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…

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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!