Santa’s Odyssey: New Year’s 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:

Epilogue: New Year’s Eve

“Are you certain about this?”

“Yes. It’s not a bad place. I liked a lot of it there. I want to see more.”

“And you’re sure it’s not just about…”

“Would it matter if it was?”

“No. No, I suppose not. Well… we’ll miss you.”

“I’ll miss you too. But it’s not like we’ll never see each other again.”

“It’s not?”

“Say hello when you drop by.”

“When on Earth would I have cause to drop by?”

“Seriously? Once a year. On Christmas Eve.”

December 31st, 1150 p.m.

The party was no different than last year. Back at the same bar, Gary stood in a corner, holding a drink that went down his throat slowly. All around him his friends were dancing, laughing, getting ready for the big kiss at midnight. It was cold outside, but he felt a chill even inside.

He sat down on a bar stool next to a blonde woman with long hair flowing down over her ears. She was short, but he didn’t realize just how short until she turned towards him and he saw her legs dangling in midair. “Everything okay?” she asked him.

“Hmm? Yeah. I’m fine. It’s just…”

“Not much of a party guy?”

“I guess not. It almost feels like an obligation, coming to this thing every year.”

She looked around at the couples canoodling in the corner. “It’s probably better if you’re with somebody. Are you?”

“With anybody?” he shook his head. “No. The only person I’d really want to be with is my son, but he’s with his mom tonight. That’s okay, though, I got him for Christmas. That was the deal.”

“You got the better end of that one.”

“I know.”

“Nobody else?”

“You know, I had a couple of roommates until a month or so ago. Good guys. I…” He trailed off, realizing if he went any further she might start asking for details. The thing that bothered him the most about his roommates being gone was not that he couldn’t remember much about them. It was that when he stopped thinking about the fact that he couldn’t remember them, he didn’t even remember that he couldn’t remember them. It was an absurd thought that struck him two or three times a day, but only for a few minutes before he was distracted and they left his thoughts all over again.

“What about you?” he asked.

“I just left a job I’ve been at for a long time. Good people there, almost family, but I did a little traveling this year and thought I would like to go out and see what else there is in the world.”

“What are you doing now?”

“Nothing at the moment, but I have a few ideas. Next year is going to be big for me.”

“Here’s to that,” he said, lifting his glass. She smiled as she clinked hers to his. It was a lovely smile.

People started to rush around, crowding in front of one TV screen or another. “It’s almost time!” someone shouted. “It’s time for the countdown!”

“Midnight already?” Gary said.

“Oooh, this will be great,” she said, raising her glass. “What do we do at midnight?”

“What, you’ve never been to a New Year’s party before?”

“Oh, sure, but it’s different where I’m from. What do you do?”

“What do I do? I just finish my drink and go home.”

“Well that doesn’t sound like much fun. What does everybody else do?”

Gary didn’t have time to answer her before the countdown started. People cheered and rushed together and clutched each other.

“Ten… nine… eight…”

“Well… they do…”

“Five… four… three…”

“Come on, Gary, what do they do?”

“One… HAPPY NEW YEAR!”

Everyone began to shout and cheer, blowing their noisemakers and drinking champagne. And of course, the kissing. People held onto the ones they loved, or the ones they liked, or the ones they barely knew but they were just drunk enough to share this moment with, and they kissed. Gary didn’t remember the last time he’d had a New Year’s–

The blond woman grabbed his neck and pulled him in, giving him a gentle kiss. It was soft and sweet — strange, that someone with the initiative to kiss him so boldly would do so in a way that felt like she’d never done it before. When it was over, he pulled back and looked at her, She was smiling. So was he.

“That’s what everyone was doing,” she said. “It’s seemed appropriate.”

“I guess it was,” he said. She giggled, he laughed, they drank.

“Hey, did I tell you my name was Gary? I don’t remember that.”

“You must have,” she said. “How else would I have known? I’m Eleanor, by the way.”

“Nice to meet you, Eleanor.”

“Nice to meet you. So, Gary, do you have any plans for 2019?”

He couldn’t help smile. “Not a one,” he said.

The End

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Santa’s Odyssey: A Postscript

First of all, let me deeply thank everyone who has stuck around with me for the last year as I took Santa Claus on his little journey through the different holidays. It has long been my tradition to write a new story for every Christmas season, but obviously, this was a little different. Several years ago, I struck upon the idea of telling a Santa Claus story that tripped through all the holidays over a course of a year. (An idea, I don’t mind telling you, directly inspired by the classic Jeph Loeb/Tim Sale graphic novel Batman: The Long Halloween.) I didn’t try it before because, although I liked the idea, I didn’t really have a story to go with it. This is a common problem for writers and, in fact, some of them manage to build an entire career without ever finding a way to solve it.

For me, the tipping point came when I thought about modeling Santa’s story on Homer’s epic. It wouldn’t be a direct, point-for-point correlation, but I liked the idea of Santa being away from home, linking certain of the holiday icons to different points in the journey of Odysseus, and having Mrs. Claus play the Penelope role in my little drama. And although I didn’t originally intend it that way, the trick of writing more or less in “real time” allowed me to have a little fun, throwing in topical references and using rare events like the 2018 Easter/April Fool’s Day match to my advantage. No matter what changes happen in future drafts of this story, I think I’ll have to keep it set in the year 2018.

Oh yes, there will be future drafts. That’s the other thing about writing this story the way I did, guys — there was no opportunity to go back and revise as I went along. Normally, the writer has had a chance to go back and tweak things in chapter one after the final chapter is written, but the conceit of this story did not allow for that. So what you read this year was, in essence, a first draft. It has rough edges, there are characters I want to develop much more, and I’m sure there are continuity errors a-plenty that I need to address. You’ll see this story again someday, after it’s ready.

But you’ll see it again just a little sooner than that too. It’s not over yet, you see. Not quite.

