Wednesday, December 23, 2015

28 Xmas Stories 26: He didn't know it, but the clock had just ticked over.

Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer Falls In Love On Xmas Eve, 4:

“Envelope?” Rudolph almost reached towards his coat pocket where he’d put Chad’s gift. But he paused his hand.

“Envelope,” the man – it had to be a man, right? – said. Rudolph squinted into the gloom as the voice went on: “Nobody gets in without one.”

“In?” Rudolph asked. He didn’t want to sound bewildered but, he reminded himself, that was actually a pretty natural thing to be feeling right now.

From behind him he heard what sounded like Chad asking the barber something in a loud voice. He didn’t know why they were running from Chad. But he knew that they were, and he didn’t have any better ideas.

“I’ve got an envelope,” he said tentatively.

A spotlight came on in the middle of the room, which turned out to be a sort of dome-shaped area with several tunnels leading off it. Rudolph stepped forward as the man – it was a man, he realized, with more relief than he should have had.  What had he thought it was? The events of the last ten minutes or so had rattled him. Had it only been ten minutes? He was halfway across the middle of the room and the man was only a few steps from him. Rudolph reached into his pocket and took out the envelope Chad had given him.  His eyes fell on what Chad had written:

Seriously Do Not Open Until Xmas Eve Or The Magic Won’t Work

Rudolph hesitated, looked up at the man. There was a grin on the stranger’s face, a smile Rudolph didn’t like. Rudolph pulled back slightly.

“Well, do you want to get in or not?” the man asked, in a voice Rudolph didn’t like at all. Rudolph looked around again at the three tunnels leading away from this room. What was going on here?

“Where’d she go?” Rudolph asked suddenly.

“Where’d who go?” Chad’s voice boomed behind him. Rudolph looked over his shoulder and as he did so the man made a grab for the envelope. Rudolph pulled it away from him.

“Give it to me!” the man yelled. “It’s the only way you’ll get out of here!”

Behind Rudolph Chad started forward. “I knew I’d find you in here!” Chad bellowed.

Rudolph looked again at the man, at Chad, and started to hand the envelope over three things happened at once:

First, a woman’s voice yelled “Don’t give him that envelope!

Second, Rudolph had already started pulling the envelope back, having re-re-thought what he should do even before the woman spoke.

Third, the man lunged at the envelope just as Chad lunged at Rudolph and the two of them clanged into each other with a bump, just grazing Rudolph and spinning him around. He saw then the woman he’d run into on the street, standing in one of the tunnels, which was now lit with strings of lights leading down into the gloom. She was pulling at two men who had her by the arms, ineffectively, and she looked at Rudolph.  “Help me!” she said, as the men dragged her away.

Rudolph started after her just as Chad grabbed his arm.  Rudolph spun around before Chad could say anything, and swung his other hand wildly, clapping Chad a punch on the side of the head. It was probably more surprising than painful, but either way Chad dropped his arm and Rudolph turned around again to see that the woman was no longer visible, but the tunnel was still lit. He ran into it, hoping to stay ahead of Chad and the man.

About twenty seconds in, Rudolph realized he was not being followed. He slowed his sprint to a jog and glanced over his shoulder. Far back he could dimly see the now-small opening to the tunnel and the domed room. There was no sign of Chad or the man. He looked back ahead, still puffing onward, but saw nothing.  He slowed to a walk, tried to silence his breathing so he could listen. Even when he held his breath, he could not hear footsteps or the woman.  There had been no exits or doors or branches to the tunnel, though, so she must be up there. He wondered if he should call after her?

This whole thing is crazy, he thought to himself, but it never occurred to Rudolph that he should turn around and leave. Whatever was going on, he was in it, and whoever the woman was she obviously needed his help, and that was all Rudolph needed to know. He would keep after her until he figured out just why she was running and who had grabbed her and—

A woman appeared in front of him – a new one. She was dressed garishly, like a queen in a poorly-directed play, robes glistening with plasticky sequins and crinkling when she moved, her makeup almost clownish on her face, her eyebrows slightly crooked, her lips too red. Her eyes were set close together and she seemed almost cross-eyed. Rudolph felt like he knew her.

