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.
Edgar’s fingers curled around the ledger. The numbers… every piece of information Hawthorne the Inventory Elf brought him… none of it made sense. He looked from the numbers, back to Hawthorne, back again. Simmering, he put the papers on his desk.
“How could the production numbers be this low?” he asked. “It’s the end of October. And we revised all the orders down. They should have finished all of these orders weeks ago!”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Boss. This is what we’ve got in the warehouse.”
“Dolls, toy cars, board games… every single category of toy is behind schedule?”
“Everything except for the Edgarbot.”
Except for the Edgarbot. The words burned in his ears. Not only was the Edgarbot on schedule, it was almost perfectly on schedule. That never happened. At this point in the year, most toy departments were either way ahead or trailing behind. The Edgarbot was within 100 units of the original estimate, and had been for weeks.
“They’re doing it on purpose,” he hissed. “They’re deliberately slowing down the other toys.”
“Why would they do that?”
“Because of the Edgarbot! They’re protesting!”
“Oooooh, yeah, that makes sense. Everybody hates that thing.”
Edgar’s eyes flashed at Hawthorne. “There’s a reason you’re in inventory instead of customer service, Hawthorne.”
“Aw, thanks, that’s sweet of you to say.”
Edgar snatched the papers from the desk and flew through the doors of the office. Standing on the balcony, looking out over the production floor, his eyes bolted from one department to another. Everyone was working, everything was strumming along perfectly. From some corners, he could even hear whistling, strains of the work songs that the North Pole factory used to hum with in different times.
“NOW HEAR THIS!” he cried. At once, every pointed hat in the factory turned to face him. His face twisted and contorted, he held the ledger in the air.
“It has come to my attention that production is behind schedule. It has furthermore come to my attention that some of you may be doing this deliberately. This will not be tolerated! Do I make myself clear?”
For a moment, the floor was silent. Then, from somewhere in the teddy bear region, there was a sound of chuckling.
“Are you… laughing? I assure you, elves, this is not a laughing matter.”
“Your face is a laughing matter!” someone shouted. Howls of laughter followed him.
“How dare you…”
“How dare you?” someone else called out.
“Santa would never have–”
“Santa is gone!”
“And you’ve worked overtime looking for him, right?”
Edgar’s veins turned to ice as each face in the crown glared at him, together. The hand holding the ledger began to tremble, and he felt his knees quake.
“GET BACK TO WORK!” he screamed, spinning on his heels. He returned to Santa’s office, still shaking.
In the action figure counter, an elf named Ginger smiled. Looking over the toy she’d just completed — one of the best she had made in quite some time — she dropped it in the box beneath the counter. It would go home with Penny tonight. It was not the first box.
And Ginger laughed at Edgar’s empty threats. How could he, of all elves, forget what time of year was coming?
October 31, 6:45 p.m.
Gary fixed the clasp on his cape, twirling it behind him a little for good measure. It felt great, flapping behind him. If they were socially acceptable, he decided, he would wear capes all the time.
“Is everybody ready?” he asked, walking out into the living room. At first, he thought he was alone, until there was movement in the corner. A strange, misshapen form he hadn’t noticed at first shifted and turned towards him. He yelped as it opened its mouth — a small, hideous thing with gray, mottled skin and a pair of bone-white horns curling away from its forehead. It reached a clawed finger towards him, twisting its arm and moaning.
He stepped back, his legs getting caught up in his own cape, and fell backwards onto an ottoman. When he regained his senses, he heard a giggling sound. To his surprise, it was coming from the creature.
“Oh, Gary, I’m sorry, but you should have seen your face!”
“That’s your costume?”
“Do you like it?”
“I mean… it’s effective. I just expected…
“Expected what? A pixie? A gnome? A fairy? Gary, how can you be so racist?”
“What? No, I just thought–”
She giggled again, and the knots in his stomach untwisted. “I’m just teasing,” she said. “But come on, isn’t this the point of Halloween? To dress as something other than yourself?”
“You pulled that off,” Blinky said, coming in from the kitchen. “And so did Super-Gary. But I just went for the slightly exaggerated version of myself.” He tipped his seersucker hat and chomped on the end of a pipe he’d bought just for the occasion.
“Sherlock Holmes is the exaggerated version of Blinky the elf?” Gary asked.
“World’s greatest security elf as the world’s greatest detective,” he said. “Your cape is kind of long, isn’t it? I don’t remember Lionheart tripping over his own cape in the movie.”
“Yeah, it was shorter in the book, too. The company that got the Other People’s Heroes license flubbed a few things.”
“Still, great book though,” Blinky said.
“Absolutely. I think everybody should buy a copy.”
“Two copies,” Eleanor said.
They all stood quietly for a moment, then shivered.
“Does anybody else feel like they need a shower?” she asked.
“You all look fine,” Santa said, leaving the bedroom. “I’m sure you’ll have a great time.” Unlike the others, in their costumes, Santa was wearing a battered sweatshirt and blue jeans.
“Are you sure you don’t want to come, Santa?” Gary asked. “There’s still time.”