There’s still one holiday left in 2018. And what better time than New Year’s Eve for an epilogue?

Merry Christmas, everybody. See you on the 31st.

Oh — and if somehow you’ve read all this and have no idea what I’m talking about, start at the beginning!

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:

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: Thanksgiving

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:

Eleven: Thanksgiving

Across the rest of the Pole, spirits were subdued in mid-November. Across the rest of the Pole excitement was low, the air was vacant of song, and holiday cheer — which in normal times would have been bubbling over into an explosive pitch — was virtually absent. Across the rest of the Pole, that is. In Mrs. Claus’s house, it was a brilliant, colorful, energetic time. Elves were wrapping gift and secreting them in their own homes. In the kitchen, cookies and cakes were being turned out in record time, pots of hot cocoa bubbling on the stove, all of it to keep the workers happy and motivated. And through it all, Mrs. Claus and Penny wandered around, supervising the proceedings, and taking careful note of where each bundle of toys were hidden, along with their contents. Mrs. Claus carried a red binder where she secreted all of their hiding places, which elves had what, and where each toy was destined to be delivered.

“The ledger is the most important thing here, Penny,” Mrs. Claus told her when she asked why they were documenting things so closely. Some day — and some day soon, I promise — Santa is going to be back, and he’s going to need these toys to make his rounds. It won’t do us any good if we don’t know exactly what is hidden where so he can make his deliveries.”

Penny nodded and followed along. It was her role, and she was good at it, but Mrs. Claus had been impressed by the strength and loyalty in the little mail elf. She had taken the lead on the job of organizing the hidden toys, was coordinating the production lines so the elves in the factories all knew exactly how much they needed of each toy, and even diverted things in the mail room to try to prevent Edgar from figuring out exactly what they were doing.

Two days before Thanksgiving in America, things were perfectly on schedule. The elves had made — and hidden — almost enough toys to cover the entire order. If anything, they were more productive when working to get out from under Edgar’s yoke. The pockets of hidden toys across the Pole would be easily gathered and brought together in the days before Christmas Eve, and by the time the children woke up on the morning of the 25th, all would be well.

This, of course, was the plan.

On Chanticleer’s birthday, as everybody finished up a little celebration with a break from work, Mrs. Claus looked around with pride. “You know,” she said, “Maybe it’s time to put out the Christmas decorations outside.”

“Really? Before Thanksgiving?”

“Oh, I know it’s a few days early, but considering the circumstances, I think we could all use a little decoration break. What do you say, elves? Who wants to Kringle up the place?”

There were cheers from throughout the home, and they rushed to the attic to get the boxes of decorations. There were dozens of them, of course, but Santa’s elves were the most efficient workers on the planet. Within minutes they were outside stringing up lights, driving candy cane markers into the ground on either side of her walkway, and setting up the blow mold nativity scene in the front yard.

“Um… what about this, Mrs. C?” asked a young elf named Luke. He opened a box and pulled out a wad of fabric she recognized as her inflatable Santa Claus. It looked just like her husband — red cheeks, jolly smile, and a big belly. It was her favorite decoration. He hated it.

“Absolutely,” she said. “Front and center. It gets a place of honor this year.”

Luke plugged “Santa” in, staked him at the bottom, and the assembled elves and Mrs. Claus watched as he slowly floated up to stand, smiling, proud. It was almost as if the real Santa was back, watching over them, promising that somehow everything was going to be all right.

Until his eye was gone.

There was a snapping sound, like something being fired from a bow, and the fabric in Santa’s face suddenly had a gaping hole. The inflatable fell down faster than it went up, and soon it lay on the ground, inert. In the wall of Mrs. Claus’s house, a wooden shaft quivered, with a chunk of fabric pinned to the house.

“Oh, so sorry about that. I should have warned you.”

Edgar stood beyond the fence that separated Mrs. Claus’s yard from the busy North Pole street. He had a few elves with him — a few that she recognized as being unflinchingly loyal to their new leader for some reason or another. But beyond the elves, there were wooden soldiers, full-sized, armed with…

“No,” she said, her eyes burning.

They weren’t wooden soldiers. They were painted to look like them, with the classic red coats and white X-straps across the chest, but after a few seconds’ examination, she saw that the bodies of the artificial stormtroopers weren’t wooden at all, didn’t even conform with the normal shape of the old-fashioned toy. They were larger, scaled-up versions of the Edgarbots. And one of them lowered an arm which was still reverberating with a “twanging” sound.

“How dare you?” she snapped. “What is the meaning of this?”

“As I said, I should have warned you,” he said. “This is my new security team. The Edgarbot 2.0! I’m really quite proud of how well the basic design works in a full-sized model. And the computer brain is remarkably good at marksmanship, problem-solving–”

“We’ve never had armed security at the North Pole! We’ve never needed it!”

He shook his head. “Oh I know, I know. It’s terrible, isn’t it? Once upon a time, there was simply no need for this sort of thing. But it’s a changing world Mrs. Claus, and the time has come to take some new precautions. To guard against the sort of things that we didn’t have to worry about in the past. It’s a shame, it truly is, but we have to be adults about this.”

“And what about this?” she pointed at the empty shell that resembled her husband, and he shook his head again.

“We have reason to believe that there are certain unsavory elements that want to disrupt things for us this Christmas season. We also believe that they’ll make their move — whatever move it is — while wearing Mr. Claus’s accoutrements. Therefore, I’ve been forced to decree that any and all imagery of Santa Claus, unfortunately, must be banned from the North Pole until further notice.”

“Have… you… gone… mad?”

“I’m trying to keep you safe, Mrs. Claus. You and everybody else here. The Edgarbots are programmed to make sure no Clausian iconography is allowed to infiltrate the Pole.”

“And what happens when the real Santa comes back, Edgar? What happens then?”

“Oh, Mrs. Claus… I know you cling to hope, but we have to be realistic here. You and I both know that isn’t going to be an issue.”