“You cannot pass unless you meet the challenge,” she said.

Rudolph had stopped, of course, and tried to peer beyond her. It seemed like the tunnel opened up a bit. He couldn’t see anyone. “Challenge?” he said. “Did you make the others do a challenge?”

“Others?” the woman asked. Her voice sounded as though she was doing an imitation of a person from Boston trying to do a British accent, and only partially succeeding.

“The woman, and the men, and …” Rudolph stopped because the woman held out her hands flat before him, palms up. “What are you doing?”

“Preparing the challenge,” the woman said. Her accent seemed to slip again and Rudolph peered at her more closely. The makeup was very heavy but he was certain he knew her. 

“What’s the challenge?” he asked.

“FLAME PAPER WATER,” she said, her voice sounding more imperious.

“Um, what?” Rudolph asked.

“It’s like paper-scissors-rock,” she said. “Only better. Flame burns paper, paper floats on water, water douses flame.” As she said their names, she held her hands to indicate how to throw the signs: fingers pointing upward and wiggling for flame, flat out for paper, and sprinkling downward for water.

“I … know you,” Rudolph said. “I’ve seen you somewhere before.”

“PREPARE!” the woman said. She held her hands up. Rudolph held up his hands.

“Wait,” he said. Chad, the woman he’d been running with. They worked in his office. And that man who wanted the envelope, he’d been at the Xmas party, hadn’t he? He looked up at the woman again. “You were doing karaoke!” he said, and she looked startled.

“No, I WASN’T,” she said, her accent slipping again. Rudolph heard footsteps behind him now. He looked over his shoulder as the woman said “PREPARE!” but Rudolph went on:

“And Chad and that woman were at the party, I know, and the envelope guy I think he works on three, down in Acquistions, I’m pretty sure I’ve seen him before, too.” The footsteps slowed and Rudolph looked again. Chad and Acquisitions, Rudolph was sure it was that guy, appeared in the dim reds and greens of the strings of lights hanging around the tunnel.  Rudolph shook his head. “Chad, was this all something you did? Is this like the Secret Santa thing? Some kind of prank?” Rudolph pulled the envelope out, and it glittered a bit in the dim glow.

When he did that, the woman roared “THE ENVELOPE!” and reached for it, startling Rudolph, who looked back at her. He saw that she had her hand up over her head, and she brought it down in a trickling motion, the sign for water. He was about to speak when a deluge of water poured over him, soaking him to the bone.  He was sputtering and gasping for air as he stared at her and then back at Chad and Acquisitions, who had been hit by some of the backsplash.

“What the…!” Rudolph fumed.  “That’s not even FUNNY, Chad. How am I supposed to get home all soaking wet and”

“THE ENVELOPE” the woman said again and Rudolph looked at her. This time her hands were making the flame sign and suddenly a ring of fire shot up around him. He pulled his arms into himself and felt the water soaking his clothes begin to steam from the heat.

“HEY!” he yelled, looking back towards Chad and Acquisitions.  “This isn’t funny! Someone could get hurt!” Both the men looked a little startled. 

“Give her the envelope!” Acquisitions yelled. “It’s the only way she’ll let you through! I tried to tell you.”

“Rudolph, DON’T,” Chad yelled. “I tried to catch you to tell you”

“THE ENVELOPE” the woman roared again, and this time made the sign for paper, and the flames died out, but hundreds if not thousands of paper envelopes began whirling around Rudolph and the tunnel, as though caught in a cyclone. He started back again and the woman lunged forward, reaching for his pocket where the envelope was stuck.  He pulled away from her and in doing so saw, just beyond her, the woman who’d led him here in the first place.

Come on!” she yelled, and Rudolph ducked the magician-woman and ran towards the other one.  He heard more roaring and water splashing after him and felt rivulets of water run down beyond his shoes.  He looked back over his shoulder as the woman grabbed his wrist and pulled him to the left, just as flames shot past them.  They were running down an offshoot of the tunnel, the woman leading him through the dark now, with only occasional splashes of light from something up above to give them any hope of seeing.  Footsteps echoed behind them.  Rudolph felt them turn once, twice, tried to keep track, felt the path curve, and realized he was hopelessly lost.  They ran on and on until he’d lost track of the time. 

