on… sorry again, Santa.” He bounded away.

“Really sorry,” Pat said. “You’re all right, lad.”

One by one, the icons flittered out of existence, until only one was left. Santa looked up from his embrace, peering into the eyes of the Jack O’Lantern, who peered back at him.

“It’s not over yet, Santa,” he said. “You know this.”

He faded away, and Santa’s smile fell.

“I know,” he said.

December 24, 10:42 p.m.

Gary leaned on the doorway to his guest room, looking at the bed. It had been empty for a month, but now it was occupied again. Warren was fast asleep, eyes shut, smile etched on his face. Gary hadn’t been able to watch his son sleep in years, hadn’t seen him do it on Christmas Eve in even longer. His ex-wife hadn’t put up the fight he had expected when he said he wanted the boy to spend Christmas Eve at his home. Evidently, she’d discovered that having a break from her child once in a while wasn’t such a terrible thing after all.

Satisfied that Warren wouldn’t wake up, Gary stole away into his own bedroom closet and took out some brilliantly wrapped packages, bringing them into the living room to place under the tree. He was only mildly surprised to find there were packages already there. He was slightly more surprised that the man who delivered them was there too.

“Nick! I was afraid I would never see you again!”

Santa smiled and gave his friend a hug. “After the year we had together, Gary, it would have been a terrible injustice if you hadn’t. Now, I am terribly busy tonight, but I’ve got a few minutes to spare. Can I trouble you for a glass of milk?”

Gary poured, Santa drank, and he told him the tale of his return to the North Pole — ousting Edgar, taking back control of his operation, and securing a staunch promise from all of the icons that none of them would ever interfere in the operations of another, ever again. Santa himself had sworn the same covenant, and they all considered it mystic and binding.

“Hell of a time,” Gary said.

“That it was, lad.”

“What did Jack mean, though? When he told you it wasn’t over?”

Santa’s jolly visage cracked. He reached into his bag and withdrew a small package, wrapped in green paper, with Gary’s name on it. “Gary, you have been the finest mortal friend I’ve had in centuries. You’re a good man, a kind man, and you don’t deserve what I’m about to say to you.”

“What do you mean, Santa?”

“Icons are supposed to be intangible to mortals. We exist because you have faith in us, because you believe in us. There’s a terrible irony here. If people knew for certain that we were real, their faith would erode and our powers would go away.”

“I’ll never tell anybody, Santa. You know that.”

“I know, Gary. I know you mean that. But the reason I tried to hide who I was from you at the beginning was to avoid this very moment. And from the moment you told me you knew who I was, I knew it was coming. It’s iron-clad. I have no choice.”

“You’re scaring me, Santa.”

“There’s nothing to be scared of, lad. You’re going to be fine.” He handed him the gift. “You’re just not going to remember.”

“Not remember? Not remember you?”

“Not the truth, not as I am. You’ll remember friendship. You’ll remember someone who was there for you. You’ll remember that you’re loved.” He placed a hand on Gary’s shoulder. “You’ll remember the important things.”

“But I won’t remember Santa Claus?”

“You’ll believe in Santa Claus. You won’t remember that he slept in your guest room for eleven months.”

He looked down at the package in his hands. “I… I think I would rather remember.”

“I would rather that too.”

They looked down at the package. “I guess I just open it?”

“You do.”

“I’m going to miss you, Nick. And Blinky and… Eleanor.”

“I’ll miss you too, Gary. But I’ll see you around.”

“Will I see you?”

Santa shook his head.

Gary sighed and grabbed the red ribbon on his gift. He pulled it open. And he fell promptly asleep.

Santa laid him on the couch, then munched the cookies Warren had left out earlier. He looked down at Gary, then at the item from his gift, the one he clutched in his hand.

“Nice list,” he said. “Always the nice list.”

And putting a finger aside of his nose, Santa Claus vanished.

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: Christmas Day

For many years now, it’s been my tradition to write a new story to share each Christmas. Despite how crazy this year has been, I didn’t want to break with that. However, one story was stuck in my head, the only one that could come out. It’s not just a Christmas short story. It’s something… larger…

Prologue: Christmas Day

“Do you see him yet?”

“Nay, not yet.”

“Well he’s got to come in soon. It’s almost morning! Are you sure he’s going to come this way?”