The Edgarbots turned and marched down the street, Edgar and his goons behind them. He only made it a few steps, though, before turning and looking back.

“By the way, I’ve been told about some materials going missing from our factories. It seems as though significant quantities of our building materials have been used, but aren’t accounted for by new toys in our storehouse. It would certainly be a shame if anybody was stealing from your husband’s factory, don’t you think? We may have to do an investigation. Soon.”

He wandered off, and the elves on Mrs. Claus’s lawn exhaled. Kimmie, one of the Elves from the sports equipment department, grabbed Mrs. Claus’s hand. “We can’t let him get away with this,” she said.

“What do we do?” Luke asked. “We don’t have any weapons.”

“Unless a Laser Tag gun is going to help,” Piper from electronics said.

“He’s got us over a barrel of nog,” Luke moaned. “What are we going to do?”

“We fight back,” Mrs. Claus said. “I don’t know how, but we will fight back.”

November 22, 11:45 a.m.

The North Pole In Exile sat around Gary’s apartment on Thanksgiving morning, watching the Macy’s Parade on television. Gary was making a turkey, while Eleanor helped by whipping up mashed potatoes and corn. Blinky made his special pumpkin pie (Santa had never quite figured out how the elf had gotten so good at baking, but he really was a master). Santa, on the other hand, hadn’t done much of anything. It was out of character for him, to be certain. He usually was the first one to pitch in, building things, helping around the kitchen. And over the past few weeks, as they approached the Holidays, Gary had noticed Santa’s spirits rising considerably. He was happier than he had been since Gary had first met him on New Year’s Eve. In fact, for the first time he was acting more like the Santa Claus he expected from years of movies and cartoons and legends. He was happy, he was jolly, and he seemed more certain than ever that his time with Gary was coming to a close. In fact, that’s all he said all week. “Thank you, Gary. You’ve been wonderful. I won’t forget you when I go back to the North Pole. Which will be soon.” Blinky and Eleanor were both as confused as Gary was, but Eleanor smiled wider every time Santa did.

“If the boss says he’s got a plan, he’s got a plan,” she said.

On the television, balloons and bands marched down the streets of New York City, as they did every year. Gary peeked in, watching as they went. “You know, my mother took me to see the parade in person a couple of times when I was little,” he said. “It was the best. I saw Garfield and Spider-Man and I listened to the band… did you know I joined the band in high school because of the parade? I played the sousaphone. It was amazing.”

“Did you now, Gary? That’s wonderful. Were you any good?”

“Eh, I was high school good. I couldn’t go pro or anything.”

“That’s a shame. I hear professional sousaphone players get all the girls.”

The two of them laughed together, Santa’s eye twinkling, but never leaving the television.

“What was your favorite part of the parade, Gary?”

“The end, of course. The part where Santa Claus came down the street in his sleigh. It’s like that’s the moment where Christmas really begins.”

“Oh yes, indeed. I know what you mean. That’s my favorite part too.”

“Always about you, right?” A burst of feathers flew into the air, swirling, finally coalescing into the form of a fat little turkey. It was bigger than any turkey Gary had ever seen — three or four feet tall, even, and with every syllable that came out of its beak, its wattles shook like they were caught in the wind.

“Tom!” Santa said. “I was wondering when you would get here! What took you so long?”

“It’s my day, Kringle! My time of power, but even today, you have to make everyone’s favorite part of it about you!”

“You know, Tom, I never tried to take anything from you. You’re supposed to be the symbol of a day for thanks. I’m the symbol of a season for giving. We should go together. Why don’t you see that?”

“Because it’s my day! Everybody just rushes through dinner and watches football or starts in with their Christmas shopping now! It’s like I don’t even exist! But I’m going to show you Santa Claus. I’m going to teach you the meaning of Thanksgiving.”

Santa laughed, a deep, guttural sound that was different than than the laughs Gary had grown accustomed to. It wasn’t “Ha, ha, ha.” It was a sound that could only be described as “Ho, ho, ho.”

“Tom, you silly bird. Everybody knows that Thanksgiving is about giving thanks. It’s there in the name. And can I tell you what I’m thankful for?”

The turkey blanched, confused. “What?”

On the TV, the announcer suddenly grew animated, exuberant even, and there was an uproar from the crowd. “Here he is, folks, the star of the season! Making his annual appearance in the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, the man himself, Santa–”

Before the name was finished, Santa’s eyes flashed — not twinkled, flashed — with a blinding light unlike anything Gary had seen before. Tom’s face looked like he’d just been escorted to a deep fat fryer, and with a gobble and a gulp, he vanished.

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

“Right now, my friend, million of people all over the world are watching this parade. Millions of children are watching this. Believing in this. Believing in me.”

“What do you mean?”

“It may only be Thanksgiving, son, but my time of power begins now.”

To demonstrate, he snapped the fingers on each hand. From the right hand, a dazzling spray of sparks shot up and into the ceiling, the sprinkler system in the apartment glowed, even shivered for a moment, and then a light snowfall appeared inside the house. From the left hand, a burst of red light exploded, cascaded around Santa Claus, and outfitted him in a very familiar crimson and white uniform.

“You’ve been wonderful to us, Gary. I’ll never forget your kindness to an old man and his bizarre friends, but it’s long past time for me to put things right.”

“You’re leaving, Santa?”

“You’re the best, Gar,” Blinky said, giving the human a hug. Eleanor hugged him too, lingering a moment.

“I’ll miss you, Gary. Thanks for being our friend.”

Gary smiled, and a tear rolled from his eye. “I mean… you’re a friend to everybody. How could I not?”

Santa came up last, hugging him. “We’ll see you again, Gary. Expect a special visit on Christmas Eve.”

“I wouldn’t miss it.”