“It’s Halloween, Gary. It’s one of the big ones. I know the Jack O’Lantern fairly well. He’ll be here soon, and it will probably be better if I’m by myself. This one has the potential to be unpleasant, and I’d rather not involve the three of you any more than necessary.”
“I still think I should stick with you, Santa,” Blinky said.
“I can take care of myself,” Santa said. “You just worry about taking care of Gary and Eleanor.”
Saying their good-nights, Gary and the elves left the apartment. On the elevator, on the way down, Eleanor started to giggle again.
“You didn’t even scare me this time,” Gary said.
“It’s not that, I’m just a little nervous.”
“Nervous? For my buddy Derek’s Halloween party?”
“I’ve never been to a Halloween party before. Not a human one, anyway. We usually have something up at the Pole, but the costumes are always snowmen or reindeer. Except for the snowmen, they dress like elves.”
“And the reindeer?”
“Reindeer don’t wear costumes, Gary, that would be silly.”
The doors opened up into what Gary expected to be the lobby. He could see the lobby in his mind, perfectly clear, with the dingy glass of the front door and the row of mailboxes that somehow always squeaked when you opened them up. He was even thinking of double checking his box on the way out, just in case the mail had passed late today. But all of those thoughts disintegrated when he stepped through the door not into the lobby, but into a void full of black smoke and distant fires.
“Holy Krampus!” Blinky grabbed on to Gary’s cape and Eleanor clutched his hand. “What happened to your building, Gary?”
“I don’t know, but I don’t think my renter’s insurance covers this.”
Eleanor turned around to bolt back into the elevator, but was not terribly surprised to realize it had vanished. There was nothing around them except for darkness and smoke, twirling, twisting… beckoning?
“Blinky?” Eleanor asked. “Is it my imagination, or does that smoke look like a hand?”
“I’m imagining it too,” Gary said. “This has something to do with Santa, doesn’t it?”
Blinky sighed. “Doesn’t everything?”
“Well what are we supposed to do?”
“What else? We follow the smoke.”
The three of them, still gripping each other, walked forward through the smoke. After a dozen yards or so, Gary realized he was out in front, with an elf holding on to him from either side. This was most likely because he was tallest, but that didn’t make it seem like any less of a foolish proposition.
“What was that?” Blinky asked. “Did you guys hear that?”
“Is someone calling your name?”
“I hate when people call my name. It usually means they want me to do something.”
By the third intonation, though, there could no longer be any doubt that they were calling Blinky’s name. What’s more, the call was most certainly coming from the same direction in which the smoke was leading them. After long moments of walking — there was no real way of telling how long — they could see shapes beginning to form in the distance.
“Why would Santa be down here?” Eleanor whispered.
“What do you mean down?” Gary asked.
“Look around you. Do you really think that elevator took us up?”
As they stepped deeper and deeper into the black mist, the shape in front of them started to coalesce. It was definitely Santa, but not as he was when they left him in Gary’s apartment. Instead, he was in his traditional red and white suit, his hat cocked on his head, his arms and legs bound together. He was slumped over the back of his sleigh, bruised and bloody, and his clothes had been torn and shredded. Shards of eggshells, powder burns from fireworks, heart-tipped arrows and other seasonal implements of pain studded his back like a pincushion. As they approached him, he lifted his head and met their eyes.
“Blinky,” he hissed. “How could you let them do this to me?”
“Boss… I didn’t…”
“How could you let them do this to me?” He reared up and lunged at them. His body turned a deeper, bloodier red than his clothes, and his face blew up to the size of a hot air balloon. His mouth, now a gargantuan maw full of teeth, hurtled forward and snapped shut over the three of them, swirling them in hot breath that smelled of smoke and burnt cinnamon.
“Where are we?” Gary asked, waving the smoke from his eyes. He waited for an answer, but none came. Once he could see again, he made out the shape of a reddish cavern, the inner workings of the Hellsanta’s mouth, but nobody else was there.
“I’m right here, Gary,” Blinky said. Right in front of you. He waved his hands in front of Gary’s face, flapping them like he was at a Mardi Gras parade, but there was no recognition in the human’s eyes. “Eleanor, come here! Help me get his attention!”
He looked back to see her facing away from them, reaching out into the air like she was looking for something. “Guys, where are you?”
“Over here,” he said. “I’m right…”
He ran in front of her, grabbed her, but she didn’t seem to notice his arm on her shoulder. He ran back to Gary, leapt up, slapped the human across the face, but nothing came of it.
“What’s going on?” he said. “What’s wrong with you two?”
His brain started to hurt. He was supposed to be the security elf, he was supposed to be the one to take care of everyone, and now he didn’t know where Santa was and the other two were losing their minds. What was…
He grabbed the seersucker hat from his head, clutched it to his breast. Okay, Blinky, you’re dressed like Holmes. Let’s figure this out.
He was the security elf, after all. Figuring things out, protecting people, that was his job. That’s what he did, and he was good at it. Always had been, too, until…
Until the Icons took down Santa’s sleigh last Christmas.
