Santa’s Odyssey: The New Year

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: Prologue-Christmas Day

One: The New Year

Edgar stood alone, staring at the empty chair. A week out from Christmas Eve and he didn’t want to move. The others had done everything they could to snap him out of it: hot cocoa, sugar cookies, Christmas crackers… nothing. Edgar, as North Pole Chief of Operations, had been the one in communication with Santa’s sleigh when they lost contact. If he lived to be thirty thousand, he’d never forget what he heard over that radio. Screams. Blinky shouting that they were under attack. Static. Then, a gut-churning eternity later, eight reindeer returned to the barn, their reins fluttering behind them, tattered ends that looked like they had been pecked through. Everyone turned to Edgar then, as he was technically in charge when Santa was gone. But he’d never had – nor wanted – the responsibility for this long.

Traditionally, the week between Christmas and New Year’s Eve was one of celebration at the Pole: parties, gatherings with friends, subversive meetups under the mistletoe, and one mega-blowout on the 31st before the whole Pole went on vacation for the month of January. Not this year. The past week had been chaos. Elves running everywhere, search parties scouring every corner of the Pole, trainers trying to get the reindeer to retrace their steps. All they had uncovered were a few chunks of vine and brown feathers stuck in the reins.

Now, as midnight hit Greenwich Mean Time, the rest of the senior staff was gathered with Edgar in Santa’s office, looking at his enormous green chair. Nobody had touched it in a week. Nobody wanted to.

Finally, a silver-haired elf from the licensing department cleared her throat. “Edgar?” she asked. “What do we do?”

He cleared his throat, wet his lips. He didn’t know if he was parched or just stalling, unwilling to say the only thing he could say.

“Cancel leave,” he said. “All of it. We need to keep looking.”

The other elves nodded, one at a time. It wasn’t the answer anyone wanted to hear, but it was the one that made the most sense. Nobody was particularly in the mood for a vacation anyway. How could anybody justify a month at the beach or riding roller coasters when Santa, Blinky, and Eleanor were missing? Everybody wanted to keep looking. The trouble was that nobody knew where to look.

“He has to be in the Real World somewhere” said Dale, the elf in charge of preadolescent surveillance. “We can keep up the search.”

“Of course you can,” said Jamie from Reindeer Care. “You guys watch the entire world. How hard can it be to find Santa?”

Dale shook her head. “We’re equipped to surveil children,” she said. “Our equipment is trained on them. We’ve got a computer system that analyzes the footage and alerts us if the kid does something naughty. Other than that, we never actually see them. We’re actually going to have to start combing through film, looking for some sort of trace of him. In footage of every child in the world. Even if we had a specific region to look in, some way to narrow it down–”

“Just do what you can, Dale.” Edgar put a hand on her shoulder and she nodded. He looked at the faces of the rest of the senior staff, their eyes pleading with him for some sort of guidance. He didn’t want this, he reminded himself. He never wanted this.

“What if we don’t find him?” Jamie finally said. “What if it’s February first and it’s time to start getting ready for next Christmas and there’s still no Santa Claus?”

Edgar nodded. It was exactly the question he’d been asking himself since he realized he was the one in charge. “Then we do our jobs,” he said. “Whatever it takes, we make sure that Christmas happens next year.”

December 31, 11:45 p.m.

New York City was cold. Oh, it usually was when Santa visited. They might not have a white Christmas every year, but it was usually at least chilly when he came through. Despite being open-air, his sleigh had precision climate control, and it never bothered him. Today it bothered him. It bothered him a lot.

Santa and Blinky had hitchhiked to Manhattan after they finally found the road outside of Rochester. It only took them two days to make it, with Santa using a tiny bit of his magic to make people treat them with good cheer along the way. In a way, Santa felt lucky they’d crashed in New York state. It wasn’t home, but no place in North America loved Christmas as much as New York City. His magic drained rapidly after Christmas was over, but he felt certain this was the one place he could cling to as much of it as possible.