Santa raised his hands, glowing scarlet with power that had been absent for almost a year, and the light flooded the room. When it faded, Santa and the elves were gone. Gary slumped into a chair looked around at the empty apartment. And then he went to pack up the turkey and sides so he could go out and find someone to eat with him. It was Thanksgiving, after all, and he had much to be thankful for. It would be a shame to spend it alone.

* * *

The cold wind whipped on Blinky and Eleanor’s faces, almost as if they were back on the sleigh. Instead, though, they were flying through the air, zooming northward, New York vanishing from the skyline in their wake. They went across wooded areas, past a light sprinkle of snow, and finally they were flying over a massive sheet of ice. Eleanor was giddy, Blinky couldn’t contain himself. They were finally on their way home.

Until a long pumpkin vine whipped into the air and snared Santa by the boot.

Once again they fell, screaming, and crashed into the snow below them. Santa held tight onto both of their hands, and neither of them felt real pain in the crash, but the rage in Santa’s face was palpable. Picking himself up, he grabbed the vine and yanked on it. From one of the sparse thickets that appeared across the landscape, the Pumpkinhead stumbled out, dragged along.

Again?” Santa shouted. “You want to ambush me again? NOW?

Jack raised his twiggy fingers in a sign of submission. “Santa, please, it’s not what you think.”

“Yeah, Kringle!” The Easter Bunny hopped into view, joining him. Mother and Father were there, Sam, Patty… all of the icons. Even Tom stumbled up from the rear, looking very sheepish. “Calm down! We’re not here to trap you or nothin’.”

“Then what’s the meaning of this? This time?”

They looked around, nerves on their faces. Finally, Cupid rolled his eyes in disgust and fluttered to the front of the pack. “Jeez, you bunch of pansies. Fine. I’ll tell ‘em.”

“Tell me what?”

“Santa, we made a big mistake.”

“No kidding!” Blinky said. “You should have thought of that before all this nonsense started!”

“Blinky, let him talk,” Santa said. “What mistake? What’s happening?”

The Bunny drew an egg-shape in the snow with his toes. “Look, Santa, everybody wanted you to be a little more humble, but nobody ever wanted to ruin Christmas. I mean, we all have the same job, we’re all here to shepherd the humans on their important days… it’s just that we, well, some of us got tired of yours–”

“Would you just spit it out?” Santa shouted.

The Clown stepped forward. “Santa, I was at the Pole a few days ago…”

“Yes, Chanticleer’s birthday. So what?”

“Well… how well do you know your assistant? Edgar?”

Santa and the elves listened in shock as Bonbon explained everything that had been happening at the Pole over the months they had been absent. Blinky’s rage grew, Eleanor’s face was terrified. Santa, however, seemed almost preternaturally calm. Once Bonbon finished explaining about the Edgarbots and how they were targeting Santa Clauses, the genuine article was nodding his head.

“Santa, we never meant for any of this to happen,” Mother said.

“It’s my fault,” Father snapped. “I should have known what good intentions do.”

“Pointing fingers is useless,” Santa said. “I need to get back to the Pole. I need to get past those blasted Edgarbots. I need to stop all of this before Christmas Eve. If Edgar tries to fly my sleigh, there’s no telling what kind of damage he’ll do.”

“Is he that bad at it?” The Year asked. He was no longer a baby, of course, but neither was he the ancient, grizzled figure Santa had met on New Year’s Eve. He looked like someone’s grandfather — strong, smart, but beginning to grow weary.

“It’s not about being bad,” Santa said. “It’s about what will happen when the children see him.”

“I thought children weren’t supposed to see you,” Worth said.

“A few do every year, and that’s by design. It’s how the legend keeps alive. But what happens when children go back to school in January and tell their friends that, instead of Santa Claus, they saw some elf whose face was on that awful robot toy everybody got for Christmas that year? He could do more damage than he ever imagined.”

“What do we do, Nick?” Uncle Sam asked. “We’ll do anything. We’re all terribly sorry.”

“No time for sorry,” Santa said. “We have work to do.”

Santa’s Odyssey: Halloween

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:

Ten: Halloween

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.

“Gaaaaaary…”

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.

“Eleanor?”

“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.

“Iiiiiiiinyy…”

“What was that?” Blinky asked. “Did you guys hear that?”

“Liiiiiiiiiiinkyyyyyyyyy…”

“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.

“Boss?”

“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.

“Blinky! Eleanor!”

“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!”

“Blinky? Gary?”

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…

“Jackpot!”

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.

“Maybe…”

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…

Santa’s Odyssey: Labor Day

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

Previous Installments:

Nine: Labor Day

Penny crept down the lane, a somewhat pointless endeavor as a mail carrier going to Mrs. Claus’s home was in no way suspicious, but Mrs. Claus appreciated the effort. Still, if anybody actually were suspicious of her, she did herself no favors with her behavior. She clutched the mail to her chest like she was afraid it would try to escape, and her eyes flew to every home and bush on the route, as though someone would appear, pointing an accusatory finger at any moment. Mrs. Claus watched from the window, shaking her head. She was a loyal girl and a wonderful elf, but as a spy, she made an excellent letter carrier.

She sidled to the front door of the Claus home, glanced in every direction, and reached up to discreetly knock on the door. It was a noble effort, made entirely moot when Mrs. Claus opened the door seconds before her knuckles could make contact.

“Really, Penny, this is far more suspicious than if you simply came up here normally. Come inside.”

Mrs. Claus led Penny to the same kitchen table where she’d given her Edgar’s letter a few days earlier. The ream of papers was still where she left it, crumpled a bit from where she had clenched her fists, but still readable. The long and short of it was that, with Santa Claus missing in action, Edgar was exercising a nasty little clause (no relation) in the North Pole Charter. As current head of operations, if Santa was unable to complete his run on Christmas Eve, Edgar was within his rights to take command of the workshop and distribution centers of the Pole permanently. Even if Santa Claus were to return on December 26, the transfer of power would be complete and irreversible. Edgar, of course, made it seem far more charitable and magnanimous in his missive. “In the interests of the children,” he wrote, “and to ensure the continuance of the Christmas season for future generations as we have always maintained it for children in the past, I feel that this step is unavoidable.”

