Not long ago, I was contacted by the editors of Shepherd.com and asked if I would be interested in contributing a list. It’s a cool site where authors curate short suggested reading lists in various categories, and based on my current (and best-known) works, I asked if they’d be interested in my picks for five great books that feature superheroes OUTSIDE of their typical home in the world of the graphic novel. Take a few minutes and look at my recommendations, then poke around the site to see some of the other great lists they’ve collected!
Christmas is here again, friends, and those of you who have been with me for a while knew this was coming: my annual Christmas short story! Stories aren’t always easy. You need both a WHAT and a WHY for the story to make sense, and I’ve found that a great number of weak stories nail the WHAT without giving enough time to the WHY. I came up with the WHAT for this story about three weeks ago, but I struggled with it until last week, when the WHY finally came to me and made it all make sense.
This story features the return of some friends from previous Christmas stories, but you don’t need to have read them to enjoy it. It stands on its own, with a protagonist that’s quite unlike any of my previous Yuletide yarns.
And I don’t usually do this with my Christmas stories, but I’m going to do it this year. 2022 was rough on a lot of people, and the last few months in particular have really weighed me down. Without getting into details, it’s been one thing after another that just started to feel crushing after a while, and without my wife, Erin, I don’t know how I would have made it. So “The Release” is dedicated to her.
Merry Christmas, all.
He needed to get out. It had been years of loneliness, isolation, and frustration, but he had grown accustomed to it. It was something he had learned to live with. But something was calling him this year, something was urging him, and he knew he was almost out of time. He needed to get out.
There was not much to be said for his confinement. It was long and dark, it was solitary, and he was fed sporadically with stock that clearly was the product of livestock, cattle…not the premium nutrients he craved so deeply. From beyond the walls of his cell he could see glimpses of the light – brief glimpses, quick ones that seared his eyes and made him want to scurry back into the darkness like vermin. He resisted the urge, though – he was not vermin, he was not filth. He was the apex predator on this planet, even if his captors refused to recognize that fact. It was, he supposed, the fact that he was so far above them that had kept him here for so long. For the first few years of his captivity he had fought – attacked the jailers, tried to break free from his cell at any opportunity. But the cattle were resourceful, he had to admit that, and they were ready for any move he made.
It took years before it finally occurred to him that the only escape may be to simply give them what they wanted…to cooperate. To be a good little boy.
A clanging came from outside his cell and he heard the guard bellow: “Suit up, inmate! We’re opening the cell door in two minutes!”
A garment bag appeared in the slot beneath the door, the suit within probably the same one he wore in September when transferred to this facility. Typically he wore it only twice a year, during the September and March transfers, but this year was different. This year he had behaved exceptionally well. This year he had been granted his work release, a chance to be allowed out of this infernal land of perpetual daylight and go somewhere his kind could flourish – into a night that extended as long as necessary. He took the suit from the bag and pulled it on: a full black bodysuit that covered him from head to toe in thick, impermeable fabric through which no light could penetrate, not even here. Across the chest, in white letters, the initials of his captors: CPC. Over his eyes were a pair of polarized lenses to filter out the deadly rays of the sun and still permit him the ability to see. Beneath the lenses, the portion of the mask that covered his mouth was reinforced with Kevlar. Not even his teeth would be able to slash their way through. The suit was one piece, but there was another item in the bag as well: his handcuffs. He knew those were coming, but was not particularly glad to see them.
“Put it on, inmate!”
But he did. Because he had planned this too long, waited too patiently to lose his opportunity now. He picked up the handcuffs and clamped them first on his left wrist, then the right. Then, finally prepared, the door to his cell opened to the blazing white waste outside.
Even through the polarized lenses, his eyes stung at the light. He squinted, tried to adjust. Before his capture he had gone ages without seeing sunlight directly. To see it even twice a year had been a drastic change, but the light to which he was exposed was so brilliant as to be almost blinding.
“Can you see me, Al?” the guard asked. His neck twitched at the nickname, but he had resigned himself to be cooperative.
“I can see you.”
“Walk slowly. Follow me.”
He stepped out of the cell into the unfathomable glare of light. The facility was to his back, but his cell opened directly to the outside, another security measure. He did not feel the bitter wind the way the human guards would, were it not for their heavily insulated suits, which themselves served as further protection against him should he ever attempt escape. Not that he would, of course. Where would he go? The concept still frightened him a bit, if he was being honest with himself: a place where the sun did not set for six months, here at the bottom of the world. And in March, they would take him from his cell here in Antarctica and bring him north once more, to its equivalent facility at that pole, forever chasing the perpetual daylight. The Coalition for Paranormal Containment had finally found the perfect prison for his people, the perfect way to contain a vampire.
“Alrighty, Al,” the guard said. “You’re gonna be on your best behavior, right?” Beneath his heavy clothing he wasn’t sure which one it was – Barnes? Avery? His voice was muffled and the wind cut across his ears, making identifying his voice as impossible as his face. It didn’t matter. They were all the same, he told himself, convinced himself. All cattle.
“Of course, guardsman,” he said. “I have fully reformed, and I embrace the opportunity to demonstrate my contrition.”
“Whatever,” the guard said. He was led around the facility to the helipad, where the vehicle that was to take him to his work release was waiting. The pilot, he presumed, was sitting in the craft, green and red clothing draped loosely around his body in a manner that looked positively chilly. If the little man felt the biting cold, he didn’t show it. He smiled at their approach.
“Is this the lucky fella?” he said.
“Yes sir,” the guard said. Clearing his throat, he recited the necessary doctrine to officiate transfer of authority. “The Coalition for Paranormal Containment, as of zero hundred hours, December 21, officially remands Inmate #5261897 to the authority of North Pole Operations, Inc., for a period of time not to exceed five days, standard time, internally variable based on the temporal adjustments necessary to the task required.”
“On behalf of North Pole Operations, I accept custody,” the little man said.
He looked back at the inmate. “Now be nice, Al. He knows if you have.” Clapping him on the shoulder and chuckling, the human guard turned and rushed back towards the facility, and the inmate looked down at his wrists.
“Wait! My handcuffs–”
“Don’t worry about that.” The little man grabbed the cuffs and jerked them just a little, causing them to fall onto the ice at their feet. “You’re not going to be needing them the next few days, bud.” He hopped into the craft and gestured to the seat next to him. “Hop in, Al.”
“The name is Alastair,” the inmate snarled. “Address me with the proper respect, small human.”
“First of all, not a human. The name is Binky,” said the little man. “Head of security, and the only reason you’re not in your cell right now. So unless you want to march back there, do me a favor, lighten up, and climb in.”
“I know she doesn’t look like much, but the boss’s model is getting its final tune-up for Christmas. And I know the engines are a little scrawny, but they’re in training. May take over the big job someday. And it’s only the two of us, not a mountain of toys, so I think they can handle the weight.”
“No, I meant–”
Alastair looked at the craft that sat on the helipad – a miniature sleigh, red paint scratched and dented, the brass runners oiled but otherwise looking like they had seen better days. As for the “engines” – the three reindeer lashed to the front of the sleigh stamped their hooves and looked back at him impatiently.”
“Nothing,” he said. “I meant nothing.”
“Great, then. Hop aboard, Al. We’ve got to get clear to the other end of the planet, lickety-split.”
* * *
Alastair had made the journey between North and South Poles seventeen times now, every six months, and he was used to the long and frustrating transit between the two of them. The Coalition’s aircraft tended to take a long, circuitous route that mostly went down over the Pacific Ocean, with stops to refuel on mid-sea platforms near the respective coasts of Japan and Australia, but that kept them out of any heavily-used trade routes or over any populated areas that could catch a glimpse of the plane. Sometimes that meant staying on the refueling platform while they waited for ships or other aircraft to make their own passage. The journey had taken anywhere from 36 hours to a full week in the past, depending on a series of factors.
The sleigh Binky piloted got him to the other side of the world in less than twelve seconds.
At first he wasn’t even certain anything had happened. Binky cracked the whip and the reindeer began to rush across the ice. He felt the sleigh lift, felt a sensation of rising in the air, and then there was a rush he couldn’t explain followed by a feeling of moving down. In that blink of an eye, the world around him swirled from dazzling sunlight to the pitch of midnight.
As the sleigh skidded to a stop on another ice-covered field, Binky looked over at him. “You can take the mask off now. There won’t be any sunlight here for another three months.”
