Saturday, December 05, 2015
Friday, December 04, 2015
The Robot Who Didn’t Believe In Santa Claus
There was this one robot once who didn’t believe in Santa Claus, about which you might say Big whoop I bet a lot of robots don’t believe in Santa Claus, or, if you are smarter even you might say I bet a lot of robots don’t believe, period because you would be thinking that robots, being cold bundles of electricity and chrome and diodes and sometimes spare parts, aren’t programmed to believe and that circuit boards can’t engage in the kind of faith-based speculation that belief entails.
But robots can believe things. It’s just that this particular robot did not happen to believe in this particular thing, Santa Claus.
It didn’t have any real reason for not believing in Santa Claus, but if this was pointed out to it the robot would say, in a metallic voice that still sounded a little condescending despite having zero inflection:
If there was a reason to not believe in something, then that would imply that there were reasons to believe in something.
if there is a reason to believe in a thing, that reason might be proven False,
if there is a reason to believe in a thing, that reason might be proven False,
the robot would then argue, using its logic circuits like a cudgel:
Anything that can be proven False might be also proven True, and anything that can be proven to be True might possibly exist, and if it might possibly exist then one should believe in it – because why would a logical being such as say a robot who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus
(it would add parenthetically)
deny the possible existence of something that is possible? If something is possible it is illogical not to believe that it might exist, so the only reason to not believe in something is if one has no reason for not believing in that thing.
By the time it finished that line of argument, which went on for much longer than I have laid down here, most people had tired of the robot and walked away.
Thursday, December 03, 2015
After about 20 minutes we were sure it was him. The top-hat was a dead giveaway, and the corncob pipe. He was sitting in the corner of the diner, at a booth, a magazine open in front of him and occasionally looking up at the Jets game on the TV. He was drinking hot chocolate, of all things, and didn’t seem to mind that each time he took a sip it melted his mouth away a bit, left him with broad ringed lips, like a clown. But a kind of down-on-his-heels clown whose brighter makeup was used up, leaving only the dingy part of the palette to work with.
At first nobody could get the nerve to talk to him. We said he obviously doesn’t want to be bothered or it’s rude to interrupt his meal or it’s probably not really him anyway when obviously it was, until finally Donna stood up – Donna was always the kind of person who chose Dare and then would go beyond what you dared her to do, that was what we liked about her – and walked right over there.
She stopped by his table, and then stepped forward just a bit. He didn’t look up until she said:
“You’re Frosty, right?”
With that, the snowman looked up and we were sure it was him: button nose, two eyes made out of coal, the whole thing. It was definitely him. There was never any mistaking him for some other snowman.
“Yes,” he said softly. “Yes, I am.”
Well, I don’t have to tell you that his voice came as a shock to us. I mean, we were TV kids, we all knew what Frosty sounded like. He had a booming voice, a twinkle in his eye, a large smile. He was a snowman of big gestures, marching bands, rooty toot toot and rummy tum tums.
Not this sad quiet guy who gave a quick forlorn glance at the TV again as the Jets gave up yet another touchdown.
“Wow…” said Donna and even though she didn’t mean it that way we all felt it: the disappointment just seeped out of her. We were all back at the table and wishing she hadn’t gone over there, that we wouldn’t have seen him this way, and also that he wouldn’t have seen the effect he had on us.
“Yeah, you’re right,” Frosty said, even more quietly. “You’re right to feel that.”
“I didn’t…” Donna said but Frosty waved a stumpy arm brusquely at her.
“You did. I know. I know. I’m not surprised by it anymore.”
“I…” but Donna didn’t know what to say. Frosty looked up at her again in the silence, and then said:
“It was all an act.”
“Huh?” Donna said.
“An act. A show. A put-on. A jive.” Frosty seemed a bit more animated now. “It was all for showbiz, all for the kids, for Xmas, for Santa, for everyone. The whole thing: marching all around the town, running here and there around the square, thumpety thump thump thumpety thump thump.” He paused and took a long swig of the hot chocolate, looked up with despair in his eyes. “I mean, I’m not even a Xmas thing.”
Donna looked back at us, helplessly. We all looked at each other, then a few of us got up and went and stood by her. Frosty passed his implacable dark coal eyes, somehow watery and sad, over each of us in turn. “But it worked,” he said. “It worked, for a long while.”