“Pretty sure. We use basically the same routes, so he should cut through here on his way North.”

“If you are wrong, I swear, I’ll skin you alive and hang your feet from my fingertips as a warning to any who would dare deceive me.”

“Oh, stop being so dramatic, son.”

“Leave the boy be! Let him express himself!”

“Would you all be silent? Look, in the skies above! He approaches!”

“Wonderful. Light it up.”

*   *   *

Despite the way it is frequently depicted in the media, Santa Claus’s Christmas Eve run is not as simple as hopping in a sleigh and flying south. There is a reason that nobody, no airplane or spacecraft, no weather balloon or dog-drawn bobsled has ever been able to locate Santa’s Workshop. Santa’s home is not, technically speaking, on Earth. Not Earth as we know it, anyway, but in a sort of otherworldly shell of Earth, in a place where those anthropomorphic personifications of the things humans cling to tend to spend their time, and where the veil between their world and ours only grows thin when the humans’ need for such a creature is great. Were a human to ride in Santa Claus’s sleigh on his way home after making his deliveries, they would see the ground beneath them become a snow-covered plane, frozen and unbroken for what seems like thousands of miles, before finally being punctuated by the glorious, colorful workshop from which Santa Claus does his good deeds. It would not be a journey they could replicate, however, and they would have no hope of returning home without the aid of Santa or another such anthropomorphic personification such as Mother Nature, Jack Frost, or Amy the Arbor Day Arugula. All this is to say that it’s particularly difficult to move from our world to theirs when it is not your time of power, and it is for that reason that the plot to eliminate Santa Claus was almost successful.

“Almost home, boss,” said Blinky.

“I think I can see our house from here,” Eleanor chimed in. Blinky and Eleanor were, of course, elves, and two of Santa’s best. They sat in the now-empty sleigh, lounging in the empty space that had been previously occupied by an enormous sack of toys, each now in the hands or heart of some child or another, at least until he broke it while throwing it at his sister.

“Not a bad run, eh?” Santa asked, smiling down at them. “Ah, hundreds of years and I never miss a beat.”

“Not too bad. Almost had to put a kid out at the Franklinton house, but he settled back down before I needed to break out the sand.” Blinky was in charge of security – he scouted the home before Santa popped in, ensuring that the children were nestled and not a creature was stirring. Occasionally he would encounter a mouse that attempted to defy this edict. When that happened, Blinky took care of it. Per Santa’s orders, he was gentler with children. If one was found to be awake, he whisked them back to sleep with a handful of sonombula, a sleep-inducing dust provided to them by the Sandman.

“Oh, the Franklintons,” Eleanor said. “I hope Stacy likes the pony stable.” Eleanor was in charge of distribution. She catalogued orders and made certain Santa was delivering each toy to its proper recipient. He used to keep track of such things himself, but as the number of children in the world continued to grow there were too many instances of kids who asked for blocks waking up to socks, toy boats being confused with toy goats, and children asking for action figures of the DC superheroes waking up to find Marvel instead. Since Eleanor took over operations, things had run much more smoothly.

On the horizon, the brilliant glowing dot that indicated Santa’s Workshop grew closer. When it first appeared, a yellow dome in the distance, it was the first sign of light. Now the sun was coming up off to the right and the color of the dome was different. It didn’t look yellow anymore. If anything, Blinky thought, it was turning an odd shade of orange.

“Thirty-seven seconds faster than last year,” Eleanor said, looking over the schedule. “And that with 426 more deliveries.”

“It was a boom year for babies in New Orleans,” Santa said.

“Santa…”

“And the Japanese stops went much faster than usual.”

“Well, cutting over North Korean airspace speeds things up. Don’t tell anybody we did that.”

“Santa…”

“I’m a little concerned about the British, though.”

“Well, they ebb and flow, and it’s been a rough couple of years there. Britain always bounces back, though. They love me better than anyone. Ho-ho! Why wouldn’t they?”

“SANTA!”

“Blinky, what on Earth–”

The security elf extended a green-clad arm, pointing across the snowy waste, and Santa’s words trailed away when he realized why. The glowing dot, the one that they’d thought was the same Workshop they returned to year after year, was no longer yellow. It was quite clearly orange, with tendrils of green light in the mix. What’s more, the soft gingerbread peaks and candy cane architecture they were used to was missing entirely, replaced by a harsh, angular structure that looked like a spiny gothic castle, crawling with pumpkin vines and surrounded, as it seemed, with headstones.”