“Reindeer droppings,” Mrs. Claus hissed when she read it.

“What are we going to do?” Penny asked. “What he’s doing… it could destroy Christmas forever!”

Mrs. Claus laughed. “Oh, dear, don’t you watch any Hallmark Channel movies? Nothing can destroy Christmas forever. My husband will return in time to complete his scheduled Christmas Eve run, of that I have absolutely no doubt. No, that’s not what I’m worried about.”

“What, then?”

“I’m worried about this Christmas. Every child in the world, not getting what they really want, forced to make do with one of those… Edgarbots.” She nearly spat out the word, and Penny was certain she heard acid in the kind woman’s voice. “No, Santa Claus will be back in time to leave on the 24th of December, but we need to make certain that there are decent toys for him to deliver when he does.”

“How can we do that?”

“We need to get to work.”

That had finished their conversation the day Mrs. Claus received the letter. Since then, Penny had been doing reconnaissance, “stealthily” going around to different elves and asking how their work was going with the new regime in charge. It was time for her to report her findings.

“The elves aren’t happy,” she said. “I spoke to the department heads of dolls, stuffed animals, board games, and models and miniatures, and they all say that Edgar has completely gutted their quotas of toys for this year.”

“But they still have quotas?” she said.

“Yes. Even Edgar seems to recognize that some kids are going to want a teddy bear this Christmas.”

“And you say they’re all angry about it?”

“All of the ones I talked to. I didn’t talk to anyone in electronics — they’ve been too busy turning out Edgarbots.”

“Fine then. Put out the word. We’re going to have a little meeting. But don’t tell it to any elf you can’t trust to keep quiet.”

September 3, 6:15 p.m.

Gary and Eleanor walked into the apartment building, bags of Chinese food dangling from their arms, having acquired provisions for the evening. “I have to tell you, though,” he said, “I don’t really expect Santa to be there when we arrive. Labor Day is a holiday after all, and on pretty much all of them he’s been yanked away on some adventure or another.”

“I know, he’s been filling me in. Thanks for looking out for the boss while I’ve been away.”

“Oh come on, it’s Santa Claus. What kind of jerk would leave him out in the cold?”

“I’ve spent eight months out there, Gary. I think there are a lot of jerks that would have left him in the cold. And it’s not like you knew he was Santa Claus.”

He shrugged, reaching into his pocket for the key to his apartment. “I knew. Even before I knew, I knew.”

He opened the door, expecting to find his apartment empty or, at most, to find Blinky sitting alone, watching baseball, irritated that he had been left behind again but slightly grateful that there would be extra Chinese food. What he didn’t expect was to see Blinky on the couch between Santa Claus and a man wearing dusty work overalls and a construction hat. The man lifted a beer up to his lips, drops of it trickling into his curly black beard, and he tipped his hat towards Gary in salute.

“Oh. You’re here.”

“That I am, Gary!” Santa said, beaming.

“I sort of expected you to be gone. Learning your… whatever the lesson is for Labor Day.”

The man in the overalls laughed. “Gary — I can call you Gary, right?”

“Oh, sure.”

“Great. I’m Worth. Gary, we holiday icons base our days of power on what humans believe about them. My day is Labor Day. And you know what you mortals do on Labor Day?”

“Um… what?”

“You celebrate work by doing as little of it as possible.”

“AS LITTLE AS POSSIBLE!” Santa and Blinky howled, raising their beers. The three of them clinked them together and they all took a drink.

“Well… great,” Gary said. “Do you like Chinese food?”

* * *

The assembly could not be held at Mrs. Claus’s home. Although she was by no means outside of her rights to call elves for a meeting with her, she had absolutely no faith in Edgar or his minions. She was certain that somebody was watching her at all times. Instead, Penny had volunteered the break room at the North Pole Post Office. It was Labor Day in the United States, and they respected many mortal holidays here. There would be nobody there for regular working hours, and the only people who would enter would be those that she and Penny had specifically invited.

It took about an hour and a half after Penny first unlocked the door before Mrs. Claus was satisfied that everybody who was planning to attend was in attendance. In the end, there were about a dozen elves, not counting Penny, each of them representing a different department in Santa’s workshop. She recognized most of them, and the few she didn’t know personally, Penny vouched for.

“Thank you for coming,” she said. “And I hope you’ll indulge me for a moment, because I’ve always wanted to say this: I suppose you’re wondering why I called you all here tonight.”

“We’re not wondering,” said Lerty, head elf from the Models and Miniatures division. “You’re here because you want to kick Edgar’s sorry behind. Well, we’re in!”

She shook her head. “No, kicking him is not what this is about,” she said. “I don’t like it any more than you do, but Edgar has so far not done anything that’s outside of his rights as head of the workshop. Santa did leave him in charge, and even though his decisions to date have been outrageous, turning violent against him isn’t the answer.”

“We couldn’t if we wanted to,” Penny said. “He’s got a security detail, and they’re still so upset about the boss that they’re taking their jobs super-seriously. They’re the only elves outside of electronics that are doing whatever he wants, no questions asked.”

“What then?” asked Greenleaf. “We haven’t even made a quarter of the toy cars we usually have done by September, and we’ve almost bumped into the quota Edgar ordered for us.”

“And you can’t keep making them? You can’t surpass your quota?”

“We went past our quota in vinyl dolls,” Gossamer said. “As soon as we did, he diverted all of our elfpower into making more of the stupid Edgarbots.”

Mrs. Claus shook her head. “So clearly, we can’t just keep going on and hope he’ll let you do your jobs in peace.”