He didn’t seem to mind us there as much, so we sat down, three of us across from him in the booth, while the other two drifted over and sat on stools at the counter looking at him. It was halftime. Frosty caught the waitress’ eye and motioned towards his mug. She brought him over some more cocoa, filled it up. He put his mittened hand on her arm.
“Leave the marshmallows,” he said. She shrugged, setting the bag of minimallows on the table. Frosty made a show of putting a bunch of them in, piling them up like a little mound of snowballs. Everything got quiet as we watched the marshmallows slowly dissolve.
“I had to do it,” he said. Then, louder: “I had to do it.”
“Do what?” Shelley asked.
“The whole thing. I had to force my way into Xmas, become a big star, get people singing and dancing about me, get them hanging up signs of me, talking about me, telling more stories about me. I had to get kids to make versions of me in yards and beg their parents to buy a corncob pipe so they could have their own Frosty. I had to wedge myself into Xmas the same way all the others did, and for the same reason.”
A brief fanfare of trumpets from the TV announced that there would be a sale on cars for the next three days at a local dealership. A weatherman came on promising clear skies until the weekend, when we might get some snow. Frosty shook his head. “More snow,” he said. “More snowmen. They’ll all have the dream.”
Later on we would decide that we were starting to get it even before he looked up and said:
“I mean, do you have any idea how hard it is to stay alive? Of course you don’t. You were born alive. You don’t have to wait until a hat falls on your head, or someone makes up a song about how your nose glows, or an uncle gives you to his niece on Xmas Eve, or any of that. You get to come into this world and just live in it, without ever giving a thought from one minute to the next about what might happen if people stop noticing you.”
“So you mean…” Pete said. Frosty interrupted him, too. He was ready to talk and he wasn’t going to be stopped.
“You know what I mean. Us, we, me, Rudolph, Ralphie, Tiny Tim, the entire Peanuts gang: you just bring us to life one day on a whim and then here we are, and life is so wonderful and so sudden that we can’t let go of it – but we can’t hold on to it, either. We exist only because you think we exist… and we exist only so long as you think we exist.”
The marshmallows were fully dissolved into his cup, now. He picked it up and looked into it, watching the little white swirls go around.
“So that’s why I had to do it,” he said finally. He took another sip of the cocoa. “That’s why I had to become a legend. I came to life one day, and loved it, and played with the kids, and kept going until I heard them holler stop, and then suddenly, it was over… or so I thought, as I was fading away. That was short, I thought, but before things got too sad I just… didn’t exist.”
We all waited until he went on, with what we knew was coming next.
“Until the next year, when I came back. That’s when I realized how it worked. That’s when most of us realize it: if we come back. The first time it’s too new, so the second time we start thinking more about it. If we come back. Not all of us do. Everything gets one shot at it, at least. Everything anyone dreams up: unicorns, giants, princesses, giant squid, Santa, Thor… everything gets one shot. If they make enough of a mark they’ll come back. If they dig in deep enough into your psyches, they’re around for a good long time. And most of us realized the best way to get in there was Xmas. Everyone LOVES Xmas. You can put red and green bows and a bell on anything and you people will buy it.”
Donna, who was wearing a red-and-green sweater with tiny bells on it, blushed a little.
“So that’s why I did it. That second time around I knew that being a winter thing wasn’t enough. All those snowmen out there, coming to life and stumbling around in yards and getting plowed over and melting. I wasn’t going to be them! I wasn’t going back to nothing. So I got busy. I started greeting people and sledding and I made up a song about me. Yeah, I wrote it!” he was getting more animated. A few people further down in the diner were looking now, too.
“And it WORKED. I’m an ICON,” he said. “I got myself dug in there so good that I’m practically on a level with Santa. I’m one of the big three. Infants recognize me. I’m on sweaters and coffee mugs and DVDs and there have been over 1,400 versions of my song recorded. I’m rich!” he dug around and pulled out a wallet, pulled a couple of hundreds out of it, spread them on the table.
“I’m here,” he said, but then the verve just seemed to run out of him. He slumped a little, put his head into his mittened hands, and sat like that, dripping a bit as the steam from the mug of cocoa rose up to meet him.
Donna leaned across, put a hand on his arm. “So what’s wrong?”