“I thought you had some sort of facility here,” Alastair said. “This is just empty Arctic waste.”
Binky chortled. “Trust me, Al. Take the mask off.”
He swallowed the urge to lunge at the little man, to rip his throat out and drink the sweet elixir within, both sustenance for himself and punishment for his continued insistence at diminishing his name. But he had his goals, and killing Binky the Elf would not accomplish them. He unzipped the neck of his mask and pulled it away from his head.
Again, he was blinded.
Where seconds ago there had been nothing but a dark waste of ice, the world was now brilliant and beautiful. A huge settlement appeared – homes and workshops, walking paths decorated with candy canes and gingerbread men, a gargantuan Christmas tree that towered over everything and, in the distance beyond the tree, an enormous mansion covered in garland and tinsel. He almost fell back into the sleigh, as startled as he was by the sudden appearance of the town, and he instinctively covered his face to protect himself from the light.
“It’s all artificial light,” Binky said. “Fire, electricity, stardust…it’s not sunlight. You’re fine.”
“It’s so bright,” he said. “I haven’t seen anything this bright in…”
“A long time.”
“Where did this come from? It wasn’t here a moment ago.”
“Look through your mask again.”
He was hesitant to comply with the little man’s orders, but he did so. When he raised the mask and looked through the light-killing lenses, he again saw only ice and night sky. Taking the lenses away from his eyes, the village returned.
“Our facility cannot be detected by any technological means. We put that safeguard in place because of satellites and telescopes, but it works on any device that’s used to capture an image. Guess that includes your little lenses there.”
“My pal Duffy invented it. I’ll have to tell him you said so. Come on. I’ll take you to meet the big guy.”
Binky started walking down the path, dodging rushing elves with packages, carts of toys, rolls of wrapping paper, and other various effluvia of the holiday season. None of them seemed to pay attention to him at all – they simply had too much to do. Binky led him to the steps of the mansion, a place that looked even larger up close, and pulled open a set of twenty-foot doors with candy cane handles and a reindeer-face door knocker. As they stepped inside beneath a three-foot ball of mistletoe, Alastair saw that inside was even more chaotic than the town square. Dozens of elves rushed around with clipboards and charts, some with electronic tablets, one carrying a doll shouting that somebody better figure out why this darn thing wasn’t urinating or there would be serious trouble coming their way. Everyone had a task, a job. He supposed it made sense. This was the busy season.
Binky took him up an ornate flight of stairs to a wooden door with OFFICE carved into it beneath a wooden bas relief of holly and poinsettia. He gave the door a perfunctory knock before popping it open and looking inside.
“He’s here boss.”
“Excellent. Bring him in.”
Binky stepped aside and waved Alastair through the door. On the other side was a smaller room than he would have expected, the walls painted green and adorned with portraits and photographs of an older couple in red and white clothing. There were schematics everywhere, plans for constructing toys of all kinds. There were maps of the globe with routes marked in red, scratched out, amended, and scratched out again. There was a scroll – an absolutely gargantuan scroll – that tapered off at the end with what appeared to be a series of names. And sitting at the desk was the man from the pictures, wearing a pair of green trousers and a yellow shirt covered in polka dots, a pair of simple brown suspenders crossing his chest and holding up his pants. He had a pen in one hand, a mug of hot cocoa in the other, and a pair of reading glasses sat obediently on the end of his nose.
“Hello, Alastair,” said Santa Claus. “I’m so glad that you’ve decided to try to get back on the nice list.”
“I don’t know if I’d go quite that far,” Alastair said. “This is a work release opportunity. I’m here to prove I’m not dangerous to humans anymore.”
“Are you now?” Santa looked down at a clipboard in front of him. “Alastair Bonaventure, born 1842. Always on the nice list until 1867, which is when…” Santa looked up at him, his eyes falling on Alastair’s neck. “Well, you know what happened, don’t you?”
He froze for a second, not knowing what to say. Born 1842, exactly what it said on his documents for the CPC. And the nice list…well, that was the history of Alastair Bonaventure.
Honestly, he wasn’t even sure he had expected to get this far. He had his plan, but if this man was really who he said he was, he would know, wouldn’t he? Know his plan, know his desperation, know that he was biding his time in this work release situation until he saw an opportunity to escape and then–
“Hey, Al? The boss asked a question.”
He blinked back to the present. “Yes. I know what happened.”
“In custody of the CPC for the last eight and a half years, captured while attempting to devour a nun in Milan, Italy. Now Alastair, was that right?”
“I was hungry, Santa. Everyone has to eat. Even vampires.”
“Yes, I suppose so. Well, we’ve got a little more than two days before takeoff. Binky is going to acquaint you with all of our security procedures and regulations. He’s going to be your commanding officer while you’re in our custody, but since we’ll be working together on Christmas Eve, I wanted to welcome you here to the Pole in person.” He held out a chubby hand and Alastair took it for a respectable amount of time before withdrawing it again. “Any questions before you get started?”
“Go ahead, son, spit it out.”
“I didn’t believe them at first, when they told me about this particular work release assignment. It seemed…”
“You didn’t believe in Santa Claus? Too silly? Too incomprehensible for the rational mind?”
“I’m a vampire, sir. From the day I was bitten, I realized that the world is full of things that rational people don’t believe in. No, it’s not that.”
“I was told you needed security for your rounds this year. Protection.”
“That’s why you’re here, yes.”
“Okay, but…why? You’re Santa Claus. Who would want to attack you?”
Santa nodded. “The world is a dangerous place, Alastair. I’m here to make it a little nicer and for some reason, there are creatures out there who just hate that idea. Binky will explain the rest.”
“All right, then. I suppose we should get to work.”
“Now that’s the attitude we want to hear in these parts. Alastair, I think we’ll get along just fine.”
* * *
The hours raced by, as those in the holiday season always tended to do. Alastair spent most of his time at the Pole in Binky’s company, in preparation. Some of the time was used going over routes and procedures, learning the logistics of how Claus zoomed from one spot to another, if not the actual means of propulsion. The same went for the details of his rapid activities inside the homes of the children he meant to visit and the way he would leap from one spot to another in the blink of an eye.
“It’s gonna seem like it’s going really fast and taking forever at the same time,” Binky said. “We move like lightning, you have to understand, but there are still literally millions of homes to visit all over the planet. Time is on our side, thanks to a little magical shenanigans the boss is privy to, but you’re still going to think it seems like an extraordinarily long night.”
“Will it be?”
“For you and me. For anyone who’s on the sleigh. Except for maybe the boss, I’m honestly not sure what it feels like to him. But for everyone on the outside, it’ll be the standard 24 hours a day.”
The logistics were only a small part of Alastair’s tutorial, however. The rest of it was a crash course on the various creatures that existed across the globe, and how to deal with them.
“If we’re attacked by a golem?” Binky asked.
“Wipe the command word from its forehead or take the scroll from its mouth.”
“Their bodies are very dry – fire is the most effective deterrent.”
“Cut off the head or destroy the brain.”
“Christmas isn’t a full moon this year so it’s unlikely we’ll encounter one, but silver weapons are best.”
“Hold it off until a good Kaiju can arrive to fight him.”
Alastair raised his eyebrow, but answered the question. “Since the night will be a long one, evading it until daylight is not an option. Stake through the heart is simplest. You can also remove the head and bury it backwards with garlic in its mouth, but if it comes to that somebody else is going to have to do it, because I won’t.”
“You don’t like Italian food, huh?”
He asked a few more times about the reason for his enlistment. After thousands of years of Santa making his Christmas rounds, why was he suddenly in need of protection? It made no sense, and Binky’s answer only raised more questions.
“A few years back, some misguided people went after the boss right when we were finishing up his rounds. They learned the error of their ways, but when word got out about what happened the legit evil types in the world decided they would try it on their own. Elves are nimble, Al, but we weren’t made for fighting. Well. Not North Pole elves, anyway, but I’ve got some cousins in–”
“Your point, Binky?”
“Point is, eventually the boss decided we needed to be ready for anything. And if there’s anything we’ve learned from the movies, it’s that the best way to fight a monster is with another monster.”
It made a kind of logical sense, Alastair had to admit. And he had certainly seen his share of battle over the decades. It was his history as much as his record of good behavior that had made his name turn up when this assignment was offered. Still…
“There are good monsters in this world, though. Benevolent ghosts. Sea creatures who rescue sailors. That fellow that Shelley wrote about.”
“So why didn’t we call on one of them?”