“But the orders!” Gossamer pulled out her Elfdroid phone and pulled up a spreadsheet. “Look, we’ve got just as many orders for the dolls as we ever have, but when we show them to Edgar he just revises the numbers down. He says his job is to anticipate what the kids will want by Christmas, and that by then all they’ll have on their mind is the robot. I don’t know what he’s planning, but it’s big.”

“Yeah,” Lerty snarled. “Because every mortal kid in the world is hoping to get a box with his stupid, punchable face on Christmas morning.”

“Well, it’s obvious what we have to do,” Mrs Claus said. “We have to keep making the other toys and cut back on the Edgarbots. But how are we going to get him to agree to it?”

“He’ll never agree to it!” Greenleaf shouted “He’s got an ego big enough to sink the Titanic!

“I have an idea,” Penny said. The elves turned to her, some looking surprised that she’d spoken up, but nobody was ready to dismiss any rational thought.

“Edgar is ignoring the numbers,” she said. “So what difference does it make if we give him the real ones?”

“Penny, dear, what do you mean?”

“Well, let’s say that Edgar orders fifty thousand toy cars, but we really need a hundred thousand.”

“A hundred?” Lerty shouted. “That wouldn’t even cover half–

“Oh, for Santa’s sake, Lerty, it’s a hypothetical. The specific numbers aren’t important!” Mrs. Claus glared at him and he shrank down.

“Anyway, let’s say we need a hundred thousand. We can’t tell him that they’ve made fifty thousand, because he’ll take the elves off that detail and send them into making more bots.

“Okay, we’ve established that.”

“So let’s say… oh… thirty thousand or so toy cars are made, but they aren’t accounted for.”

“So we make fifty, but we only tell him we made twenty?” Lerty said. “What good would that do?”

“You could keep making them,” Mrs. Claus said. “Well past your quota. That’s clever, dear. That’s very clever.”

“We’ll have to keep a separate set of books with the real numbers,” Greenleaf said, “But I’d definitely be willing to do that.”

“Ditto,” Gossamer said. The other department heads nodded in assent.

“Okay,” Lerty said, “But won’t he notice when he walks into the warehouse and he sees a hundred thousand toy cars where there are only supposed to be twenty?”

“He’s right. We can’t store them in the warehouse,” Greenleaf said. “What do we do with them until Christmas Eve?”

Mrs. Claus smiled. “We all have houses. We have attics and basements and closets. And we all have friends with attics and basements and closets. We take the extra inventory and we hide it in our own homes. Nobody outside of Edgar’s circle is happy with the way he’s running things. It shouldn’t be too difficult to find people willing to provide storage space.”

“Fine, fine,” Lerty said. “So we keep the stuff at home. But how do we get it there? It’s going to look awfully suspicious if we all walk out of work every evening carrying boxes of toys.”

Penny smiled. “You know who’s not suspicious carrying boxes when they leave work?”

“Who?”

“Mail carriers.”

Mrs. Claus clapped her hands together and laughed. It was a silver, glittering sound, one of the most beautiful sounds ever heard at the North Pole, and it was a sound that had not been heard in over eight months.

“Oh Penny, my darling,” she said. “We just might make a spy out of you yet.”

To be continued…

Santa’s Odyssey: Warrenday

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:

Eight: Warrenday

By the end of August, the North Pole is traditionally in high gear. With two-thirds of the year gone, the orders for Christmas are beginning to take shape, the most popular toys and IPs are usually identified, and production is in overdrive for anything that could even potentially be that season’s number-one toy. Nobody wanted a repeat of the 1977 Star Wars fiasco.

As Mrs. Claus toured the shop, though, what she saw wasn’t what her husband would have wanted at all. Edgar’s snapping robot, proud in its display box, lined the aisles of the storeroom. There were literal tons of them, more even than she remembered seeing from the Cabbage Patch Kids or Tickle-Me-Elmos at the height of their respective crazes. What’s more, the factory floor was still humming with elves constructing even more of the robot.

Worst of all, for the first time she had the opportunity to examine the packaging. Most toy packages had a small emblem or logo representing the”manufacturer” (in essence, the licensee that the Pole had an arrangement with). In cases where the toy was a North Pole original, there were a few innocuous-sounding shadow companies that served the purpose.

This box, however, proudly proclaimed “Edgarbot! Another fine toy from North Pole, Inc!” And the logo for this new enterprise was an ice-blue stylized version of the workshop’s new boss, his face smiling from within a snowflake.

“EDGAR!” She snatched a box from one of the many towers of them, toppling a few hundred to the floor in the process. She threw open the door to Santa’s office to see him there,  sitting gleefully in her husband’s chair, looking over what she could only assume were manufacturing details for the Edgarbot.

“Mrs. Claus. How lovely to see you.”

“What is the meaning of this… this Vanity-Bot? Where are all the dolls? The toy trains? The teddy bears?”

“Oh, Mrs. Claus, we always adapt with the times. Those things still exist, but we feel they’re joining marbles and yo-yos as more of a niche toy. The mass market is moving towards flashier, more interactive types of entertainment.”

“Did the mass market demand that the packages have your picture on them? We’ve always used shell companies for this sort of thing, Edgar, it’s never been about us!”

“Which is another thing we feel needs to be adjusted. It’s the 21st Century, Mrs. Claus, it’s all about branding now. Do you think Disney became the largest media company in the world because people like mice? They turned a rodent into an icon, put his ears on an ice cream bar and now they have more power than most sovereign nations.”

“We don’t want power here, we want to make children happy!”

“And we will, we will… but what’s wrong with letting people know who did it? The mortals understand. They’ve been plastering your husband’s face all over their cities for years, every Christmas season.”

“He never asked them to do they did it because they love him.”

“And they’ll grow to love me as well.”

A knife twisted in Mrs. Claus’s gut as she looked into Edgar’s cool, elfin eyes.