Frosty looked up at her and we saw he was crying, after all. If you’d asked me before that night whether a snowman could cry, I’d have laughed and said what would a snowman cry about? If you asked me now, I’d shudder and sigh and say no man, you don’t want to think about that. There is not much sadder than a snowman crying slow, sad, sleety tears into a pile of marshmallows at 9:45 p.m. in a diner two nights before Xmas Eve.
We all wanted to hug him, but only Donna did. I told you she was like that. When Frosty had composed himself a bit, he shook his head a little and said “What’s wrong is I don’t know why I’m here anymore.”
“Well…” Donna began.
“Um…” I said.
“Hey, you…” Steve tried.
Frosty just shook his head.
“You bring joy to kids,” Shelley said, finally.
“DO I?” Frosty said, loudly enough that the waitress shushed him. He waved a mitten in her general direction. “Sorry,” he mumbled. “Do I?” he said to us, more softly. His voice sounded like it was going to break again.
“Sure,” Shelley said. “You’re on all that stuff, like you said. Your TV show, your song… they’re on the air all the time. Everyone knows your name.”
“Yeah, sure, everyone knows my name – and pays it about as much attention as they do any other background noise. I’m just more scattershot Xmas stuff, a yard ornament in a giant display, a television special playing 17 different times in December on WTBS, a song that people know a verse or two of and then they hum the parts where they can’t quite remember how it goes. I’m constantly here, but never here.” With that last he thumped a mitten down on the table, emphatically.
We were all quiet, thinking of what we could say.
Frosty broke the silence. “Think: how many times have you come in here this month?”
We looked at each other. We met there a couple times a week, at least, probably 2 or 3, for coffee or a snack or just to hang out.
“Probably four or five,” I finally said.
“How many times have you seen me here?” he asked.
“Tonight was the first,” I said because I was slow on the uptake. Shelley elbowed me as I said it.
“I’m here every night,” Frosty said. “From the first snowfall through about March. I come in here every night. I’ve walked by your table lots of times. I heard about your date with the redhead,” he looked at me “And your new job at the radio station,” at Donna, “And how the two of you didn’t want anyone to know you were dating,” he said to Shelley and Steve, as we all looked at them in surprise. “I’ve walked by you, I’ve sat near you, I borrowed some ketchup from you last week,” he said to Donna, “And you never noticed me before tonight. Never.”
We all looked down guiltily. It was obvious he was telling the truth.
“I fought so hard to make everyone know I exist, just so I could exist, and now I’m stuck here, existing in the background, just walking around, listening to people and sometimes briefly interacting with them, like this. Just like so many of the rest of them, we half-dreams, frittering around on the edges of your world. We can’t leave, we can’t stay, we can’t live.”
He stood up. “And so we just sit in diners, sipping our cocoa and hoping that maybe the Jets would have a decent game for once. We listen to your conversations and remember the times that people talked to us, and then, when you all go home to nestle snug in your beds, we drift around in the park or out by the river, trading stories of the old days and how great they were. We wait until we melt, or the sun rises, or whatever else has to happen, and if we’ve been around long enough, we hope that it’s for the last time.”
He turned away and walked towards the exit. Halfway out the door, he looked back. “But it never is,” he said. “So until we meet again.” He nodded and then, bowing his head, stepped out into the swirling, pretty snowflakes that were beginning to fill the town square like so much confetti.
We all sat there a few minutes, feeling like someone had kicked us in the stomach. Donna had tears in her eyes. Shelley and Steve were holding hands. I could feel a lump in my throat and I didn’t think I could talk.
“Well we’re not going to just let him walk away, are we?” Pete said. He stood up. We followed him.
It was hard to see outside; the snow was getting thicker and there was no moon that night. The streetlights were few and far between. We finally saw him enter a cone of light two blocks down, trudging along in his squeaky black firemen’s boots. “FROSTY!” we yelled, as loud as we could, running after him. He heard us and turned around, and although his coal eyes couldn’t actually widen, they seemed like they wanted to.
We tumbled up to him and all started hugging him, not worrying about the cold. When he tried to shove us away we began singing his song as loudly as we could, no sarcasm, no irony, just heartfelt belting out the words that he’d taught us so long ago. It didn’t take long before he came around a bit, and we saw him start to sort of tap his foot. Donna stopped singing for a second, and yelled “PARADE TIME!” and I swear to god somehow Steve got a broomstick! Frosty waved that around like a baton and we marched around the square, twice, pretending to play big bass drums and trombones. Shelley walked like an elephant and Pete tried doing a cartwheel. He was awful at it and we all laughed but he didn’t care.