“Santa, what is that?” Eleanor asked.

“It’s Halloween,” he said. “But what is it doing here?”

As they stared at the castle, there were two bursts of light from the turrets. A pair of missiles – wrapped in red, white, and blue ribbon – shot through the air, brilliant colored sparks streaking the sky in their wake. They watched quietly, but only for a moment. Eleanor lost the ability to remain silent when it was clear that the missiles were headed straight for them.

She shrieked even louder than the missiles on their collision course with the sleigh, but instead of making impact, they blew past them and exploded in the air immediately over their heads, the burst of light dazzling Santa and the elves. When Blinky’s eyes cleared, he saw a pair of turkeys sitting on the reigns, pecking at the leather straps that held the reindeer to the sleigh. They were almost through.

“What’s going on?” he shouted. He grabbed the sleigh’s onboard radio and hit the SEND button. “Blinky to North Pole! Blinky to North Pole! We are under attack! Edgar, send help! Repeat–”

Repeating was not an option. A pink, furry paw swatted the radio from Blinky’s hand. He looked over to see a snarling bunny, larger than the elf himself, yank the radio cord from the dashboard and throw it over the side. Eleanor grabbed the bunny, trying to wrestle it away from Blinky, but it grabbed at a cord attached to his hip and yanked. A brilliant pastel parachute whipped out of a pack on his back and he was jerked up and away from the sleigh. The parachute opened up to reveal its light blue egg shape.

“Eleanor!” Blinky howled. The distribution elf was still holding onto the bunny as it trailed away and drifted into the distance.

“Blinky, hold on!” Santa shouted. The turkeys bit through the last of the reigns and the reindeer continued on their way. The moment the leather was cut, the sleigh’s forward momentum slacked off and it lost all lift. Blinky realized with terror that they were hurtling towards the ground.

“Blinky! CRASH POSITIONS!”

Santa and the remaining elf grabbed one another, eyes closed, Blinky howling all the way down. Santa allowed himself to peek just for a second, just in time to see a bed of clover poke through the snow beneath them. The sled hit the clover and bounced off, cutting a swath through the snow beyond before colliding with a tree, catapulting the occupants through the air and into drifts of snow beyond.

“Santa?” Blinky moaned. “Santa, are you okay?”

Santa sat up, brushing snow from his face with his hat. “I think so. Are you?”

“No injuries to report,” Blinky said “Any sign of Eleanor?”

“We lost her somewhere.”

The snow cleared from his eyes, Santa looked around to get his bearings. As he did, he realized he and Blinky were not alone. Approaching them from the trees were an enormous pink rabbit, a giant turkey, a bearded man in star-spangled clothing, and several others. When a winged cherub landed on the shoulder of a very old man with whiskers down to his knees, Santa felt a tinge of dread.

“I told ye this wouldn’t work,” muttered a small man – about Blinky’s size – wearing all green, with tufts of red hair poking out from under his hat. “He’s still too powerful on Christmas morning.”

“Ah, he’d be too powerful in May,” the rabbit muttered. “I didn’t think we’d actually take him out. Plan B?”

A woman with her hair in a bun came up behind them, looking down at Santa with a scowl of bone-grinding disapproval. “Oh yes. Plan B it is.”

“What is the meaning of all this?” Santa said. “East? Is that you?”

“East?” Blinky said. “Do mean to tell me that rabbit is the Easter Bunny?”

“Guilty,” the rabbit said, grinning. He tossed an egg casually in the air, bouncing it from hand to hand. “But not as guilty as your boss, Elf.”

“What are you talking about?” Santa said. “This is absurd. Why on Earth would you attack us?”

“Attack you?” snarled the cherub. “You’ve been in an all-out assault on us for years!”

“You’ve got your diaper on too tight, Cupid,” Santa snapped. “I’ve never done a thing to any of you.”

As a whole, the group groaned and rolled their eyes. In the back, a clown threw his hands up in disgust.

“Nothing except hogged all of the glory,” the Bunny said. “How many letters do you think kids write to the Easter Bunny, fat boy?”