“What’s the latest word on the search for my husband?”

“Nothing yet. I promise, we’ll alert you the moment we hear anything.”

For the first time, Mrs. Claus didn’t believe him.

August 30, 3 p.m.

The second half of the summer had been quiet for Santa, Blinky, and Gary. They’d had no visits from any icons since July 4, and aside from a compulsion to buy discounted pencils and notebooks during the back-to-school sales, Santa had felt no seasonal urges either. He had, however, felt a growing joy for the past week as they approached the 30th — the birthday of Gary’s son, Warren. Gary’s own birthday had been only a few days earlier, but the celebration was deliberately subdued as they prepared for Warren’s party. It would be the first time Gary got to spend the day with him in three years, and although he was going to have a proper party on Saturday with his friends, on Thursday afternoon Gary was determined to show the boy the time of his life. He’d originally thought to take him out for pizza and to an arcade, but Santa had convinced him to be a bit more creative.

“Dad!”

Warren bolted down the steps of his school and nearly knocked his father down with a hug. There was joy on his face an excitement that made Santa nearly burst. Although making children happy was his mission, he was rarely able to observe that moment of joy. By the time the children saw what miracles he had wrought, Santa was always long gone.

After hugging his father, Warren greeted Gary’s friends. “Hey, Nick! Hey, Bill!” The boy had, not surprisingly, taken to the two of them immediately. Santa was happy to note, however, that the child’s father was still paramount in his eyes.

“Where are we going?” Warren asked, climbing into the front seat of Gary’s car. It was a compact, and Santa had to hold his breath to squeeze into the backseat, but Warren had claimed right of passage in the front via a ritual known as “shotgun,” and Santa was nothing if not traditional.

“We have a little surprise for you, son. Nick has a few friends who hooked us up.”

Santa beamed while Warren looked quizzically in the rearview mirror. Although he had been cut off from his operations at the North Pole, Santa still knew a few people in the mortal world, particularly those who were in charge of what children enjoyed.

Gary parked his car in a garage a block away from a nondescript building, and Santa could tell Warren was confused. As they approached, though, and the blinking lights and colors in a third-story window were visible from the street, he started to get excited. As they opened the door, an outrush of air carried a balloon dog into the street, but Warren didn’t notice it at all.

“Where are we?” he asked in the elevator. Gary stayed silent, however, refusing to divulge anything until the doors opened and they stepped into a lobby decorated in cool blue and silver, with pulsating lights from every display. A young woman with dark hair and olive eyes beneath her glasses was waiting for them.

“You must be Warren. I’m Hasini. Welcome to Thundertop Games.”

“Thunderwhat?”

“You’ve heard of our games?” she said, smiling. “Have you ever played 14 Days?”

“Are you kidding? Everybody plays that!”

“Well, I was on the team that developed that game.”

“That’s a job?

Hasini laughed. “Well sure. You didn’t think the games just happened by themselves, did you? Hey, we’ve got a new 14 Days expansion pack in the works, but it’s not quite ready yet. Do you think you could help us test it out?”

Warren’s eyes bulged wide enough to serve a roast goose. “Really?”

“Thanks so much for this,” Gary said. Hasini just smiled.

“Anything for Nick.”

As she led Gary and Warren into the testing room, Santa and Blinky found a couch to wait on in the office lobby. Blinky smiled. “Amazing, Boss. Even out here, a million miles from home, you make magic happen.”

Santa laughed. “It’s not that amazing, Blinky. We’re past the dog days of summer, and my power is starting to build up again. Oh, it’s nowhere near what it’s going to be in the holidays, but it’s just enough to convince someone we’ve worked with before to do a small favor for me. Even if she doesn’t know who I really am.”

“I never understood the whole video game thing.”

“I liked the one with the gopher better than the one with the plumber.”

“Gopher?”

“Or… porcupine? Some kind of fast rodent. The kids liked him.”

As they waited they watched the flow of people going in and out of Thundertop Games. Most of them were younger — 20s or early 30s — many of them in jeans or unbuttoned shirts hanging on graphic tees. It was a far cry from the visits Santa had occasionally made to some of the larger, older toy companies from time to time. Everyone involved with the game company was dressed so casually it took a moment for Santa to be surprised at the man wearing the full red, blue, and yellow costume of a circus clown.

“Blinky… did you see that?”

“What, the guy dressed like Bozo got lost on his way to the TV studio?”

“Yes, him.”

“No, I didn’t see him. And if you know what’s good for you, you didn’t see him either.”

“But you see… the thing is…

“There’s a thing?”

“The thing, you see…”

“Oboy, a thing…”

“The thing is that I’m pretty sure nobody else saw him except for the two of us.”

Blinky sighed. “For Frosty’s sake, Boss, it’s not even a holiday!”

“It is for Warren.”

Santa rose and followed the path of the clown through the door to the Thundertop office. He was only slightly surprised that walking in did not take him into an office, but into a large room festooned with crepe, streamers, balloons, and an enormous banner that said, “HAPPY BIRTHDAY WARREN!”

“What’s all this?” Santa said.

“This is my staging area!” The clown burst from behind an enormous birthday cake in the center of the room. “This is where I go through the preparations to make Warren’s birthday the best it can be!”

“Dressed as a clown?”

“Bonbon the Birthday Clown, that’s me!”

“You know they make entire movies about how creepy you are these days, don’t you?”

Bonbon’s shoulders fell, but the smile on his face remained painted brightly on. “That stupid movie,” he said. “I know, kids don’t really like clowns anymore, but the mortals haven’t agreed on a different form for the birthday icon, so I’m stuck like this.”

“What’s your game going to be, then? Do I pop out of a cake? Blow up some balloons? Pin a tail on a donkey?”

“Well, that’s not really up to me, Santa. It’s up to Warren.”