By the second time around the square Frosty was practically skipping. “Let’s go sledding!” Steve suggested, and we all started running to the park, stopping now and then to throw snowballs at each other and give each other facewashes, high-fiving Frosty and each other.
We got there and realized we didn’t have sleds. Frosty threw himself on his stomach and we could sit on his back, one or two at a time, and slide down the hill lickety-split, snow on snow, magic on magic. The hill was lit only by distant streetlights and the stars themselves, which when you looked up blended in with the snowflakes so that it seemed like you were flying through space in a blizzard. Our cheeks were getting chapped and we could feel the cold in our toes but nobody wanted to stop. Two, three, four, five times down the hill with Frosty, and in between the rest of us were running up and down and rolling down the hill ourselves, panting our breath out into thick clouds of merriment.
I grabbed Steve and started wrestling him, as he threw snowballs up at me. We tumbled over and over and Donna and Shelley grabbed big clumps of snow and threw them on us before dogpiling on. Pete came running over and put snow in the girls’ collars. They began squealing and yelling and giggling and when we all finally stopped we laid there quietly in the snow for a second, just looking up into the whirlwind of snow and stars.
Donna asked: “Where’s Frosty?”
We all sat up and looked around. He was nowhere to be seen. We walked around the top of the hill and Pete ran down and Steve looked over by the trees. Frosty was gone. No pipe, no hat, no bootprints around. It was just us, out there in the dark and the snow, bits of ice melting into our shirts, our toes starting to feel numb, our noses bright red and our cheeks pale. Our eyes glistened with happiness and cold. With a silent agreement we all started walking back towards town, nobody talking at all.
Just before we split up and went to our cars down in the town square, Shelley looked at each of us. “Want to meet at the diner tomorrow night?” she said. “Maybe get some hot chocolate?”
Wednesday, December 02, 2015
Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer Falls In Love On Xmas Eve, 1.
Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer was not bitter about the more famous, and more brilliantly-nosed, other Rudolph. Nor was he upset that his name was Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer. It really never came up except in job interviews and at the Department of Motor Vehicles window when he had to renew his driver’s license each year.
“Your name is Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer?” the worker would inevitably ask. When he would agree that, yes, that was in fact his name, they would invariably follow up with a question along the lines of why would you change your name to that, and when he would say he didn’t, that his parents had named him that, they would either shake their heads disbelievingly (what parents would do that!? They seemed to be asking) or call a coworker over to share the name, too, and eventually most of the people around them would be talking to him about his unusual name, and making jokes that never quite made sense:
“So you gonna go out on a date with Frosty The Snowman?”
“Name like that, I bet your dad was Blitzened!”
“Good thing they didn’t like The Twelve Days of Christmas!” which was for some reason the song everyone always thought it would be worse to be sort-of-named-after.
He was glad he only had to go to the DMV once a year. Other than that, the name only came up when he met someone new. This rarely happened –mostly only when someone new was hired at work. He had steadfastly stayed at the same job for the past 12 years simply to avoid having to go through another job interview, and rarely entered call-in radio contests or attended shows where audience members were picked out by performers.
This story is not about the hardships caused in Rudolph’s life by his unusual name, though.
This story is about how he fell in love on Xmas Eve.
It begins with Rudolph The Regular-Nosed Reindeer standing on a streetcorner.
The story could begin almost anywhere, for who knows when love really begins? Who can say when the particular formation of atoms and quarks and cocoa krispies or whatever, that particular setup for our universe that leads to someone falling in love, begins? It may have begun 2,000,000 years ago when a certain plant died.
But for our purposes, it begins with Rudolph standing on a streetcorner in the city, looking up, at nothing in particular. He was just looking up, waiting for his bus. There wasn’t anything much to see, up, but in fairness there wasn’t anything, much, to see in any direction he looked: traffic crawling by, people walking bundled up in coats in the twilight, burdened with packages, huddled against the cold. Streetlights. The usual kind of city things, I’m sure you can imagine them.
So Rudolph looked up because up was as good a direction as any, and he’d heard once that if you looked up you would feel more optimistic. Not that he was pessimistic, but why take chances?
In front of him, a car stopped in traffic. Rudolph didn’t notice it. There were a man and a woman in the car’s front seat, and a woman in the back seat, looking boredly out the window.