“People forget their fathers half the time,” said a man in a suit wearing approximately 37 neckties. Even from the back of the pack, Blinky could smell a sickening miasma of different cologne brands emanating from him.

A man in a hardhat slapped a wrench into his hand. “There aren’t even any decorations at all for Labor Day.”

The Turkey scratched at the ground. “Holiday creep, that’s what it is! People waste half of my day buying crap for yours!”

The tallest figure – a slender form with a body made of rotting tree branches and a head carved from a pumpkin – extended a pointy finger at him. “The sales begin even before my time of power. You just can’t be satisfied with your own time, can you, Claus?”

“Here’s the point, boyo,” the man in green said. “For too long now, ye’ve been taking up all the holiday glory for yourself. Every year, your power seems to grow, while ours gets weaker and weaker.”

Santa looked around at the others – icons of Easter, Halloween, Thanksgiving… who the heck was the clown supposed to be? Whoever, none of them were in their time of power. Only one was close…

The old man stepped forward. “It’s been too long, Santa Claus. Your time of power is ending, while mine quickly approaches. It will be a long year before you’re back at full power. So it is the informed opinion of us, a jury of your peers, that you spend that year being made to understand what you have stolen from us.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Ain’t it obvious?” Cupid asked. “We’re on strike.”

Santa looked at each of them, bouncing from face to face, his blood growing as cold as the snow he was still kneeling in. “What do you mean?”

“We each have a time of power. One day, for most of us. You seem to command an entire season–”

“YEAH!” the Turkey snapped.

The old man shot him a look, then looked back at Santa. “If you insist on creeping earlier and earlier, then perhaps this year you would like to know what it’s like to take on the responsibilities of those days you usurp.”

“You’re doing our jobs this year,” said the man in the necktie. “All of us.”

“Oh, don’t worry,” the old man said. “We’ll be there to make sure you don’t ruin things too badly. But from now until next Christmas Eve, our responsibilities are officially being handed over to you.”

“This is madness,” Santa said.

“I’m sure you feel that way,” the old man said. “I’ll see you in a week, Santa.”

As he stared at the group, the Turkey vanished, followed shortly by the stick-man with the pumpkin head. The rest of them popped out one at a time.

“One week,” the old man said, fading.

Santa and Blinky, lying in the snow, looked at each other. “Santa? What do we—”

“Wait, wait! I’m haven’t made my dramatic exit yet!” The clown poked his head out from behind a tree, giggling.

“Who are you?” Santa asked.

The clown winked. “I’ll see you when I see you,” he said, vanishing.

“Santa?” Blinky said. “What do we do? Where are we?”

Santa pushed himself to his feet, brushing the snow from his knees. “I can’t get us home,” he said. “Not without the reindeer, not now. It’s Christmas morning, the gifts have been opened. My time of power is ending.”

“Then how do we get home?” Blinky said.

“I don’t know,” Santa said. “I don’t even know where we crashed.”

The two of them stumbled through the snow, going back in the direction they’d come from. As they passed the spot where the sleigh crashed, the patch of clover they’d collided with was gone, although Santa did notice a few shredded green leaves mixed in with the white. They walked for some time, close to an hour, before they crested a dune and saw a long, gray stretch of highway appear. Cars were zipping past, people travelling to spend the holiday with family and friends, while Santa and Blinky were cold and away from home.

“A sign,” Santa said. “Blinky, you’ve got those elf eyes. Can you read it?”

“Elf eyes?” Blinky said. “Where’d you get that from?”

Lord of the Rings. Why, is that not a thing?”

“No, no, it’s a thing. It’s just kind of a stereotype, that’s all.” He squinted and looked at the green sign at the edge of the highway.

“What does it say?”

“Rochester, New York, 60 miles,” he said.

Santa sighed. “Well, at least we know where we are.”

To be continued…

A Christmas Gift: Daisy’s Tree

daisys-tree-1As people who have been with me for a long time know, each year I write a new Christmas short story as a little gift for those who’ve stayed with me this long. This year’s tale came to me as I was on my way to a little Christmas Tree farm in Mississippi with my wife and my sister’s family. It’s about a little girl and  different kind of tree. And as of right now (Christmas Eve) it’s totally free for five days! Roll over to Amazon.com and get this year’s story for your Kindle or Kindle app.

Daisy’s Tree on Amazon.com

Merry Christmas!