The room swished and swirled, and chimes played the birthday song as the world shifted around them. The large, brightly-lit birthday room was replaced with a small room, much darker, with Gary and Warren sitting at a table, game controllers in their hands. In front of them was a large TV monitor, a pair of colorful sprites bounding around on the screen, zapping monsters and dodging fireballs from various monsters. They were laughing. They were smiling. In fact, in the almost nine months Santa Claus had known him, he didn’t think he’d ever seen Gary so happy.

“You see, Santa, our job is–”

“Are you serious?”

“Huh?”

“Bonbon, look at them. Gary’s birthday was Saturday. Warren’s birthday is today. Right now, right at this moment, they’re ecstatic, because they’re together. What do you think you or I could do that would make that any better?”

“Um… Cake?”

Santa shook his head. “I know you’re an Icon, I know that technically you fit all the qualifications that make the other Icons powerful. But birthdays aren’t like that, son. Most holidays — the good ones, at least — are about being with family or celebrating the spirit of giving or saluting something bigger than yourself. A birthday is different, though. A birthday is like your own personal little Christmas. It’s the one day of the year where it’s okay to be just a little bit selfish and want it to be all about you. Look at these two. They’ve already got everything that they could want. They’re together, they’re having fun, and they don’t have to learn any sort of lesson.”

Bonbon looked back and forth at them, playing their game and laughing. “Well heck. What am I supposed to do?”

“The same thing everybody does on somebody else’s birthday: you stand back and let them enjoy it.” He clapped Bonbon on his shoulder. “Stick around, I’ll save you a piece of cake.”

Bonbon walked back into the lobby and sat down between Santa and Blinky, who did his best to pretend he couldn’t see the clown. As he kept looking at him every 37 seconds, he was terribly unsuccessful. But after an hour of game time, Hasini led Warren and Gary back to the lobby. The childlike wonder in his eyes was tangible, and Warren was pretty excited too.

“That was so awesome!” he shouted.

“Remember,” Hasini said, “You can tell people that you played it, but you can’t tell them any of the content of the new levels until we release them next month, okay?”

“You got it!” he said. He and Gary walked on towards the elevator, and she winked at Santa.

“He’s going to tell every kid in his school,” she said. “We couldn’t pay for better marketing.”

Gary’s car was even tighter than it was on the way to Thundertop, with Bonbon wedged between Santa and Blinky in the back seat. The pizza place that had been the core of Gary’s original plan was now only the location of the afterparty, but it was still a party. There was music and more games and cake, from which Santa did indeed slip the gleeful Bonbon a healthy slice. As they ate and celebrated and pranced around, a group of costumed figures ran through the room. Some of them were cartoon characters, some superheroes, all of them doing their best to fire up the assorted kids there celebrating for assorted reasons.

While they rushed around the children, Santa realized that one of them was staring at him. A young man — or woman, he couldn’t really tell — in a Bixby Badger costume had frozen in place upon entering the room, and the cartoon eyes hadn’t left him since. He looked to Blinky to draw his attention to the situation, but the elf was already watching the badger’s every move.

Then, Bixby broke one of the cardinal rules of a a head character: he spoke.

“Santa?”

Santa Claus shuddered, trying to play it off like a laugh. “Oh, ho ho! Ahem. I mean, I get that a lot. It’s the beard, I suppo–”

“SANTA! AND BLINKY!”

“Um… Boss, they don’t usually know who I am.”

Bixby fumbled at his head, pulling it off and dropping it on the floor as she ran towards them, tackling Santa Claus with a hug.

“ELEANOR?”

Both elves and Santa Claus began speaking at once, a chorus of questions and statements along the lines of “Where have you been?” “I’ve been looking everywhere!” and “Are you okay?” After long moments of this, the questions stopped and were replaced by hugging and joyful tears.

“Dad?” Warren said. “Why is Bixby Badger hugging Nick and Bill?”

“I’m not sure, but I’ll bet Nick is going to have a heck of a story to go with it.”

* * *

Penny wandered down the rows of houses, coming up on Mrs. Claus’s home. She only had a couple of fliers, one envelope, and the invitation to the Labor Day Potluck that went into the mailbot of every elf, but she felt bad even going there. Mrs. Claus had seemed to sad, so desperate for days now, and it broke her heart every time she saw her.

She knocked at the door. “Mail call, Mrs. Claus! I think Yankee Candle sent you some coupons!”

When she knocked, the door swung open, slowly creaking along its hinges. She looked around the entryway to the Claus home, unaccustomed to the still, the quiet in the home.

“Mrs. Claus?”

She wasn’t supposed to do it, but Penny put down her mail bag on the porch and stepped into the home. The den was empty, as was the living room. When she stepped into the kitchen, she found her. Mrs. Claus sat at her table, her back to the door, a cup of coffee in front of her. She couldn’t feel it, of course, but somehow Penny had the idea that if she were to dip a finger in that coffee, it would be ice cold.

“Mrs. Claus? Are you okay?”

The cheerful old woman said nothing. She sat in silence, unmoving. She didn’t even register Penny’s presence, something that had never happened before.

“Okay. I’ll just leave your mail here, then.” She laid it out on the table one piece at a time. “Some store circulars. Looks like a letter from Edgar. And your invitation to the pot luck. Are you going to make that chocolate caramel popcorn like last year? Everyone loves–”

Mrs. Claus’s hand shot out, falling on Penny’s and pinning it to the table.

“Mrs. Claus?”

“Did you say a letter from Edgar?”

“Y-yes.”

She grabbed the envelope and ripped it open, pulling out a thick raft of pages. Penny stood behind her as she read. She didn’t know if she should — felt like she shouldn’t, in fact, but at the same time she couldn’t pull herself away.

“That treacherous… no-good… son of an…”

She turned and met Penny’s eyes. In all the years she’d worked the Claus’ mail route, Penny had never seen such pure, uncontrolled fury in her eyes.

“Penny… I need your help.”

 

To be continued…