This woman saw Rudolph looking up. She watched him look up for a few seconds, before looking up herself, trying to see what he was looking at. She craned her neck around and about, pushing it up against the car window, but the angle was bad. She began fumbling for the window release when traffic started moving again. She was a half-block up when she got the window open, and was able to turn her eyes skyward. She saw nothing remarkable. She looked back at Rudolph, who was still looking up, now with a small smile on his face (he was beginning to feel optimistic, already).
“Hey!” the woman called, but traffic was too loud: Rudolph didn’t hear. The car’s driver told her to roll the window up, and the car turned right and left Rudolph behind.
It was December 22nd.
Tuesday, December 01, 2015
“PEOPLE OF EARTH!” came the resounding roar, through every television, radio, or electronic device. All around the world, as citizens cleared the remnants of the Feast Of Thanks from the tables, the welcome voice boomed. “IT IS TIME ONCE AGAIN FOR THE FESTIVAL OF THE ANOINTMENT!”
They kept to the side roads. They had learned, each year, a little more. Some things, there was no way to stop: the star, for example – and who would want to? But given that, in all other things, until the right time, the less attention they drew themselves, the better.
The journey had to be made, every year. The actual location never mattered, provided that the distance traveled was the same as that first, and so long as it ended at a stable. Some things were immutable, some things were not. They no longer rode a donkey, for example.
This year, it was an armored halftrack.
“Where are the cattle?” whispered this year’s Joseph.
They couldn’t count on cows being there, they’d learned. If there was lowing to be done, they had to make sure it was ready to go.
Tom put down his dish towel. He looked at Lana. “I guess that’s it,” he said. “Will you be able to put the kids to bed?”
Lana nodded. She helped Trini through her bath, made sure Danny had brushed his teeth, at least (if not his hair!).
As she was tucking her daughter into bed, Trini asked: “Mom, how long until the Saint visits?”
“Just a few weeks, honey,” Lana told her, patting her head.
“Have I been good this year?”
“Uh-huh. Of course you have,” Lana reassured her. “You’re always such a good girl.”
“Mom?” Trini asked, as Lana stood up. “Does the Saint know I’ve been good?”
Lana nodded and kissed her little girl on her forehead. “Of course he does, Sweetie. He watches you, all the time – and of course on Xmas Eve he’ll come here and check one last time.” She looked at her watch. “OK. Enough for tonight. Listen, you stay in bed all night, okay? Danny is in his room if you need anything.”
Trini nodded. “Mom?” she asked.
“Yes,” Lana said, pausing at the door. “What is it?”
“Will you bring me something back?” Trini asked.
“Of course, sweetie!” Lana smiled. “That’s what it’s all about!”
Downstairs, Tom was at the door with his parka already on. “Don’t do this, Lana,” he said. “Stay home.”
Lana shook her head. “I’ve got to get to my post.”
Tom sighed. “You don’t have to. One per family is all the Immortal Saint asks.”
Lana folded her arms. “I know that’s all he asks, Tom. But it’s not all I want to give.”
“Lana, it’s dangerous out there. And we’re leaving the kids alone? It’s great you want to go out and be on the front lines but you don’t have to do it. Remember: it’s the thought that counts.”
“Tom,” Lana said: “This… is war.”
Joseph turned back to the private as the carrier was camouflaged for the day. “What about the Secrets?”
The private flipped up a computer monitor and made some gestures on it. A map resolved, showing glowing dots across the continent. “We’ve got them spread out, lots and lots of them. They won’t deploy, most of them, until the day before, if not the night before. But when they do they’ll be all through the house. The Saint’s people won’t suspect a thing.”
“Hopefully,” Joseph said. “I’d like it if they all heard the bells on Xmas Day.”
Lana was stationed at the Mall just off I-50. Tom tried to monitor the news reports on Huffington Post even as he watched his own, barely-visited artisanal street mall on the edge of town. Information was both abundant and unreliable: first it was reported that millions were staying home today, opting not to take part in this year’s Black Friday. Those reports were fed to the media every year, Tom knew, by both sides, in a massive disinformation campaign that lately had erupted into overflow of data on the Monday after the start of the Feast. He ignored them. While his own area might be quiet, he heard enough intercom chatter to know that there was plenty of action out there.