But that magic was dying quickly. He’d managed to generate enough goodwill amongst his fellow men to get them some new clothes and a pair of cots at a shelter. But here it was, New Year’s Eve. No home or food, no sign of Eleanor, no sign of rescue.

At a quarter to midnight, Santa and Blinky were out on the street, miles away from Times Square and all the lunacy that gripped that piece of real estate on this day, still able to see the glittering ball from a distance. Santa sat down on the bottom stoop of a building, arms folded over his knees. Blinky was on the top stoop, making him eye-level with Santa. Across the street, with the shimmering ball above, a bar was loud and raucous with celebrants ready to bid farewell to the old year and welcome in the new.

“Well… happy new year, Santa.”

“Would that it were, Blinky,” he said. “In all the years we’ve been in operation, I’ve never felt as lost as I do right now.”

“There’s nobody you can call or something?”

“Like who? There aren’t any mortal telephones that can dial the North Pole, and that’s by design. Can you imagine the hassle if children could actually contact us there?”

“Anybody we can recruit to get us back? A non-holiday Icon like Sandman? Tooth Fairy?”

“The Icons only serve children. We couldn’t summon them, even if I punched your tooth out of your mouth.”

“NORAD?”

Santa shot his elf a dirty look, and Blinky shrugged. “Hey, if you’ve got a better suggestion…”

Santa sighed. “All I’ve got is a headache. I wish everyone would just be quiet.”

“Aw, the bar’s not that bad from out here, boss.”

“It’s not the bar, it’s everyone else.”

“What are you talking about? There’s nobody else here.”

Santa looked around, realizing for the first time that he and the elf were alone on the sidewalk. “If there’s no one here, where are the voices coming from?”

Not for the first time since the crash, Blinky looked worried. “What voices, boss?”

Gotta be better than last year…

…gonna lose weight, go back to the gym, give up the fast food…

…this year, I swear, I’m going to get a new job…

…he doesn’t propose by Valentine’s Day that’s IT, it’s OVER…

…has to be better than last year.

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

A slow tapping sound echoed down the street. Santa looked up to see an old man – an ancient man, in fact – staggering down the sidewalk, cane in hand. They saw this man just a week ago, but already he looked so much older than he had then. “Ah, Santa Claus,” he said. “I told you we’d meet again tonight.”

“Santa, who is that?” Blinky asked.

“It’s the Old Year,” Santa said. The old man laughed.

“Only for another eleven minutes, Claus!” he said. “Then I become the New Year all over again. Or, more accurately, you will.”

“What’s he talking about, boss?”

“Like we told you, little elf, this year your master is taking on the duties of each of us Icons. In fact, if I’m not mistaken, Santa, you’re already hearing the prayers.”

“Prayers? For what?”

“For the New Year, of course!”

In his head, the voices started to get louder. Pleas for money, for health, for children, for love. One woman’s voice swore that this was the year she would visit Europe, another was begging this year to be the one when she found a job in which she could finally afford day care. A man asked if this year he would get a new car, a young one swore with all his might that he was going to buckle down this semester and study, dammit, because he was lucky not to have been thrown out of school already, and if he didn’t fix things it would break his grandmother’s heart. One girl wanted a puppy this year. A boy promised to make the baseball team. A man said he’d try to go vegan, while his wife anxiously promised to get him to stop spending so much time on the internet. More than one voice, more than one chilling voice, asked that please could nobody else die this year, because they couldn’t take any more.

Santa grabbed Blinky’s arm trying not to tip over. He looked up, gasping, while the Old Year’s face continued to grow more wrinkles, longer whiskers, eyes sinking into their sockets and cheeks hollowing before their eyes. “What are you doing to me?” he asked.

“Nothing I don’t endure every single year,” he said. “You’re lucky I come first, Claus. You still have a good deal of your power. Christmas technically lasts until January 6, after all, so your residual magic is probably making this easier on you. Can you imagine if you had to listen to these voices in June?”

“Boss, what’s happening to you?”

“Prayers… cries… people pleading… people everywhere.”

“Prayers for the New Year, Claus.”