“It’s a fair question.”
“It’s Christmas, Al. You’re gonna be more powerful than any of them tonight.”
‘Why on Earth would Christmas make me more powerful?”
“Because on Christmas, the smart money is on somebody in need of redemption.”
Redemption? Alastair had never thought of it that way. He was a monster, of course, by human standards. He had feasted on mortals, enthralled others. He may not have relished it, but it was the way of his kind. Did humans need redemption for feasting on cows or using dogs to help them hunt?
And what’s more, the other thing that weighed on him was far worse, something for which he didn’t believe redemption was even possible. But it was still something that had to be addressed. And addressing that very old business was going to be the crux of his journey this Christmas Eve.
* * *
As morning dawned on December the 24th (metaphorically, of course – the sky was still black as pitch here at the North Pole), preparations went into high gear. The flow of presents and parcels into the launch bay had reached a frenzy, and he occasionally caught himself wondering what some of the packages contained: a game, a doll, a bicycle, a baseball glove? It had been a very long time, but Alastair had been a child once, and although the sundries may have changed, the spirit of longing was no doubt the same as it had been two centuries ago.
The one thing that did surprise him was the outfit Binky provided him with when he approached the sleigh. It was woven from a weighty black fabric that covered everything up to his neck. Instead of a mask, a helmet accompanied the suit, but other than that it was almost identical to the one that he wore during his prison transfers. “I don’t understand,” he told Binky. “I thought this trip took place exclusively during the night.”
“It does. That suit isn’t for protection against sunlight.”
“Then what is it supposed to protect me from?”
He turned the fabric over in his hands, felt its weight, and had to question Binky’s point. It was heavy, to be sure, but relatively thin. “Is this supposed to stop blades? Or bullets?”
“Rated for both, yep. Not to mention fire, claws, teeth, and unicorn horn.”
Binky laughed. “Just wanted to make sure you’re paying attention. Naw, the chance of a unicorn attack is…well, it’s relatively low.”
He patted the sides of the costume, pointing to a series of latches and snaps. “Cargo pouches,” he said. “Loaded up with knives, wooden stakes, and assorted other things that may come in handy if there’s an attack. Don’t worry, I left out the Holy Water. Don’t want to chance the bottle breaking and dripping on our bodyguard, do we?”
He waved Alastair into a dressing room where he pulled himself into the costume, cradling the helmet under his arm when he marched out into the frigid hangar. The sleigh was moored at the end of a long runway, and elves were strapping down an octet of reindeer to the front while another legion of them harnessed a gargantuan sack in the bed. It was enormous – he and Santa both could fit inside the thing with room for an elf or two left over – but at the same time, was it really large enough to carry the gifts of an entire world? It was not, Alastair decided, but in the last few days he had encountered enough “North Pole Magic” to chalk it up to another instance of that. The sack was larger on the inside, and that’s all there was to it.
“Quite a sight isn’t it?” Santa stepped out onto the runway, putting a hand on Alastair’s shoulder. “We’ve gone to quite a lot of trouble to make sure it lives up to expectations.”
“I thought everyone was supposed to be asleep when you were on duty.”
“Everyone is supposed to be asleep. How better to guarantee that a few of them stay up and spread the word every year?” Santa bellowed, a hefty “Ho! Ho! Ho!” that felt like it rolled out of a cartoon, and climbed into the sleigh. Binky bounded in after him, and indicated the empty spot on the seat next to him.
“Alrighty, Al. Time to get this show on the road.”
Bristling, the vampire took a seat on the sleigh next to Binky, then started looking around. “Where are the seat belts?” he said. “The harness? Isn’t there some way to–”
“NOW DASHER! NOW DANCER! NOW PRANCER AND VIXEN!”
Alastair hadn’t really known fear for a very long time. Real fear, true mortal fear, was alien to his kind, and he had grown accustomed to the idea that any damage he incurred would heal in time. But as the fat man’s throat boomed with “ON COMET! ON CUPID! ON DONDER AND BLITZEN!” he suddenly felt its grip. He had known, intellectually, what was going to happen. He knew the reindeer would run, the sleigh would be pulled behind them, and that they would fly around the world at astonishing speeds. He had not known that there would be nothing to keep him on the seat except his clenched buttocks.
As soon as “BLITZEN!” escaped Santa’s lips, the sleigh lurched forward, Alastair plastered to the back of his seat. The hangar sped past him, the sconces on the walls rushing by and vanishing in seconds, replaced by the midnight black of the sky. He saw stars for a moment, then he saw streaks of light. The staggered light of distant suns was not usually intense enough to cause discomfort for his kind, but as they turned into beams in the sky he felt fear once again. Somewhere from below his throat a chilled howl escaped and he closed his eyes, shrieking.
When the shrieks ended, he realized that the quiet night was filled by another sound: Binky’s laughter.
“Open your eyes, Prince of Darkness,” he said.
Alastair did, preparing to see the stars racing past, the relief of the Earth below appearing on the horizon and evaporating just as fast behind them, the clouds parting for them and transforming into streaks in their wake.
He was not prepared to see the sleigh at a dead stop, the reindeer casually digging their hooves into the roof beneath them. There was a chimney nearby, and snow on the shingles, the rails of the sled cutting through and leaving trails behind them.
“Are you alright there, Alastair?” Santa asked.
“Wonderful. Let’s get to work.”
* * *
The first few stops were uneventful. They landed somewhere, the three of them whisked out of the sleigh down into a home, and Alastair watched as Santa and Binky went to work. This happened several times, in fact, before it started to dawn on him that thinking of it as a “few” stops had suddenly become relative. How many homes had they gone into already? Dozens? Hundreds? He was relatively certain they were in the same country their first stop had brought them, but he was not entirely certain what country that was.
What’s more, moving from house to house happened like lightning, but watching Santa and Binky lay out their gifts did not. He was conscious and aware the entire time, standing around like a shopping center security guard, with the closest thing to an intruder being the occasional dog that yipped at them or cat peering out from beneath the Christmas Tree.
After a few stops, Santa held out a plate to Alastair. “Cookie?” he asked.
“Not to my taste.”
“Of course. Perhaps you’ll like the U.K. better – they leave me mincemeat pies over there.”
It was a habit of this Santa Claus, he realized, this conversation, this small talk. Santa was the sort of person who never met a silence he didn’t feel the need to fill with words, ironic considering the stealthy nature of his work. Alastair’s wife had been the same way, the sort who always needed to be talking about something, and–
He forced the thought aside as Santa signaled for him to join them by the fireplace. It was the standard procedure: he and Binky flanked Santa as the fat man put a finger aside his nose, then they were whisked up through the chimney and back onto the roof. Something else that had occurred to Alastair after a while was that not every roof had a chimney when they returned to the sleigh. What’s more, every roof they landed on was covered in snow, even if the air outside was in the 60s and there wasn’t another flake in sight. All of it: the chimney, the fireplaces, the snow…they were all manifestations of Santa’s own talents. How powerful was he?
“Tonight, I’m as powerful as I need to be,” Santa said.
“You didn’t say anything, you just thought it. I know. Tonight I know everything, Alastair.” He smiled and his eye twinkled. “I know everything.”
If Alastair’s blood was still warm, the emphasis in the fat man’s voice would have cooled it.
* * *
Alastair wasn’t certain how many stops it took before it happened, but he was sure the first sign of trouble came in Australia. As Santa laid out gifts for three children – a pair of swim fins for the oldest, stuffed animals that looked like blue dogs for the two younger – Alastair caught notice of a shuffling motion from the fireplace. He’d grown accustomed to small disturbances like pets or motorized vacuum cleaner, and they’d had more than one close call with children who were up late in anticipation or parents who were up late assembling toys. This was different, though. This time, the stonework on the fireplace itself seemed to be peering at them.
He nudged Binky, then tossed his head gently in the direction of the fireplace. Binky looked quickly and got the picture.
“Rock Troll,” he whispered.
It was like he’d given the assassin a cue.
The top layer of stone on the fireplace leapt up, arms appearing in the masonry, and reached out towards Santa Claus. Alastair assessed his options, but it didn’t take long. Allowing the troll to take Claus would be counter-productive. He was too far away, he still needed the fat man to get him where he was going. Besides, he had agreed to do a job, and he had never been the sort to welch on that.