He saw a small crawl in one newsbox; it said that I-50 was shut down with traffic. Tom hoped it was just traffic. He was trying to click around and get more information when two elderly people got out of an old station wagon. He watched as the husband held the wife’s arm as she stepped up onto the sidewalk, still a little slippery despite the spreading of salt.
As they approached him, Tom shouldered his gun.
“Happy holidays,” he said.
The woman glared at him, and even as he tried to pull his gun down the man moved his arm to pull open his coat. Fire blazed up and out with a colossal roar…
24 hours in, thought Joseph, as the private reported heavy casualties. He was only this year’s Joseph, a man who a few days ago had been someone else but whose real name was as irrelevant now as Joseph was at the destination. He looked at this year’s Mary, who was barely 19.
“You doing okay?” he asked.
Mary patted her belly, lovingly. “I’m fine. Where are we?”
“In the woods, actually. We’re going to hide out again today, travel only by night.”
“Is that safe?”
“Safer than day. People have to sleep sometime.” Deep and dreamless sleep, he thought, watching the silent stars above go by into the edge of the horizon as the sun rose.
“I just don’t understand,” Danny said. “Why was Dad even there? Why would they kill him?”
“They’re crazy, Danny. Just obsessed.” Lana said. “They won’t let us just live our lives the way the Saint wants us to. They insist that we have to follow them, and do things their way. We can’t have that happen.” She didn’t want to get into the whole baby thing, either. Not with Trini in the car. It was too complicated. All three of them fell silent as they drove slowly away from the cemetery, where they’d gone each day since the funeral. Lana went there to strengthen her resolve. She felt the children needed to go there so they would not lose sight of the results of fighting this war each year. It was not enough to just enjoy the spoils of the battle; they must learn how much those things cost.
And learn that cost is no object, Lana found herself thinking. The weather outside the car was turning frightful, and they had no place to go.
“24 hours to go. 24! We’ve got this!” Joseph said. They were already at the site of the stable, and scouts had reported that the manger was set. Livestock were being slowly brought through the woods to the edge of town, ready to be stabled tonight. Reports came in: the three wise men had been found and provided their objects. Several privates had been detailed to shepherd duty. Everything was coming together. Maybe this year... Joseph hardly dared let himself hope. So many times they’d come so close.
“Joseph?” he heard behind him. In the confines of the armored carrier, the dim computer lights barely carried to the corner where Mary sat. He looked at her.
“I just wanted you to know, I appreciate this. We all do. You’re really doing a lot, here.”
“Someone has to,” Joseph said.
“Well, it didn’t have to be you,” Mary said. “Maybe… maybe after this is all over we could… you and I…?”
Joseph smiled ruefully. “Sweetheart, this may never be over.” Mary looked down, sadly.
Joseph went and knelt by her. “Unless this year we manage to pull it off…” he whispered.
Mary looked up at him hopefully.
Lana was so tired she could barely stand. She almost just lay down on Trini’s bed next to the little girl, but instead sat next to her, rubbing her soft hair as the girl relaxed.
“Mommy, will you say the poem one more time?”
Lana smiled sadly. “Sure,” she said, then began the creed everyone knew from memory:
Twas the night before Xmas and all round the world
Were nestled the good little boys and the girls.
While Mom in the bedroom and Dad on the stairs
Stand vigilant to protect what is theirs.
‘Til over the rooftop they hear the loud thunder
Of the Saint and his coursers, bearing their plunder.
From the far frozen north comes the Saint in his quest
To destroy and remove any claims someone’s blessed,
And he’ll search every house, search them all one-by-one
Until in the morning his grim task is done.
Then, upon making certain no spirit is lurking
He’ll throw wide the curtains and go back to working,
Allowing the sun to shine in, as he goes,
On the presents for the faithful that he has bestowed.
Lana paused. The rest of it could wait. Trini was sound asleep, a small smile on her face.
“This is it, people,” Joseph hissed into his wrist communicator.
Mary was breathing more heavily, and Joseph held her hand as she bore down with the next contraction.
“That was great, Mary, just great,” he encouraged her. “Only a few more.”
They were coming upon midnight, and all was clear. Joseph began to hope, just a little.
Lana went downstairs to make one last sweep of the house, ensure everything was in order. She found Danny in the recroom by the third tree they’d put up – couldn’t be too supportive!—with some new girl Lana hadn’t met before.
“Who’s this?” Lana asked.
“Oh. Um. Mom. This is. This.” Danny began to blush.
