You are invited to read Marcus of Abderus and the Inn at the Edge of the World, a fantasy adventure novel available at Barnes and Noble Online.

Thursday, December 6, 2007

The Other Side of Christmas

The Other Side of Christmas

A short story by Michael R. Lockridge

The elf keeping watch was old. Three hundred and ninety-seven Christmases. For most of them he had been down below. Working in materials, manufacturing, and packaging, shipping and receiving. Indoors work. Now, he had the honor of waiting for the Old Man. The wind took some of the pleasure out of that honor, but he held onto the pleasure he had felt when Santa himself asked him to keep the watch. Yes, cold or not, it was an honor.

“Been with me a long time.” The Old man had said. “You know the ropes. You also know how to keep a secret.” At first he had thought that it was secrets of manufacturing he meant. Only as he had time to think, out here in the cold, had old Wilkie recognized that it was something to do with Santa’s return that might require a secret to be kept.

Finally, he could see the sleigh and eight tiny reindeer. It was the most recent model, and handled well. Wilkie could recall several earlier models that were hard to control after the load had been delivered. Not this one. She was tracking beautifully.

In moments the sleigh was on the pad. The Old Man looked tired. Wilkie had never seen him right after the return. He certainly didn’t seem full of Christmas cheer. He looked like a worn and bitter old man. Wilkie had seen plenty of those in the years he did field work. Spreading Christmas cheer was a tough job.

The Old Man tossed Wilkie the reigns.

“Take it below, Wilkie. Have Tobbie and his crew move the bag to my room. I am going to have a bath and something to drink.” Said Santa. The Old Man moved away through the falling snow.

Wilkie checked the sleigh and reindeer. They appeared to be properly on the pad. He went to a control panel and pushed the “down” button. Soon the sleigh, the reindeer, and Wilkie were down below. The crew came forward and began the elaborate process of unhitching the reindeer and leading them away.

He waved to Tobbie, and pointed at the empty sack that had so recently held so many toys and other gifts. Tobbie nodded, and led his team of four elves to the sleigh. They seemed to be having quite a bit of trouble with the empty bag. Like something inside was struggling.

As he watched, he saw part of the bag extend itself suddenly toward one of the elves. He took a good blow to the chin, and went down.

“Wilkie!” Tobbie cried. “Get over here and lend a hand! We have to get this to the Old Man’s room! Quickly!”

Wilkie jumped in, and eventually the four of them were able to get the wriggling bag down the hallway and into the Old Man’s room.

Santa glanced quickly at Wilkie, then at Tobbie. There was a silent exchange between the Old Man and the elf. “Put it over there.” He finally said.

The elves moved their burden over to a large chair. The chair was festooned with chains and leather fasteners. They set their burden in the chair, and began working to keep it under control as they removed the bag.

What emerged shocked Wilkie. A young human woman! Still, he managed to do his part to get her strapped into the chair. Her voice was muffled by a gag, but Wilkie could tell that she did not wish them anything like Christmas cheer.

Once all of the straps and chains had been applied, the exhausted elves stepped back to regain their strength.

“Sorry, Boss.” Tobbie finally managed to say. “Jingles took a shot to the jaw, and went down. Wilkie was the only one nearby.”

Santa looked appraisingly at Wilkie. “It’s all right. He might as well be initiated right now, eh?”

Wilkie did not like the sly smile on Santa’s face. Not at all Christmas-like. Nor did he like the way his fellow elves had their hands in their pockets. What could they have in there?

Santa turned to the young lady.

“My dear child.” He said. He sounded his old, gentle self. “Christmas is ending. The season’s Christmas cheer is almost exhausted. It must be replenished. It will come from you.”

He stepped away, and had an awful gleam in his eye.

“You shall be this year’s Mrs. Claus.” He said. “Each year, I capture a new Mrs. Claus. Tomorrow night will be our wedding night. Willing or not, it makes no difference. Misery will be your lot for the year. I will come to you, every night. Every time will be a torment. With every drop of your personal misery Christmas cheer will be renewed, ten times over.”

“Every time I come to you will make you older. By next Christmas you will be very old, indeed. By the time I next take to the sky, you shall be dead.”

The terror in her young eyes was exquisite. Santa was satisfied. She had been a good choice.

He then turned to Wilkie. His look was not unkind, but it was firmly resolved. The other elves kept their hands in their pockets.

“Well, Wilkie. Now you know the secret of Christmas. The joys of Christmas are built on the misery of an unwilling sacrifice. One like this mothered each of you. Every elf. Now, Wilkie, I need to ask you. Are you one of us?”

He looked at the Old Man. He looked at the menace of the other elves, with their hidden hands. He looked at the young woman, chained to the chair. He thought on Christmas’ past, and the joys of the season. A season spoiled for him, but still precious for the world.

“Yes, Old Man.” He said, and swallowed hard. “Yes, I am one of you.”

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