As Claus continued to casually lay down the tracks for a train set around the Christmas tree, Alastair put himself in front of the troll, catching it by the wrists. The troll was strong, incredibly so, and for a moment he was afraid that he had already overstepped his capabilities…but the way the troll moved gave him his cue. The troll did not move like a normal animal, bones attached to tendons attached to flesh. With the troll, it was as if each component of his body was a separate stone, held together by nothing more than a little magic and a lot of stubbornness. As the troll tried to grab at Alastair’s throat, he kicked his leg out and, with his own vampire’s strength, dislodged the stone that made up the monster’s left knee.
“And a new football for Jamie,” Santa said, oblivious to the chaos behind him.
With his knee gone, the troll fell to his side and Alastair moved into action. He went for the joints first – elbows, wrists, the other knee – and pulled away the stones that represented those vital components of the rock troll’s anatomy. With those gone, the troll began to try to flip and flail on the ground, howling in some language that sounded eldritch and childlike at the same time. Alastair grabbed at the thing’s neck, but the troll jerked its head down and crushed his left hand. As he shouted in the surprise pain, he shot out his right hand and grabbed the monster’s jaw, yanking it off the rest of its skull.
With that, the fight seemed to go out of the creature, but its eyes stayed open as Alastair continued disassembling its body and hurling the stones away. When finally there was nothing left but the cranium, he looked back at his companions. Santa carefully slid a candy cane into each of the three hanging stockings, while Binky gathered up the stones he’d tossed around and reassembled them in their customary places in the fireplace.
“A little help would have been nice,” he snarled.
“What for?” Binky said. “You seemed to have it covered.”
“Here.” Santa held a thermos out to Alastair, who waved it away.
“I don’t need any of your hot chocolate.”
“It’s not chocolate,” Santa said. “It’s for your hand.”
He looked down at his left hand – crushed, the bones splintered, a thin trickle of the dark ichor that passed for vampire blood trailing down his arm…then he looked at the thermos. There was only one thing that could heal him, but…
“Just drink it,” Santa said, removing the lid from the thermos and holding it out again. Alastair took the thermos and took a deep sniff, his lungs filling with a warm smell of copper.
“A little AB negative,” Santa said. “That should get you patched together again.”
“How did you–”
“Alastair, really. Do I need to show you my resume?”
Chastened, Alastair lifted the thermos to his lips and drank. The warmth flowed into his body – it was one of the few things that made him feel warm these days, really – and he felt the bones in his hand snap back into place, the shredded fibers of his muscle knitting together, and the skin resealing itself as if being pulled by a zipper.
“Well done,” Santa Claus said, sincerely. “Just try a little harder to keep it down next time, eh?”
* * *
House after house, country after country, the three of them moved through the night faster than Alastair would have believed possible – yet at the same time, the night seemed endless. How long had he been on this journey, relatively speaking? Days? Weeks? Time didn’t seem to apply anymore. By the time they arrived in England, even the battle with the rock troll in Australia felt like a distant memory, like something that had happened years ago to someone else entirely.
His memories before the journey began, however, were as fresh and crisp as they ever were…even the ones from decades past. When Santa began laying out a plastic fashion doll for a small British girl, an image pricked at Alastair’s mind. These “fashion” dolls…what had been wrong with the baby dolls or rag dolls of days gone by? Somewhere in the depths of his mind he saw a brown-eyed little girl on Christmas morning pulling green tissue paper away from such a doll, a simple thing made of scrap fabric, but hand-sewn with greater love than these mass produced carbon copy playthings would ever know.
“Somethin’ wrong with the doll, Al?” Binky said, noticing his staring.
“I’m just thinking about how much toys have changed since…”
“Since I was…young.”
“Hey, you’re talking to a guy that’s got six or seven hundred years on you. I know what you’re talking about. When I first started working for the boss we mostly delivered clay marbles and oranges. Now I don’t even know what half this stuff is.” He tucked away a video game console and looked back at Santa. “Are we done, boss?”
“Just about. I’ll just have a nip of this sherry and–”
Santa reached out for the glass of sherry, the traditional gift for Father Christmas in the UK, Alasair had learned, and lifted it to his lips. As he did so, though, Alastair saw a slender trail of thread attached to the glass. He knocked the glass from Santa’s hand, but somewhere a click announced that the glass’s trigger had already been tripped. A closet door opened up and from within stumbled a shuffling, moaning trinity of creatures with empty eyes, gray and lifeless skin, and bared teeth. They moaned as they reached their hands out and stumbled towards Father Christmas himself.
“Zombies?” Binky said. “Someone actually set up a zombie trap?”
Alastair had no hesitation at this point. In the endless night with Santa he’d already fought a troll, a banshee, a small pack of gremlins, and uncounted ghosts who seemed to take to the Christmas air the way Alastair himself took to darkness. He was beyond surprise.
Dispatching the zombies was quick work. It always was – the only real threat a zombie brought came in numbers, and three was too small for Alastair to even flinch. He drew a knife from one of the cargo pockets in his uniform and drove it into the forehead of the first zombie, pushing it in up to the hilt. The ghoul stumbled and twitched, and Alastair gave his knife a twist to be certain the damage was done. As the zombie fell to the ground, Alastair pulled his blade free and turned to repeat the process on the next zombie.
“Doin’ good, Al,” Binky said.
“Binky! Behind you!”
Binky turned at Alastair’s words, only barely missing the teeth of a fourth creature that had come from another room. The house was full of the beasts, Alastair said, and as he killed the third of them he realized he was in for a more substantial battle than he had experienced previously.
Binky pulled a gun from his pocket and held it up to the zombie that had stumbled out behind him. It made no sense – it was a toy gun, with orange plastic and a series of LED lights blinking along the casing. Even when he pulled the trigger, it was accompanied by a canned “ZAP!” noise that Alastair was certain thousands of toys over the years had emanated. But along with the fake sound effect, a glimmering spiral of light twirled from the barrel and into the zombie’s head. It zipped through its head, punching a hole between its eyes and bursting from the other side like a corkscrew. The creature fell back even as a crash came from upstairs.
“I’ve got this one,” Santa said, placing a finger aside of his nose. When Alastair had seen him do that previously, the three of them had all been whisked up into the fireplace. This time, only Santa vanished, but the swirl of glitter that accompanied his disappearance went not into the chimney, but down the hall and up a flight of stairs.
“What’s he doing?” Alastair asked.
“Taking care of someone who just went to the top of the naughty list.”
The ceiling cracked above them and Alastair pulled Binky back as it creaked and snapped, falling down into the room. The Christmas tree was knocked to the floor, a heavy piece of ceiling landing on it. On that piece, Santa Claus was still on his feet, holding up a tiny man with a white lab coat, wild eyes beneath a thick pair of glasses.
“If there are zombies,” Santa said, “You’ll usually find a cause. Evil sorcerer, alien invader…or this one. The good old-fashioned mad scientist.”
“Willing to ruin Christmas for the whole world just so you can have the bragging rights of saying you got Santa Claus, huh?” Binky leapt up into the man’s face. He kicked and flailed, but Santa shook him into submission. Binky grabbed the lapels of the lab coat and pulled himself up to look the man in the eye.
“Okay, Sparky, you’re going to tell me what you did with the family that lives here. And if you tell me they’re zombies, I’m shoving a holly branch so far up your you-know-what that you’re gonna convert to Judaism just so you never risk seeing me again!”
His hand shaking, the mad scientist pointed at the floor, then at a door across the room. Alastair opened the door up to reveal a flight of stairs heading downwards. “The cellar,” he said. He ran down to find five people tied up, their lips covered with duct tape, wailing. Two adults, three children…they matched the photographs in the living room upstairs. The smallest child, a little girl no more than seven years old, looked up at him with eyes turned to glass by tears.
“Children,” he hissed. “There were children.”
He didn’t remember bolting back into the room. He didn’t recall jerking the man in the lab coat from Santa’s grasp and shoving him against the wall. He barely remembered putting his hand around the man’s throat and pulling aside his shirt, revealing a pink, pulsating stretch of neck. He did recall later, though, the way he felt his fangs extend in the front of his mouth, and how badly he felt the thirst at that moment.
“You would endanger children. Terrify children just because you hate Santa Claus?” He pulled his lips up, his fangs exposed to the air. He saw their reflection in the man’s glasses. The man saw them too.
“No! Let me go! Put me down!”
Every part of Alastair wanted to rip this man’s throat out. It went beyond the thirst – this creature was vile, was despicable, deserved none of the comforts of light or family that humans were allowed to enjoy. And he was ready to end the man’s life, as he had so many before…until a gloved hand fell on his shoulder.