“I’m Susan,” the girl said. “Danny’s… friend.”
Lana narrowed her eyes. “I don’t think I’ve heard of you before, Susan. Shouldn’t you be home with your family?”
Susan nodded. “I was getting ready to leave in a bit, but I got Danny in the gift exchange at school and came over to give him his present. We were just going to…” she trailed off, gesturing at the backpack sitting near her leg.
“All right,” Lana said. “But Danny, not too late. The Saint won’t come until we’re all asleep, remember.”
“I remember, Mom. I remember.”
Lana wouldn’t have ordinarily left him alone in the basement with a girl, like that, but she figured it couldn’t hurt, this year, and Danny needed some cheering up since Tom… she headed back upstairs.
“He’s beautiful,” said Mary. She was crying, holding the baby.
“Swaddle him. Swaddle him!” Joseph was already peering at the sky, and: there it was. The star. The star! They’d done it. This time, for sure. Nobody was even near them. He muttered orders into his communicator, got jingled confirmations from the shepherds. They were on their way.
“Cue the cattle,” he said, as the little baby fell asleep. This would be the second test: would the poor baby wake? Without making a sound?
Danny excused himself to go get Susan a Coke ™, and as soon as she heard his feet going up the stairs, she opened up the backpack. After pulling out a gaudily-wrapped box that she set on the sofa, she dug deeper, and came up with several little bells shaped like angels, each with a cord attached to its head. She quickly moved to the tree, hanging them from branches – not hidden, but not obtrusive, either. Then she went back to the backpack.
“Do you want ice?” Danny yelled from the top of the stairs, nearly giving her a heart attack.
“Um. Yeah! Lots of it,” she said. She heard his footsteps move away again.
She pulled from the backpack a treetopper star – six pointed, gleaming with gold and silver and what she assumed were fake diamonds but which looked real. On its face was a small engraving of a baby in a manger.
Would he notice it? She pulled off the topper the tree had had on it – a Star Wars™ figure, and put the star up there. She kicked Xmas Vader under the couch just as Danny got down the stairs, and as he turned the corner she said “Can I take off my sweater? It’s hot in here,” thereby guaranteeing that Danny would not be looking at the tree.
Secret Santa 117, mission accomplished, she would later text to the code source on her way home.
“Now!” said Joseph, urgently into his commlink. Around the country, operatives pressed buttons and activated switches. Joseph could hear bells start to ring through his radio set, and then in the town around him.
He turned back to Mary. “Hopefully that’s enough,” he said.
Lana woke to a roaring, gnashing howl. She immediately assumed they were under attack, and rose from her bed to see what was the matter. She pulled on night-vision goggles while running downstairs, holding her gun. “STAY IN YOUR ROOMS!” she yelled to the children. The sound was coming from the rec room -- but upon entering, her wondering eyes began to goggle, and she dropped her weapon.
She flicked on the light.
“Lana,” the voice said. It was a voice that could have, in different circumstances, been jovial, even jolly, coming from so deep in a belly like that, then pouring out through a curly, wispy beard. “Lana, I’m so disappointed in you…”
She said “What…?” Her eyes followed to where the Saint was pointing, his mitten dusted with soot and a little damp from the snow outside. She saw the star, and on closer inspection the tiny angel bells, which were ringing. She hadn’t noticed it when she first entered the room; they were soft but clear chimes, like bells carrying from far away across a frozen field, on a quiet still night.
“I thought you were a good girl, Lana,” the Saint said.
Lana dropped to her knees. “I am! I don’t know how…” but before she could do anything, the Saint said “What?”
She looked up. The Saint was gazing into a snowglobe, from which a voice came, telling him some news about a manger… Lana held her breath.
“No!” the Saint yelled. He put a finger alongside his nose and disappeared. In his place were three small lumps of coal. Lana began crying.
Joseph – for he was Joseph now, having earned the name – flipped from channel to channel on the television in the small hotel room they’d checked into just after sunrise. Nothing said he had to stay in the manger, after all.
“The President will address a joint session of Congress…” one anchor said. On the next station a reporter in front of the Kremlin said: “Mr. Putin said that his nation would join…” On the third station, the anchor said, solemnly, “And so I and everyone at Channel 3 would like to say: Glory to the newborn King.” His voice lilted as he said it, turning it into a song.
“Come here,” Mary said. “Come look at him.” Joseph did. The kid was so cute.