He looked at Gary — a man who had been separated from his son. At Eleanor — a woman who had been cut off from everyone she knew for months. Neither of them could see him or each other. And, most importantly, it was Halloween.
“You’re showing us our fears, aren’t you, Jack?” You’re making sure we can very clearly see all of the things we’re afraid of. I’m afraid of letting Santa down. Gary and Eleanor are afraid of being alone again. The question is why.”
The gears turned. The thoughts percolated.
“Because it’s Halloween. This is the trick. So you need a treat.”
But what kind of treat… He stuck his hands in his pockets, but came up only with lint and a few spare coins. Eleanor had on a glorified toga, there was no place to hide treat there. Gary… he’d come to know the human pretty well over the last ten months.
“Sorry about this pal,” he said. He walked up to Gary, grabbed the pants of his superhero costume, and yanked them down.
“HEY! What the hell?”
“Sorry again,” he said, Gary looking everywhere in a panic, unable to determine what force had pulled down the pants.
“Nothing like this ever happened in Other People’s Heroes! Or in the prequel novel, The Pyrite War!”
Blinky shook his head. It was true — outside of Christmas, Halloween was the most marketing-driven holiday there was.
While Gary stumbled frantically, Blinky grabbed at the shorts he’d been wearing underneath the superhero pants. He shoved his hand into the pockets and pulled out Gary’s keys, a couple of ballpoint pens, and…
A half-eaten roll of mints. It was no peanut butter cup, but it would have to do.
“Hey! Jack! Halloween dude! I’ve got some candy for you!” He thrust the mints into the air, shouting at the ether. As he waved them, a blast of hot air streamed down upon him. A burst of thunder exploded in his ears. Inexplicably, the lightning followed it, and it struck the outstretched roll of mints. Blinky’s eyes were dazzled, but when they cleared, he was no longer in the cavern. Gary and Eleanor were each rubbing their eyes, blinking against the blast of light.
“Blinky? Is that you?”
“What happened to you guys?”
Blinky smiled. “Well, I’m glad that worked.”
“Me too, Blinky.” Santa Claus — in the sweatshirt and jeans he’d been wearing earlier this time — stepped up. “Although I still don’t understand the point of this exercise, Jack.”
The Halloween icon materialized next to Santa Claus. It was, predictably, a man made of twigs with a leering pumpkin head on the top. “This day is about fear,” he said. “One must face their fears to–”
“Cut the crap, Jack. You and your Icon pals told me I’m supposed to be learning. What did terrorizing these three have to do with it? It’s just one of your nasty little tricks, isn’t it?”
Jack’s face contorted and twisted. It wasn’t as if there were muscles beneath the shell of the gourd that controlled the smile, it was as if the carving itself changed. The smile was no more attractive for it.
“Ah, Santa Claus, you caught me.” He giggled like a lunatic, and the chill it sent up Gary’s spine was almost enough to counter the hot cinnamon-breath he’d been subjected to just minutes before. “It’s only fair, though. After all, an Icon deserves his fun.”
“Tormenting my friends is fun?”
“Well yes, since the thing that you fear the most is being unable to make people happy. There was nothing you could have done to save your friends. If it weren’t for that accursed hat–”
“Yeah, yeah, us meddling kids beat you,” Blinky snapped.
“It’s only fair you have a little trepidation now, Claus. After all, your day of power is coming back, and you should know pain before then. Already, Christmas decorations fill the stores, commercials are using elves to hock their cheesy wares. Why, even a week before Halloween my accoutrements were boxed up and set on clearance to make room for–”
“Stick a candle in your maw, Jack. You’ve got room to talk. It’s not like Halloween has never stolen something from another holiday. Or don’t you remember why that old Christmas song promises ‘scary ghost stories’?”
Jack frowned. “You little Dickens.” He twirled his hand and the black void vanished, replaced again with Gary’s apartment. “Fine, Claus. Remember this, though — your time is coming back, but you may not find things at home are as you left them. And you may find that you can’t go home at all, not without giving up something very, very dear to you.”
“Is that a threat?”
He shook his head. “The veil between the mortal world and the spirit world is never so thin as on this night, Claus. I don’t need to make a threat. I merely tell you those things that will be.”
The apartment was filled with a howling burst of wind, and with it, Jack vanished in a twist of smoke. Gary and the elves collected themselves, shaking a little. Blinky, on the other hand, smiled and put his Holmes hat back atop his head.
“Well, still time to make the party, guys. Who’s in?”
After a few minutes of deliberation, they headed out. This time, Santa pulled up the rear of the group, walking slowly down the hall. As irritated as he was, Jack’s words had landed with him. Especially the ones about his time of power approaching.
Santa snapped his fingers. At first, nothing happened. After a moment, though, there was a distinct chill in the air. Above his head, one of the ubiquitous spigots linked to the building’s fire suppression system sputtered, just for a second, and a drop of water fell. It was a snowflake before it landed on Santa’s nose.
“Santa? We’re running late,” Blinky called.
Santa smiled. “Yes,” he said. “But I think we’ll be there soon.”
To be continued…