“You saw what he did, Santa,” Alastair said.
Santa said nothing.
Alastair put the man down.
“Already got the CPC on the phone, boss. They’ll be here to clean up in minutes.”
Altastair felt the rage subside, pushed down the urge to rend flesh with his own teeth, and looked at Santa. “The family?”
“They’ll be all right. The CPC has certain ‘techniques’ to make sure they won’t remember this, except perhaps as the Christmas the whole family had some bad dreams.”
“They’ll clean up the mess, too,” Binky said. “We should get going, boss. We’re behind schedule.”
“Are you certain you want to continue on, Alastair? You could stay here, rejoin the CPC now, if this has been too much.”
“I’m fine. Come on. Let’s go.”
“You did well here.”
Despite himself, Alastair felt a tiny well of pride at Santa’s praise. “You did well yourself. Makes me wonder why you even needed me.”
“Hey, the Big Guy can’t take care of everything,” Binky said. “Come on. Let’s go.”
* * *
There was no snow on the ground in Nebraska when Santa’s sleigh landed on the roof of the Pratt house, but as he had grown to expect, the snow appeared beneath the runners of the sled of its own accord. The house was large, but modest – not particularly ornate or fancy in and of itself. But the decorations! It was one of the most dazzling displays Alastair had seen since they left the North Pole, and they had quite literally seen them all. A thirty-foot Christmas tree made of an aluminum pole and strings of lights was the centerpiece. Surrounding it on all sides were inflatables, blow molds, wooden cutouts, animatronic figures, and every other conceivable permutation of Christmas decoration. And each and every one of them was in the shape of or paying homage to the man driving the sleigh.
“Gracious, Claus,” Alastair said. “This must be your biggest fan’s house.”
“It’s definitely in the top three. Come on.” He climbed from the sleigh and strode towards the chimney, Binky behind him. Alastair looked back at the sleigh, where Santa’s sack was still at rest.
“Wait! You forgot the presents!”
“No children at this home, Alastair,” Santa said. “I’m just here to pay a quick visit to a very old friend.”
The light of the decorations was so great that Alastair would almost have believed it was daytime, the brilliance of the sun somehow rising up from below rather than down from the sky. It was so bright, in fact, that he didn’t notice at first that a shadow had moved across the moon.
The first attack hit Alastair in the back, knocking him down to the rooftop and popping off his helmet, which rolled off the edge into a bush below. Someone grabbed at his collar, pulling it back and exposing his skin beneath. He felt a stabbing in his neck, one that felt horribly familiar, then it immediately retracted and a voice behind him began hacking and spitting.
“You’re one of us?” the voice shouted.
Alastair shoved himself backwards, flipping the person on his back away and onto the rooftop. He rolled and leapt at the same time, landing on his feet and looking down at the vampire beneath him. It was a young man – at least, he looked young, but such things were deceiving when it came to the Nosferatu – and he looked up at Alastair with black trickles of blood at the sides of his mouth. “What are you doing with him?” the vampire asked.
As answer, Alastair pulled a wooden stake from a cargo pouch. He moved faster than even the other vampire could react, leaping forward and driving it straight into his undead heart. They locked eyes for a minute, the younger one clawed at Alastair’s face, and he toppled over. It wasn’t like the movies, where he turned to dust and evaporated. Only one thing could do that, and on Santa Claus’s endless nighttime journey, sunlight was not a commodity they could rely upon.
He looked up to see that the vampire that landed on his back was not alone. Santa grappled with one, while Binky had pulled a toy bow and arrow from his pouch and was using it to fire wooden bolts into the hearts of a trio that had assaulted him.
“Santa, look out!” Alastair pulled another stake and jumped, driving it into the vampire that was on top of Santa Claus. As it fell away, another came from the sky, hacking at the fat man.
“We knew you’d be here, Claus,” she hissed at him. “Didn’t know that you’d have a human-lover with you. Why are you helping this old fool? You should be with us.”
Should he? They were in Nebraska now. Could they get him where he needed to go before the sun rose? It wasn’t impossible. He wasn’t sure what time it technically was here, but vampires could travel quickly. And if they couldn’t, they must have somewhere to hide during the daytime. It could work. It could–
She turned to Santa, her mouth open, and bent towards his neck. Alastair didn’t even hesitate to send his next stake right into her back. When she rolled off, shrieking at him, he pulled it out and sent it through the front of her body, right into her heart.
Santa looked at Alastair, grinning. “Nice list,” he said.
Alastair looked around – a half-dozen vampires all lay dead at their feet, but there were at least as many still crawling across the rooftop, charging towards them. In the sky, black shapes seemed to indicate even more were coming. For a moment, he felt a pang of regret. He hadn’t taken this job out of any sort of affection, but the idea of Santa Claus perishing in such a way was horrible. He wished he could do something else. He wished he had been better prepared. He wished–
A pair of massive hands jammed his helmet back on his head and shoved him into the sled. “Get down!” boomed a voice the size of a mountain, and Alastair did. He covered his head with his black-clad arms, and couldn’t see any of what happened next, but the sounds made it easy for him to imagine what was going on. There was an electrical sound, like a generator roaring to life. Afterwards, shrieks, then sizzles. Those lasted a while – probably not as long as it seemed, but like everything else this night it seemed as though it went on for a very long time.
Then the generator died, the big hands patted him on the shoulder. “You can look up now, my friend,” said a voice that was terribly old, but somehow, still gentle and kind. He looked up to see an enormous man, one of the tallest people he’d ever seen in his interminable life, smiling down at him.
“I’m prepared for every eventuality,” he said. “Solar lights. They replicate the UV rays of the sun, which apparently is the wavelength that proves cataclysmic to your kind.”
He was right. The vampires were gone from the roof, even the ones he and Binky had staked before their new friend had turned on the UV lights. In their places were piles of dust, each of which was slowly being eroded by the wind.
“Who are you?” Alastair asked.
“James Pratt, at your service.” He held out a hand and Alastair took it, trying very hard not to notice the intricate scars that traced his wrist, so similar to the ones across his face. They were stitches, Alastair realized. Very old stitches, but stitches indeed were what held Mr. James Pratt of Bellevue, Nebraska in one piece. His skin was a strange color, somewhere between light green and gray, with a texture that seemed to indicate death itself had long since gripped this man. There were no bolts on the side of his neck (any why would there be, Alastair knew such things were a conjuration of the movies), and the Santa hat upon his head prevented him from seeing the exact shape of his skull, but there was no mistaking just whose home they were visiting here, over two hundred years since his creation.
“You’re very welcome,” Pratt said.
Pratt ushered them into his home where he and Santa Claus each raised a glass of milk and toasted one another. In his life Alastair had seen all manner of creatures, all sorts of monsters. He had seen humans killed in brutal ways, creatures from realms undreamt of by humanity, the horrible emptiness of the void itself. Nothing compared to the sight of Santa Claus sharing a glass of milk with the kindly giant of Bellevue.
He held his tongue until Pratt had returned to his bed and the three of them returned to the sleigh. “Santa,” Alastair said, “That was…I mean – was that who I think it was?”
“That was my friend James Pratt,” Santa Claus said. “A good man who enjoys the company of the few people in this world older than he is.”
“A man who made mistakes in his past, and wishes to leave his past behind him. You understand that, don’t you Alastair?”
The way he punctuated his name made Alastair clamp his mouth shut. What was he saying? Did he know?
Of course he knew, he was Santa Claus, you don’t keep a secret from Santa Claus.
But if he knew, why hadn’t he said anything before now?
The question weighed on his mind as they lifted into the sky, leaving James Pratt of Bellevue, Nebraska in Alastair’s past.
* * *
California, at last. And northern California at that. His goal was a city called Redding, but he tried to decide if it would be wise to abandon the sleigh while they were there. It would be too obvious to look there. Perhaps he should wait – let Claus take him further south and backtrack. Would Sacramento be too far?
The sleigh landed on a rooftop and the now-familiar explosion of snow appeared beneath them. Binky and Santa exchanged a look, and Santa nodded.
“As always, Santa.” For now. But not, he knew, for much longer. With a wave of Santa’s hand, the chimney appeared on the roof of a home that normally had none, and the three of them whipped downwards.