“It’s overwhelming,” he said, squeezing Blinky’s arm even tighter. “Everybody wants something. Everybody needs something.”

“Boss, you hear people ask for things all the time. It’s your job!”

“I hear children, Blinky. This…”

“Yes, adults are quite different, aren’t they, Claus?”

…going to learn to speak Mandarin this year…

…this glass of champagne and then that’s it, I’m done drinking…

…just so tired of being alone…

“They’re all in pain!” Santa shouted. “They’re all in misery!

“Oh, not all of them,” the Old Year said. “Just the loudest ones.” In the distance people in Times Square were howling with joy. The countdown had reached one minute to midnight. He looked down at Santa, his face almost skeletal now as the skin pulled taught against his leering skull.

“I don’t understand!” Santa slumped forward, grabbing the Old Year by his cloak. “Isn’t anyone happy tonight?”

“Of course they are,” the Old Year said. “But they don’t need us, do they? That’s the incredible thing about the New Year, Claus. As a marking of time, it’s really quite meaningless. It’s arbitrary. The mortals could have decided the year ended any time they wanted – the beginning of July, the day the crops were planted. It doesn’t mark someone’s birthday or a historical anniversary or any of the things some of the other holidays do. Closing one calendar and opening the next is irrelevant. But they’ve placed so much emphasis on it, haven’t they? They pretend that things are ending, that it’s a time when everything else can start over.”

The countdown was happening. Santa could almost hear it over the voices in his head.

…this is it…

…it all starts now…

…thank God it’s over…

“Don’t you understand why you’re hearing from people in misery, Claus? Because nobody needs a New Year more than someone whose Old Year was agony.”

He closed his eyes as the voices behind them turned into an incomprehensible din, a sickening miasma of prayers and hopes and grief. Screams and cries of celebration broke – from Times Square, from the bar across the street, from all directions. Santa thought that the voices would stop, but if anything, they got louder.

show them some real fireworks at the office…

…dammit, I knew she’d kiss somebody else at midnight…

…last glass of ch—ah, but I’m still AT the party, right?

“Why isn’t it stopping?” Santa asked. “Why isn’t it stopping?”

“Santa?” Blinky asked. “Where’d the Old Year go?”

Santa opened his eyes and looked down. The Old Year was, in fact, gone, his cloak lying on the ground in front of them. Lying in front and… moving. Santa reached down and pulled the cloak aside. On the ground, wearing a smirk that one would never have expected in one so young, was a newborn baby.

“It’s not stopping, Santa, because it’s not over yet.” The newborn rocked up onto his bottom, smiling up at Santa and Blinky. “People don’t stop asking at midnight. It takes a few days, even weeks sometimes before they stop asking the New Year to be different than the old one.”

“But… all of those cries… all that pain. What are we supposed to do?”

The infant looked surprised. “Do? Santa, you’re already doing it. You’re hearing them.”

“Aren’t I supposed to help them?”

“They’re not kids, Santa. They don’t want dolls and candy. How are you gonna help them? Give Tory Kittridge a new job? Find a way to make Edna Carson’s son call her for a change?” He stood up, grabbing Santa’s beard and pulling it down until they were eye-to-eye. “You got a cure for cancer in that sack of yours, Santa?”

He let go of the beard and Santa rocked back onto the stoop, staring up into the sky. His stomach was curdling, despite the fact that there was relatively little inside it. As he gasped, the voices continued, although they started to settle a bit.

“Here’s the harsh truth most humans don’t want to admit, Santa. No matter how much they want to believe it, the year doesn’t control anything. If something is going to change, it has to come from them. But who wants to hear that? It’s not my fault I’m broke! It’s not my fault I’m lonely! It’s not my fault I’m sick! No! It’s just this crummy year.” The cynicism coming from such a young face was almost comical. Santa may have laughed if he weren’t trying to prevent the conflicting voices in his head from driving him mad.

“Nah,” New Year said. “There’s nothing you can do to help them, Santa. They have to help themselves. All you get to do is listen to each and every prayer they have.”