Finally, they slowed to a walk.  Rudolph caught his breath, and said “What is…” but the woman put a finger to his lips. In the gloom he saw her shake her head: No.

They walked on more, and after a few minutes came to a splash of light.  Rudolph looked up and saw, far above, a streetlight through a sewer grate. A ladder led up.  The woman pointed up, leaned in to Rudolph, and said “up there we can talk.” She urged him to climb up, and when he motioned to her to go first, she shook her head. So he started up and looking back, saw her climbing up after.

It was about forty rungs to the top, and when he got there he pushed against the grate, felt it move slowly. He was able to climb out, into the cold air. He started shivering in his wet clothes, and turned down to pull the woman up.  The street appeared deserted, the buildings near them dark.

“What’s going on?” he said.

The woman looked around, trying to get her bearings. After a moment, she pointed and took his hand. “This way,” she said.  As they started walking, she said “Things have gone really weird. REALLY weird.”

“You don’t say,” Rudolph said. He was getting colder in his wet clothes. The woman shook her head again, and said “We’ve got to get you inside.” They walked faster, and as they did the woman said “Chad is my brother. I’m just here visiting for Xmas.  He said there was someone he wanted me to meet. He was going to set me up with this guy, I was supposed to come to his office party to meet him.”

“But then why did you run…” Rudolph began. The woman stopped and looked at a door to her right.

“In here,” she said.

Rudolph looked at the building. Like all the others on this street it was completely dark and looked abandoned. But as he watched, she pulled on a door and it opened.  She pulled him inside. It was some sort of hotel, he thought: the lobby, though dark, had a feeling of airiness and lofty heights. The dim light from the street and some windows meant his eyes had to adjust, but it was warmer in here.

“I ran because of the gypsy,” the woman said. 

“I…” Rudolph began, not sure what to make of this.

“I had some time today and so I went to this one fortune-teller in the Square. I just figured it’d be kind of fun, but she knew stuff, all kinds of stuff. And it wasn’t one of those things where I gave her the answers while she guessed. I sat down and before I even told her my name she was rattling off stuff about me, telling me where I’d gone to school and who I had crushed on then and about the time I tried pot which I’ve never told anyone, and then she said that if Chad got me, bad things would happen.”

“What? Chad? What?” Rudolph said, hardly able to process any of this.  The woman took his hand.

“So I’m sorry to involve you. I don’t know why I was even going down there. I suppose I didn’t have any better idea. But…”

Rudolph interrupted her. “This is the setup, isn’t it? I don’t know how that lady did that back there with the fire and the water and the envelopes, it was pretty impressive, but this is Chad’s idea of some big thing, isn’t it? This is where you’re going to tell me that I’m the guy you were going to meet…”

“I don’t know who I was going to meet. That’s the thing. Chad wouldn’t tell me his name and said he had a good reason not to”

Rudolph interrupted. “That’s GOT to be it. I don’t know why he went to such lengths but it’s got to be me.”

The woman looked at him. “Why? Why does my not knowing his name mean it has to be you?

Rudolph hesitated.

“What, is your name something weird or whatever?” the woman asked.

Rudolph looked down at the ground now.

“What is your name, anyway?” she asked.

Rudolph looked back up at her. If Chad had gone to these lengths, the sewer and the street magician and Acquisitions and all, then he must think the woman and Rudolph were a good match, right? So he wouldn’t tell her my name until I got to meet her and got to know her, and maybe then I wouldn’t be so shy around her… he began to think.

“Well?” she asked.

“It’s…” Rudolph hesitated, and then as he watched the woman was suddenly lifted straight up into the air, as the lights came on in the lobby and Rudolph saw Acquisitions and the magician-woman and a group of what could only be described as elves – and not nice-looking ones – surrounding him.

He didn’t know it, but the clock had just ticked over and it was 12:01 a.m., December 24th.


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