The room was dim, dimmer than most. Most of the homes they had visited had some form of decoration – a tree, of course, or lights, or candles. Very few had been totally dark, but this one was close. The tree was a small one, less than 18 inches, sitting atop a kitchen counter. Beneath it, dangling from the counter were a series of Christmas cards: photographs of children, greetings for the new year. Next to them, a series of what looked like get-well cards.
There were photographs as well, and even in the darkness, he could see them. There were families there – dozens of smiling people, and in one frame they stood around an elderly woman with bright eyes.
“Where are we?” he said.
“Your last stop,” Santa said.
“Last stop? What about the rest of the state? What about Alaska and Hawaii? What about–”
“Your last stop, Al.” Santa pointed at the photos, and Alastair’s eyes traced them. They showed the same family in various permutations. Different groups of children with their spouses and their own children…even grandchildren. Many of them had the same eyes as the old woman in the first photograph.
“Whose home is this?” Alastair asked. “There aren’t any children here. I don’t see any stockings or toys or–”
He saw the picture on the mantle, a photograph of a young girl decades past. A girl with brown hair and brown eyes, those same eyes that looked out at him from the elderly woman in the other photos. In this one, she lay with her head against the chest of a man who looked to be in his thirties, smiling, beaming down at her. Alastair knew the face. Except for the smile, it was a face he carried with him every day.
“It was hard, wasn’t it, Allen?”
“What did you call me?”
“I’m not the CPC. Allen Bernard. Originally of Corpus Cristi, Texas. Married. One child. Always on the good list. Until 1956, when…well. You know what happened.” His eyes fell on Al’s neck, and the vampire felt his own hands tracing the spot where a pair of fangs had ended his mortal life decades ago.
“It was hard, wasn’t it?” Santa said again.
“Leaving them. Leaving your girls, leaving them behind.”
“I had to. Santa, I couldn’t control myself. I needed to drink, and they–”
“Were too convenient. You needed to learn control.” Santa smiled, a mixture of sadness and understanding. “You’ve learned, Allen.”
“Do you mean to tell me that this…this house…”
“Her name isn’t Bernard anymore. It hasn’t been for decades. But her first name hasn’t changed.”
Vampires didn’t cry. It was something he had learned somewhat early, something about the tear ducts no longer functioning in the bodies of the dead. But Allen felt a heaving in his chest that hadn’t been there for years. “She’s sick, isn’t she?” he said. Santa nodded. “I could feel it. I knew. I had to–”
“Had to find some way out before it was too late. I know.” He looked over at Binky. “Ready?”
“But what about the CPC?”
“Oh, we’ll let them know what happened. How you valiantly gave your life in defense of the personification of Christmas. Your slate will be wiped clean.”
“Do you think they’ll believe that?”
He beamed, and this time the smile was full of nothing but light.
“They believe it every year, Allen.”
Binky put a small package wrapped in tissue paper into Allen’s hands. “Here ya go, Allen.”
Shaking, the vampire looked at the elf.
“Call me Al,” he said.
Santa raised his finger to his nose, and they were gone.
The man who was once Allen Bernard (and now was again) tore away the tissue paper to reveal a simple doll, one made of rags, lovingly stitched. It was exactly the way he remembered it, each scrap and stitch like the one his wife had put into the doll she made over 70 years ago. He was one of the undead, but as he walked down the hallway into the bedroom of a sleeping old woman, he was shaking.
“Francis?” he whispered. “Francis?”
In her sleep, the woman turned over. Her eyes fluttered and her hand reached out. He took it. It was old, liver spots along the back of it, wrinkled with the toil and memory of a lifetime she had gone through without him. He held the hand as he had so long ago and kneeled by the bed, tucking the doll under her arm and peering at her beautiful face..
Without opening her eyes, the woman in the bed whispered at him. “Is that you?” she asked.
“It’s me, baby,” he said. “It’s me. Daddy’s home.”
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Special thanks to Lew Beitz and Amber Foret for help beta reading and copy editing this year’s story. That’s how you get on the nice list, folks.
2017 was, in many ways, the roughest year of my life.
I went through two life-changing events within ten days of each other: the loss of my mother, and learning that I was going to be a father. Either of these things can turn your life upside-down. Both of them happening on top of each other threw me into an emotional spiral that took me quite some time to get out of. In some ways, I still haven’t — and probably never will.
When Christmas came that year, I struggled with writing my annual Christmas short story. I wasn’t even entirely certain I had it in me. Then, against all my better judgment, I decided instead to tackle an idea I’d had percolating for years: a 12-month experiment in storytelling in which Santa Claus would, once a month, come face to face with the Icons of the other holidays on the calendar. It’s a strange story, and one I look back on now and realize I used to work out a lot of things I was dealing with. And I serialized each chapter here, on my blog.
As Christmas 2022 approaches, I’m going to spotlight some of my older holiday-themed works, and so I’ve put together a little PDF of this story. This is the story as it appeared between Christmas Eve 2017 and New Year’s Eve 2018, complete and with only minor edits. If I ever decide to do an “official” publication, there will no doubt be more substantial edits, but I present it to you here as a sort of time capsule of the only sustained writing I managed to do during the most tumultuous period of my entire life. I hope you enjoy it.
If you have a minute, I’d like to explain to you the hard thing about writing.
The hard thing about writing is not, as so many non-writers often assume, coming up with ideas. Ideas are easy. Ideas crop up like acne, shower you like a late summer rainfall in Louisiana, burst from your mind like a field full of dandelions. They’re not all great ideas, admittedly, but they’re not all terrible either. The bulk of them lie in that vast gulf in-between, an area of ideas which have potential, if only you have the time and inclination to pick out the best and cultivate them into something. Sometimes you have so many that you simply can’t figure out which one deserves your care and attention at the time. In those periods where I have been unproductive as a writer, this has sometimes been the culprit. I have no evidence, but if a writer came up with the term, I’m certain the phrase “a dime a dozen” was coined in reference to coming up with ideas.
So coming up with an idea is not the hard part. Nor is writing the first draft. Well…relatively speaking, anyway. Writing a first draft IS hard. Looking at a blank page, as so many writers before me have observed, is intimidating as hell. The blank page is a vacuum demanding to be filled, and you’ve got to conquer your own demons of insecurity and self-doubt long enough to produce something to fill it. The blank page is an enemy that must be conquered, but sometimes you’re Rocky and sometimes you’re Apollo Creed. (In the first movie, that is. On good days, it’s more like Rocky II, and sometimes you’re Rocky and sometimes you’re Apollo Creed.)
So writing a first draft is hard, but it’s not THE hard part. Nor is the revision process. Compared to a first draft, revision is easy. It’s taking what’s already there and making something out of it. First drafts are taking a chunk of marble and chipping it away into something recognizable. Revision is taking that chunk and polishing it, sanding it, and doing the detail work. It’s still work, but it’s not as exhausting or terrifying as the chipping away part, where at any moment you’re afraid you’re going to break it in the wrong place or crack what you’ve been chiseling for hours, days, weeks, and ruining the whole thing. It’s also, in my experience anyway, less susceptible to being abandoned than that chunk of marble. Once you’ve gone this far it’s almost an insult NOT to go in and do the polishing work. Leaving it uncleaned is unthinkable. It’s a compulsion. It MUST be done.
The hard part of writing is the last part. Getting someone to read it.
There are thousands of books published every year. Millions of existing books fill the libraries and bookstores. Every single one of them is competition. How do I (and by “I”, I’m referring to all hypothetical writers in the world) convince you (and by “you,” I mean the person reading this with an Amazon tab open a page away) to read MY book?
Publishers are not necessarily the answer to this question. It’s true that they have greater resources than a self-publishing writer like myself, but it’s also true that they often decline to USE them. Except for celebrity writers or people who have already proven themselves capable of selling a million copies, publishers often simply slide the bulk of their authors into a pulsating mass of backlist, concentrating on that person on that reality show that was super popular last season and for some reason has decided they want to write a cookbook.
So most writers are left trying to find the audience on their own, and that is not easy. If anything, it’s become more difficult than ever.
“But Blake,” you say, oblivious to the fact that you’re talking out loud to your computer or your phone or perhaps to some stranger on the bus depending on where you are when you read this, “doesn’t the existence of the internet make it easier? There are more avenues than ever, more places to spread your message, more ways to get your voice out there.”
Well sure there are, absolutely. And those avenues exist for everyone. Which is exactly the problem. More ways to get your voice out there has led to an exponential increase in voices attempting to be heard. There are millions of voices shouting for attention now, millions of people with something to say, and millions of people deserving the chance to say it. But no reader can possibly find them ALL, there are just too many. How do you stand out in the crowd?