He patted Santa on the cheek, smiling. “Well, I’ve said my peace. Have fun on the next holiday. Someone will be there to hold your hand then, too.”

Santa watched as the New Year, still waddling around in a baby’s body, gathered up his cloak and toddled away. As he did so, the voices, the prayers, the pleading in his mind continued.

“Boss, are you all right?”

“It’s too much, Blinky. It’s just too much.”

He put his head down on the stoop, trying not to allow tears to break his eyes. Across the street, the doors to the bar had been thrown open and people were cheering in the fact that they all had to buy a new calendar, and nothing else. Santa rolled his head and looked up at the stars in the cold January morning.

“How am I going to do this? How can I handle an entire year of this? We’re lost, we’re alone, we…”

“Hey, are you all right?”

Santa tilted his head and looked at the man approaching them. He was coming from the direction of the bar, a few chunks of confetti fell from his shoulders as he walked, but he didn’t have the joyous expression that most of the revelers wore. He was a bulky man, with deep brown hair and a tiny scar in his upper lip, which was pulled down into a look of concern.

“It’s nothing that should worry you, young man,” he said.

“Are you sure? You sounded pretty downbeat.” He reached out and Santa realized he’d heard this man’s voice before, only moments before. He was one of the many, many people who was pleading for a better year.

“I’ll be fine.”

“Come on, pal, it’s Christmas.”

Blinky frowned. “It’s January First.”

“Yeah, and like my grandmother always told me, Christmas lasts until the sixth. Epiphany. You’ve heard of the twelve days of Christmas right?”

Santa looked the man in the eye, and for the first time since his sleigh went down, a small smile crept onto his face. “Have I met you before, son?”

“Could be. It’s a big city.” He held out his hand. “Gary Valechi. You?”

“Nick. And this is Bill.”

Gary Valechi. Nice list. Asked for a Super Nintendo when he was seven years old.

“Look, the party across the street turned out to be… not what I wanted. I was going to go get something to eat. You guys want to join me? My treat.”

Santa and Blinky exchanged a look, and Blinky shrugged.

“All right, Gary,” Santa said. “Maybe there’s a little Christmas left out here after all.”

*   *   *

In Central Park, Chuck Parker listened to people cheering all over the city. Must have been New Year’s Eve again. Eh. December, January, Christmas, New Year… out here, it was pretty much all the same. The only thing about the holidays ending was that people got a little less generous with their spare change. Whatever, he made it through last year, he’d make it through this one.

He shuffled down to a bench, one of his favorites, and pulled his coat tight around him. Someone had left a pile of newspaper on his bench, filthy animals in this city, and as he lay down to stretch out, he kicked at the paper to clear it out.

“Ow! Watch it!”

A hand grabbed at the paper and yanked it away. Beneath was a small, angelic face fringed by silvery golden hair. Her face was dirty, but unwrinkled and unmarred, and the green hat atop her head was cocked at an angle.

“Kid, what are you doing out here?”

“I’m no kid,” she said.

“Well I ain’t seen you around here before. You lost?”

She looked up into the sky, staring as if she were looking for something. “Yeah,” she said. “I am.”

To be continued…

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Santa’s Odyssey: Christmas Day

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

Prologue: Christmas Day

“Do you see him yet?”

“Nay, not yet.”

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

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

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

“Oh, stop being so dramatic, son.”

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

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

“Wonderful. Light it up.”

*   *   *

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

“Almost home, boss,” said Blinky.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Santa…”

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

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

“Santa…”

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

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

“SANTA!”

“Blinky, what on Earth–”

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

“Santa, what is that?” Eleanor asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Blinky! CRASH POSITIONS!”

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

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

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

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

“We lost her somewhere.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What are you talking about?”

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

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

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

“YEAH!” the Turkey snapped.

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

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

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

“This is madness,” Santa said.

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

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

“One week,” the old man said, fading.

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

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

“Who are you?” Santa asked.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“What does it say?”

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

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

To be continued…