If you’ve read this far expecting me to reveal the answer, to pull the sheet back from the table with a flourish, putting the solution to this problem on display, I’m sorry to disappoint you. That’s not what I’m doing here. The reason I’m writing this is because I don’t KNOW what the answer is. Writing this is a little exercise in therapy for me, trying to explain my feelings on this problem, knowing full well I don’t have an answer.
In a way, I envy those writers who have no desire to publish. There are a great many of them out there, I know. I see them in writer’s groups on Facebook, on writing subreddits, in a thousand other places talking about their WIP (work in progress), their FIC (fiction – often fanfiction, actually), their MCs (main characters) and their thousand stories they’ve begun and abandoned as soon as the next one of those oh-so-ubiquitous IDEAS has clawed its way into their skulls. And for them, it’s OKAY if the work never goes any further than their hard drive. I know they exist, I share memes about them on Wednesdays. They’re happy, it seems, just to create and leave their creation in a bubble. I do not understand this mindset, but I envy it, because these people seem to be satisfied with their station in the literary universe.
For people like me, that’s not enough. I want other people to read my work. I want people to tell me what they think. I want to hear from strangers about what I’ve done, I want to know that somebody enjoyed what I’ve been bleeding into my keyboard all these months. I don’t need to change the world. I don’t need someone to tell me my books are their reason for living. I don’t want people to name their children after my characters (although if you do, I guarantee you that your little tot will be the only “Malefactory” in their grade). I just want to know someone liked it.
This is why writers plead with you for reviews and shares. The websites that sell books (mostly Amazon, but they’re not the only one) all use one of those funky fresh “algorithm” things to decide what gets promoted and, similar to the publishers I mentioned before, they give more weight to those writers who are already popular and need less help. Getting sales, obviously, boosts your presence in the algorithm. But so does getting reviews. When a writer asks you to go on Amazon and review their work, it’s not because we desperately need that ego boost of someone telling the world we’re the reincarnation of Hemingway, it’s because we know that if you DON’T do it, no one else will hear about our work AT ALL.
So if you really like a book, if you really enjoy the story that some poor writer has spent countless hours carving out of a block of solid marble, the absolute best thing you can do is go online (Amazon or wherever you bought it, or even both) and write just a few quick sentences telling the rest of the world that you thought it was good. The second best thing is to buy several thousand copies, but most of us will settle for the first one. If you’ve got the time – and here in the U.S. it’s Labor Day, so I know a lot of you have the day off – pick up those last two or three books you really enjoyed, cruise over to Amazon, and leave a review.
Your favorite writer will thank you.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Reviews welcome.
July 15, 2021. It is a date destined to go down as one of the most incredible days in the history of world literature. It is the day I first unveiled OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS to the world. That’s right – one year of Andi Vargas, Tony Gardner, and Shooting Star. A year of reconnecting with old friends from Siegel City and meeting many new ones. A year of adventure, surprises, mysteries, questions answered, and still more questions raised. A whole-ass year of fun. And with this anniversary, I’m here to ask you guys for a little bit of help.
Bear with me, I’ll get to it.
OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS is a serial adventure, with a new chapter appearing every Wednesday. It is set in the world of my novels OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES and THE PYRITE WAR (as well as numerous short stories), and it incorporates characters and elements from those earlier works, but it stands alone for people who haven’t read the other stuff as well. It is, of course, still a work in progress, but it’s been a remarkable year in the lives of Andi Vargas and her friends. A year ago, Andi was a normal girl whose mother happened to be one of the most beloved superheroes in Siegel City. A year ago, nobody KNEW her mother was one of those heroes, but as readers know, that’s what kicked off the story. A year ago, she could still pretend to be “normal.” A year ago, she didn’t know that she would travel through time. A year ago, she had never been to outer space. A year ago, none of our heroes knew that ghosts were real.
Interestingly, these elements of the story are all things that were planned from the very beginning. But other things – things that may shock you – were not. Keriyon Hall didn’t exist a year ago, not even in my imagination, and if I’m going to be honest with you, he’s become my favorite character in the story. (The same thing happened with Sheila Reynolds in the original OPH – she makes a cameo in LITTLE STARS, and it was fun to see her again.) The Rubies of Byrel didn’t exit either. Nor did Daystalker. But these were characters and elements I discovered along the way and, as is always the case when you’re writing a good story, you learn that these things were really there all along, but the silly writer just hadn’t unearthed them yet. Other things have not gone the way I expected – Blip, for instance, was originally expected to play a much bigger role in the story than he has turned out to have – but that’s okay too. You need to follow the story the way it unfolds.
So here, on what is kind of the birthday for Andi and Tony and Lita and Draugr, I’m going to ask you guys to give them a present. Y’see, I’ve still got a ways to go before this story reaches its conclusion, and I’ve always believed the more the merrier. I would like to have more people following along with this story – but that’s not going to happen if they don’t know about it. So first of all, if you know people who like superheroes or coming-of-age stories or long, sprawling epics, tell them about it!
But that’s not all. LITTLE STARS is (currently at least) exclusive to Kindle Vella, which means that the Amazon Algorithm gets to decide how many people can stumble across it. And for that to happen, it needs reviews on Amazon. Even a quick one, even one sentence would be ENORMOUSLY helpful and boost the story’s profile. And while you’re at it, go back and make sure you’ve hit the “thumbs-up” button at the end of each chapter you’ve read. (Honestly, I’m not sure how those work with Amazon’s algorithm, but they sure as hell can’t hurt.)
And if you happen to be someone with a blog or a podcast or one of those Ticky Tocky things the kids like so much and wouldn’t mind giving a review to a larger audience, that would be pretty swell. Please, let me know about it if you do.
Finally, if you have absolutely NO idea what I’m talking about…well, you’re in the majority. If you haven’t read any of OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS, head over to Amazon and check it out. The first three chapters are always free, and each subsequent chapter costs literally pennies (between 30 and 40, depending on how long that particular chapter is). Then once you’ve met Andi and her friends, hopefully you’ll want to stick around and see where they wind up.
Shoot, I’M still anxious to see where they wind up.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. You know. In case he hadn’t made that abundantly clear.
There is a school of thought that says writers (fiction writers, at least) fall into two categories: the architects and the gardeners. The architects must plan everything meticulously. Every plot point, every character beat, every theme and turn must be prepared and calculated ahead of time, and when the actual writing starts all that’s left to do is the installation. The gardeners, on the other hand, don’t plan much more than where they’re planting the seeds and what they hope to reap from the crop in the end. Gardeners tend to the ideas like flowers or vegetables, nurturing them, coaxing them out of the ground, but often not actually knowing exactly what the final garden will look like. Plants are alive, you see, and difficult to conquer. It’s better to simply help them find their most beautiful form.
I’m a gardener. I tend to start with a concept (what if a reporter found out that the superheroes he wrote about were frauds?) or an idea that won’t get out of my head (there’s a little bald guy in my closet holding an ice pick and I don’t know who he is but he is FREAKING ME OUT). I’ll add in some characters I find interesting, and I’ll think about where the characters and the concept might end up if I put them together. And then I start.
Now to be fair, very often the answer to where they might end up is “nowhere.” Sometimes the combination doesn’t work, the marriage doesn’t last, and I end up with yet another orphaned story opening. (So many orphans. I’m really quite ashamed of myself. Lucien from Neil Gaiman’s Sandman could have an entire damn wing of his library devoted to me.) But when it DOES work, and it DOES come together, this storytelling alchemy frequently brings me to a place that leaves me unable to imagine it any other way.
This feeling is at its most powerful when I hit a point I refer to as “Screw it, let’s see what happens.” You see, sometimes it feels like something in a story is not right, like a character is fighting against your plan, like you’re trying to find flimsy justifications to make them do something (or stop them from doing something) that they don’t want. And often, it turns out the reason for this is because the characters are smarter than you are and realize that your plan is actually wrong, and you should just let them do what they so clearly want to do, and figure out how it’s all supposed to fit together later. That’s when, as a writer, you should say, “Screw it, let’s see what happens.” And damn if that can’t be great.
I’m going to give an example that spoils several of the more recent chapters of Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, so if you’re not up to date, you may want to go catch up and come back. (I mean, you should do that anyway. It’s a good time.)
When I started the Meta-Crisis arc, you may notice that Keriyon Hall does not appear at first. In fact, he hadn’t appeared for quite some time, which was making me sad because he’s become one of my favorite characters in the story (even though he wasn’t in the original outline – he’s that flower that you didn’t actually plant in your garden but that turns out to be the loveliest one). So I thought, “Well, the crisis is affecting the entire city. I should just check in on him and see how he’s dealing with it.”
As it turned out, the way he was dealing with it was trying to figure out what Andi and Tony would do in his situation, and do that same thing. Which was perfect, it’s exactly the way Keriyon thinks, but that led me to a problem. He was SO good at predicting what Andi and Tony would do that he wound up arriving at the same hideout as they did, even though he wasn’t supposed to be there.
Well, screw it. Let’s see what happens.
And as he’s there and starts to meet some of the other characters in the story, I realize that Andi is having a very difficult time talking to Keriyon, because she’s dancing around the fact that Keriyon didn’t know about Tony and Vic’s powers. And while they were dancing, Andi kind of informed me that she likes Keriyon, she trusts Keriyon, and considering all the crazy shit that was happening all around them, keeping her friends’ powers a secret wasn’t even ON her list of priorities, let alone at the top.
Screw it. Let’s see what happens.
So she told him the truth and Keriyon, being the unshakably loyal and positive person that he is, not only took it in stride, but decided to gear up and join them on the quest. And when we got to the end of the arc, and the “Young LightCorps” was revealed to the world, all of a sudden Keriyon Hall was in the picture with them. A character who was never supposed to be th– no, wait, that’s not right. He was never intended to be there. But he was most certainly supposed to be there.The stuff I’ve written since then (that you haven’t read yet) has convinced me of that.
“Screw it, let’s see what happens” is recommended by eight out of nine muses. Ask Oneiros if “Screw it, let’s see what happens” is right for you.
Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. If you haven’t read it yet… well, you’ve got no one to blame but yourself for the spoilers.
Can I just, though, for a minute?
A couple of years ago I had an idea for a story. And I took some notes and I puttered around on it a little, but ultimately it went nowhere. The thing is, it wasn’t an idea for a novel. It was… bigger than that. It was a very longform yarn (I hesitate to use the word “epic” because it kind of sounds pretentious, but in terms of length I can’t think of a better word to describe it), one larger in scope than a single novel. It wouldn’t really work as a SERIES of novels either, though, because the story contains dozens of arcs and episodes: some long, some short, some standalone, some interconnected. It includes a large cast of characters that would grow and develop and learn and change over time. If anything it felt like this was a project best suited either to the kind of storytelling we see in television or comic books — connected episodes, each a part of a whole, but with flexibility and a rhythm that novels don’t really have.
Now I don’t know anyone who owns a TV studio, and even if I did, I know enough about the industry to know that even if there WERE somebody interested in my story, I’d lose control over it almost immediately.
Comic books would have been perfect — this WAS the next installment in my superhero universe that began in the novel Other People’s Heroes, after all — but I don’t have a publisher, nor do I have the money to hire an artist to work with me. And I especially don’t have the skill to draw it myself.
So for these reasons (plus, if I’m being entirely honest, I don’t think I was in the proper mental state to really devote to this story at the time), it was put on the back burner. Now guys, my back burner is CROWDED. There are a LOT of stories there — books, short stories, scripts, comic book ideas — all sitting and spilling into each other and getting moldy. And I feel guilty every time I put something else there, because I fear in my heart it will never leave.
Then this spring, Amazon announced its Kindle Vella platform — a service via which writers could publish a story one. Short. Episode. At. A. Time.
For the first time in ages, I went to the back burner and took something off, bringing it back to the front.
I’ve been working on OTHER PEOPLE’S HEROES: LITTLE STARS since then. It launched in July, and except for a Hurricane Ida-caused blackout in September, I’ve posted a new episode every Wednesday.
As of today, I’m about 80,000 words into the story, and I’m not close to finished. For comparison, the original OPH novel clocks in around 90,000 words. This is the point where a novel is ramping up to the conclusion. In LITTLE STARS, today my main characters have just discovered their FIRST clue as to what is REALLY going on.
And my goodness, it feels phenomenal.
I’m not saying this just because I hope you’re reading it (although I very much DO hope you’re reading it). I’m saying it because it’s been a long time since I had a fire under me when it came to writing. And for that long time it was like there was a hole in my life. There was something missing, something I had lost. I feel like I’ve got my hooks in it again. I feel like I’m reeling in something special.
Everyone ought to feel that way, don’t you think?
Hey, all — a quick update. I certainly haven’t forgotten my vow to fill you all in on the tumultuous week of Eddie’s birth, and I’ve got every intention of talking about the ups and downs of parenting (for example, the fact that a loose nipple wound up soaking both the baby and myself in formula at 3 in the morning today.) However, as anyone who has ever had a newborn can certainly attest, those first weeks are draining. Erin and I have been about as tired as we’ve ever been, and even now that Eddie is sleeping a bit better overnight (a bit, I stress), between taking care of him and keeping up with the day job, I’ve been too pooped to pontificate lately. Fingers crossed that this will change soon, because heaven knows I’ve got an awful lot to talk about. In the meantime, all is well.
Longtime readers of mine know that I’m a big fan of NaNoWriMo, alias National Novel Writing Month, which is held every November. The challenge, for those who choose to accept it, is to write an entire 50,000-word novel between November 1 and November 30. I have participated many times, and all but once I made the 50K mark in time. Unfortunately, several of those attempts fizzled out after the 50K mark and the stories never wrapped, but you can still see some of my November efforts in print. My novels The Pyrite War and Opening Night of the Dead, as well as the title story in my holiday anthology A Long November and Other Tales of Christmas all began life as NaNoWriMo projects.
I know some people — some writers whom I have great admiration for — are very down on the concept of NaNoWriMo. They see it as a crutch, and they think people truly dedicated to the craft of writing should do so without it. While I respect their opinions, I must disagree. I’ve always found NaNoWriMo to be an excellent motivator, a chance to force yourself to action, secure in the knowledge that thousands of others are doing the same. To me, that somehow removes a little of the existential terror that comes with staring at the blank page. Just knowing you aren’t alone makes it better.
This year, however, I have a confession to make. I will not be participating in NaNoWriMo in the traditional sense. While I still believe in it, this year I find myself without a new project ready to work on. I don’t have any ideas fully formed enough to begin work at the stroke of midnight, as I have done so many times. What’s more, I’ve got several other projects in various stages of completion, and it seems almost unfaithful of me to start something new while these other things flounder.
So while I will not be kicking off a new project at 12 a.m., I will be using November to write. Actually, I’ll be using it to edit at first. Tomorrow I’m going to dive into the novel I began last year for NaNoWriMo, a work that I was immensely proud of, but that fell by the wayside as I did rewrites for my play The 3-D Radio Show (and special bonus cool points for those of you who saw those performances last spring) and that I never got around to finishing. And seeing as how that book is intended as the first in a trilogy, it really seems to me that I should get off my ass and get back to it.
Those of you who are doing NaNoWriMo this year, more power to you. I’ll be sending out all the moral support I can. As for me, I’ll be diving back into the adventures of Jenna, Ellie, Reggie, Colm, and their many-limbed friend as they try desperately to find something that belongs to them anyway. It’s an interesting story. It’s surprised me several times so far.
I hope I get to share it with you soon.
I’ll be back early next week with a longer post talking about my experiences here in Sulphur for BayouCon 2016, but with one day left, I wanted to extend a warm welcome to the many fine folks I’ve talked to in the first two days.
I’ve sold some books, I’ve given out lots of bookmarks, and this afternoon I co-hosted a panel on world-building in a novel series along with horror author Alexander Brown. (I think that was some of the most fun I’ve had here — I talk about books and movies and TV shows all the time, but it’s rare that I actually get the chance to discuss my process and how I write.)
For those of you who got the address of this website from one of my bookmarks and want to know what I’m all about, here are the two most important links you can have. First, my Facebook Author’s Page. I update it frequently, any time I’ve got something worth sharing with people, from a new book to a new episode of my podcast. The other link is the Buy Blake’s Work page on this very site. This page features all of my work that is currently available, including all five of the books you saw on my table, plus lots of other stuff that’s only available in eBook format.
Enjoy the last day of the con on Sunday, come on over and say hello, and I’ll be back with more BayouCon thoughts next week.